Monday, December 17, 2012

Castle Freak (1995)

As quick as a lot of people are to dump on the 90’s referring to it as a “down” time for horror, I’m always as quick to jump to said decades defense. On one hand, I can somewhat understand the discouragement if we’re talking post-Scream (1996) when it literally did seem like every genre film being released was a copycat featuring the hottest teen stars of the day. On the other hand, prior to Scream there were basically no bandwagons to be hopped on and the early to mid 90’s had more than it’s fair share of gems. The thing was though, looking back a lot of these films didn’t fare so well in theaters and therefore had to wait until they hit home video to really find their audience, or they went direct to video, a market which was in fill swing by the mid 90’s. That was one of the coolest things about going to video stores, finding these aforementioned gems that you might have missed in the theater (most likely due to poor distribution, a number of films that were actually lucky enough to have a theatrical run may as well have just gone DTV) or stumbling upon a DTV flick out of the blue. Enter Castle Freak, one such discovery. Directed by Stuart Gordon and staring cohorts Jeffery Combs and Barbara Crampton, Castle Freak went DTV courtesy of Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment, (who had the DTV market cornered and were really at the forefront of it), and it would subsequently become not only my favorite stand alone Full Moon film, but also my personal favorite of the Gordon, Combs and Crampton collaborations.

John Reilly (Combs), his wife Susan (Crampton) and their blind daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) travel to Italy after receiving the news that John has inherited a castle which he was an heir too from the Duchess who had previously lived in the castle. Although arriving as a family, relations between John and Susan are tense, with Susan holding a deep resentment towards John as some months prior John, a recovering alcoholic, was involved in a drunk driving accident which not only resulted in the blinding of their daughter but the death of their son JJ. Not long after arriving, the Reilly’s realize their not alone in the castle when Giorgio (Jonathan Fuller), the hideously deformed son of the late Duchess has broken free from the castle’s basement dungeon where the Duchess kept him chained and whipped him on a daily basis for 40 years, and begins making his presence known, bringing to light a dark family secret in the process.

I love it when a film not only exceeds expectations but takes whatever preconceived notions you may have had about it and throws them right out the window. I’m fairly certain that most would assume a film entitled “Castle Freak” released by Full Moon to be B movie schlock, but it’s the kind of film that just might have you asking yourself “just where the hell did that come from?!” by the time the end credits roll. Castle Freak is as well rounded as they come, serving up it’s horror with a surprising side order of drama and tragedy, and the one thing that always stands out every time I watch it is just how strong the dramatic elements are, never once coming across as ham handed or spilling over into overly melodramatic territory, which is quite the feat considering some of the subject matter. John’s alcoholism, the death of JJ, the blinding of Rebecca and John’s guilt over everything, the domestic issues between John and Susan and the way it effects Rebecca, not to mention the titular freaks tragic back story and the way it intertwines with John’s emotional pain and memories of his son. It’s pretty heavy stuff, and in the wrong hands could have easily been fucked up royally, but this is Combs and Crampton we’re talking about here. Combs in particular puts on a clinic, really showing what he’s made of delivering not only a heartfelt but dare I say complex performance. The same could be said about Crampton in the sense that while you’ll legitimately feel for John, yet all the while understand where Susan is coming from, never forgetting just why she harbors such  harsh feelings. Together, the two are the definition of chemistry, coming off like a legitimate dysfunctional married couple, and it’s performances like theirs that help put Castle Freak on another level.

Make no mistake though, even with the dramatics Castle Freak is first and foremost a horror film, a grim and at times quite nasty one at that. While the film as a whole isn’t a wall to wall bloodletting, when the violence does hit, it stings, including the unfortunate fate of a cat and the now infamous encounter between the freak and a prostitute which I’m sure will temp a few viewers to look in a different direction. The full body freak make up is absolutely phenomenal, still one of the best make up jobs I’ve ever seen on film. To paraphrase Combs from the making of Videozone segment on the film, if you’ve ever wondered what someone who was chained in a basement and routinely beaten for 40 years would look like, this film gives you pretty good idea. Gordon was wise to wait until exactly the right moment to showcase the freak in full, opting to obscure portions of his frame using shadows,  projecting his figure as a silhouette on the walls or just having him covered by a sheet, gradually building anticipation, and man does it pay off big time when we finally get a good look at Giorgio. Even when the freak is fully exposed Gordon still cleverly plays around with the lighting, even staging the finale during a thunderstorm complete with heavy rain, a masterstroke as the freak manages to look even more incredible in the blue light which is so prevalent during the sequence along with the rain and flashing lightning. Nothing but respect is deserved for Jonathan Fuller, the man behind the make up who not only spent around 6 hours in the make up chair, but who’s mannerisms as the freak will make you ache just watching, and despite having no lines of dialogue, his vocalizations and agonizing moans are more than enough to give you shivers.

Another thing to point out about the film is that the humor that Gordon is known to inject into his film is virtually absent here (aside from one instance where the freak pretends to disguise himself as a piece of furniture), and understandably so. Honestly I’ve always felt that had Gordon tried to sprinkle on some comic relief it would have came across as distracting and would have felt out of place considering the films overall bleak tone. As much as I love the film, I do have to admit that there’s always been one small aspect of the film that I think I’ll forever take issue with, and it’s a perfect example of just how crucial the soundtrack is to a film. Late in the film there is a segment where the music in question is way to upbeat, almost playful sounding for it’s own good and doesn’t mesh with the intensity happening on the screen at all. It should have been way more ominous sounding. Aside from that bit of nitpicking I’d say Castle Freak is a damn near flawless film, bringing so much more to the table than most “creature features” in terms of performances, directing, make up and effects not to mention dealing with certain thematic elements that most films of it’s ilk don’t even attempt to touch. All things considered, Castle Freak is unquestionably a cut above the rest. Not just one of the best direct to video horror films, not just one of (if not THE) best Full Moon films, not just one of the best horror films of the 90’s, but one of the best horror films in general that any genre fan should seek out if you’ve yet to see it.


  1. Fucking stellar monster mash. Almost a throwback to Universal horror in that the villain is just a guy wearing extensive make-up. No elaborate F/X required. Righteous review!

  2. The make up is truly some of the best I've ever seen, combine it with the performances of Combs and Crampton and the depth of the script and like I said you've got a basically flawless film.