Castle Freak (1995)

OCTOBER 14, 2020


It was somewhere around 1996 or 1997 that I had my one watch of Castle Freak, but it didn't really dawn on me until I saw it in Shudder's lineup just how long ago that was. Now that I've occasionally not only rewatched but once again written up reviews of movies I already saw for HMAD, it's obvious my memory of a movie I saw a decade prior to the site's creation would be of no use whatsoever, but it was the sheer amount of time that passed that really troubled me. It didn't SEEM like that long ago, but Jesus Christ - it's been 23-24 years! I don't know if I even had a car yet when I watched it on my little 13 inch TV that had channels that needed to be tuned.

I also barely knew who any of its principal players were; I had seen a couple of Stuart Gordon's movies (Dolls and Fortress) but not because they were "STUART GORDON MOVIES" - just things I happened to see. And in turn I knew very little about Jeffrey Combs and even less about Barbara Crampton, so the idea of the trio (and writer Dennis Paoli) reuniting after Re-Animator and From Beyond, which was a primary draw for most of the people who saw it back then, meant nothing to me. Long story short, I enjoyed the film at the time, but not enough to rewatch it, and over time I just kind of forgot about it (even though I have a McFarlane toy of its eponymous creature in my collection). But then a recent Fangoria had Combs and Crampton chatting about their work on the film together (tied to a longer piece about an upcoming remake, which Crampton is producing and has a fairly different story), and nothing rang a bell, so I knew I had to finally check it out again.

Ironically, my biggest takeaway is that it was a good call to watch it before the others, because while Combs is a terrific actor it's hard to see him as this normal, average guy *now*, because I keep expecting to see Herbert West emerge from this somewhat ill-fitting "dad" shell, something that wouldn't have been an issue when I saw it all those years ago. It's not that he's bad in the role, but it feels like he's been denied his best assets, like casting Christopher Walken in a role where he never speaks, or Jackie Chan in a movie without any fighting. It's not until the third act, when he gets a bit more manic due to the film's events, that he starts giving off that electric energy that has made him such a compelling performer over the years (if you had a chance to see Nevermore and passed it up, I truly feel sorry for you). There's a dickish police officer who has it out for Combs' character, and while it's naturally a smaller role I can't

help but think that the movie might have had a little more fun to it if Combs played the cop instead and they roped in their old pal Bruce Abbott to play the hero.

Otherwise, it's a solid flick, if a bit low-key compared to Gordon's other work. The story goes that Charles Band had the title and the location (it's actually his own castle) and made a deal with Gordon that as long as it delivered on the title and was set mostly there, he'd give the filmmaker a decent budget to do whatever he wanted. What Gordon and Paoli came up with was a mostly original story that was influenced to a degree by Lovecraft's "The Outsider" and "The Rats in the Walls", that of a family who inherits a castle from a distant relative and arrives there to catalog its belongings and prepare it for auction, having no intention of living there. Said family recently had a death of their own; Combs was driving drunk with their two children and got into an accident, which left their young son dead and their teenaged daughter blind, while he escaped without a scratch.

Crampton's character (not in the car at the time) rightfully hates him for his action (and for being the one to survive intact) so they're basically separated but living together for the sake of the daughter, who has trouble getting around and just wants them to be a family again. Anyway, they're in the house for about seven seconds before they start hearing noises, though thankfully Gordon doesn't delay the mystery by trying to make us think it's ghosts or anything like that - it's Giorgio, the deformed son of the previous owner, who has been chained up in the basement for his entire life. Now that his mother has died, he escapes from his shackles and wanders around the castle looking for companionship despite having no idea of how to communicate (plus: not the handsomest fella), which results in him lashing out. Things intensify when Combs drunkenly brings home a prostitute; he pays her and walks away in shame, assuming she'll find her way out, but Giorgio captures her and... well, it gets icky.

There isn't much more to it than that, though. Combs starts poking around and finding out who Giorgio was and how they are connected to him, while the cops accuse him of the woman's disappearance, so he's got a "clear my name and save my family" bit of action heroics to carry out in the third act, but the movie is well over halfway over by the time all this stuff happens. Until then it's just kinda padded out with people walking around the castle and having near-misses with Giorgio, with no one seeming in a rush to get anything more exciting going (the opening sequence, showing Giorgio's mother's death, drags forever), making me wish Gordon had saved his idea for a Masters of Horror episode where the hour long format would have been perfect.

(It doesn't help that Shudder's stream is seemingly taken from VHS itself, robbing it of some of its atmosphere. There's a blu-ray out there with a respectable - and widescreen - transfer, so what gives, Shudder?)

Giorgio is a terrific monster though; it's pretty obvious why this relatively obscure DTV flick got a McFarlane toy to go alongside Freddy and Jason and the others. The deformed body and always gory mouth certainly leave an impression, and Gordon teases it out by having him wrapped in sheets for most of his early appearances (there's one bit where he hides in plain sight in a room full of covered furniture that is staged perfectly). It's a shame the climax is so relatively brief though; he chases Crampton and the daughter only for a few minutes before Combs shows up to save the day, limiting the former's chance to do much Mama Bear stuff of her own. And they really could have milked the girl's blindness for a sequence where Giorgio is in the room with her but she thinks it's her mom, but alas he botches it almost instantly by touching her with his gnarly hand.

But hey - despite the talent involved it's still a mid-90s Full Moon production, so there's only so much we can expect from it. It's miles better than anything else they were doing at the time (Arcade, anyone? How about Head of the Family?), to the extent that I wish Band had given this deal to other legitimate filmmakers instead of going to the same wells with the established franchises and endless "little killer" movies. Maybe it's not exactly top tier Gordon, but it could have been a great stepping stone for other filmmakers at the time, or a chance for someone like Jeff Burr (who did Puppet Masters 4 and 5) or future X-Files/Game of Thrones guru David Nutter (thank him for the later Trancers sequels) to do something original as well. And it came in between Gordon's two big sci-fi movies (Fortress and Space Truckers), so I can appreciate that he took a little break to get back to his low-budget horror roots and make something a little different with his trusted collaborators. Basically, I enjoyed it, but now I remember why it didn't make the leap to "movies I watch over and over" territory - it's just a little threadbare is all.

What say you?


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