Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (1995)

9. Castle Freak

“Castle Freak” should've been a bigger deal than it was. The film was Stuart Gordon's return to the house that Charles Band built, his second feature for Full Moon and his fifth overall for Band. Moreover, it was another “Re-Animator” reunion, with the script adapted (albeit loosely) from Lovecraft, and Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton in the lead roles. Instead, “Castle Freak” had some bad luck. The film was made right after Full Moon parted ways with Paramount, who distributed their movies and chipped in with the budget. Afterwards, Full Moon would make increasingly cheaper and lazier movies. This split also led to a delayed release. Originally meant to get a theatrical release around Halloween of 1994, “Castle Freak” would instead creep onto video during 1995. Upon release, the film wasn't seen by many outside the Fangoria Magazine readership. Yet, in my opinion, “Castle Freak” deserves as second look.

In a dilapidated Italian castle, an elderly woman brutally whips a freak locked in the basement. Afterwards, she collapses from a heart attack. The castle is willed to the woman's only surviving relatives: The American Reilly family. The Reillys are currently in crisis. A year ago, father John wrecked the family car while driving drunk, killing his five year old son J.J and blinding his teenage daughter, Rebecca. His wife, Susan, has been reluctant to forgive, their marriage nearly at an end. Along with the castle, the family has also inherited the freak. Soon, he escapes, creeping through the castle at night, preying on the embittered family.

On paper, “Castle Freak's” premise is almost hokey. The idea of a long lost relative dying, leaving an actual castle in the inheritance, is the kind concept seen more often in parodies than serious stories. Even the idea of a monster hiding in the basement of the old home is a similarly well-trotted troupe. Yet Gordon approaches these gothic horror concepts with utmost seriousness. He infuses the story with a personal weight, mixing in serious themes. The result is a surprisingly mature horror picture, more adult than the madcap gore-fests of “Re-Animator” or “From Beyond.” It's certainly not the cheesy exploitation flick the title implies.

In particular, “Castle Freak” is concerned with the theme of familial shame. The titular freak is the result of the old woman's only marriage. Because the boy reminded her of her unfaithful husband, she castrated, starved, and tortured him. Grigorio is hidden away, like all shameful secrets. The Reilly family has shameful events in their past. The death of J.J. haunts John and Susan still. John is so ashamed that he refuses to take responsibility for his actions, still drinking too much. As the story progresses, Grigorio becomes a symbol of everything shameful and awful the Reilly family refuses to recognizes. It's not until John faces down this monster that he owes up to his own mistakes.

There's also parallels between the various lost sons in the film. John discovers Grigorio's tomb, which contains a casket full of rocks, and notices how much he resembled his dead son. The same actor plays both young boys. Fittingly, Grigorio looks up to John in an odd way, attempting to recreate John's lovemaking with a prostitute with disastrous results. This further makes the monster a reflection of John's mistakes. There are other parallels. Both J.J. and Grigorio have been failed by his parents. The irresponsibility of J.J.'s father killed him. Grigorio's mother, meanwhile, brutally abused him as revenge against her philandering husband. These aren't the only sons abandoned by their parents in the film. The murdered prostitute has a son, who appears in the last scene, mourning alongside his father. The weight of parenthood was clearly on Gordon's mind while making “Castle Freak.”

It's easy to see why Charles Band would give the film's freak top billing. Giorgio is an impressively grotesque monster. Johnathan Fuller, the hero from “The Pit and the Pendulum,” is unrecognizable under multiple layers of latex. Giorgio's body is emaciated, his mouth torn open, his nails bloody. Gordon also has no problem showing us the monster's eunuch genitalia. Giorgio is a hideous monster but he's ultimately a human one. Fuller's cries are desperate and agonized, obviously those of a suffering man. Unlike the kind of Lovecraftian monsters Gordon usually depicts, Giorgio's horribleness is the result of human cruelty. So, in an odd way, this freak is a tragic character.

Despite the heavier themes “Castle Freak” engages with, the film shows Stuart Gordon returning to his hyper-gory early days. The violence in “Castle Freak” is graphic and intense. Giorgio's suffering is depicted without flinching. How he escapes his shackles – gnawing off his own thumb – is especially squirm-inducing. By the end of the film, his body is covered with bleeding wounds. Probably the most graphic scene occurs between the monster and the prostitute. In what may be a homage to Italian gore-masters like Lucio Fulci, he bites off the woman's nipples. There's also a smashed-in head for good measure. While likely to please gore fans, “Castle Freak” doesn't feature any “fun” violence.  The gore is disturbing and graphic.

Referring to “Castle Freak” as a Lovecraft adaptation is, admittedly, stretching it. Ninety percent of the film is original. However, Gordon takes one key sequence from his favorite author. After emerging from his dungeon, Giorgio spots a mirror. As he slowly approaches the smooth, reflective surface, he realizes the hideous beast he's looking at is himself. This is taken directly from one of Lovecraft's best short stories, “The Outsider.” It's a small moment but a pivotal one and I applaud Gordon for including it. By the way, Lovecraft's name is not above the title, as with “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.” Gordon does, somewhat cheekily, include his name in the “thanks” section of the credits.

“Castle Freak” also contains maybe Jeffrey Combs' best performance. Combs displays no ego as an actor here. He plays John as a man at the end of his rope. When he attempts to make love with his wife, his pleas are desperate. When he eventually has sex with the prostitute, the act is sweaty, frantic, and short-lived. As John becomes more obsessed with unraveling the castle's mysteries, you perfectly understand why his family would think he's going crazy. There's none of the smarm or smugness Combs brought to Herbert West. Instead, his performance as a man shaken apart by grief and hungry for forgiveness is raw and powerful.

Of course, Barbara Crampton is here too. It's interesting to see how different Crampton's role are in each of Gordon's movies. In “Castle Freak,” she shows an anger boiling just below the surface. She is unable to forgive her husband but it's clear that it's eating her up inside. Susan Reilly has almost lost her ability to feel anything. Which makes Crampton's occasional outburst – of anger, fear, or sympathy – especially effective. Notably, Crampton keeps her clothes on this time, the character coming off as deeply reserved... Except for one scene. When Giogorio has captured her daughter, Susan offers herself to him, the character shedding her sense of propriety in a moment of panic.

Another surprisingly effective performance in the film is Jessica Dollarhide, as Rebecca. This was Dollarhide's final credit and her sole feature film credit. This is disappointing, as she shows a lot of natural talent in the film. Dollarhide never overdoes it as the blind girl. She plays the role realistically yet never mugs. Maybe it's the character's blindness or Dollarhide's acting ability, but she is an especially vulnerable character. This makes her an ideal horror heroine, a character the audience is immediately invested in, someone we want to see protected and be safe. This is important, since Dollarhide being endangered is what drives the last act. The film wouldn't work as well if she wasn't excellent.

Being a Full Moon release, “Castle Freak” is naturally scored by Richard Band. Band's scores are somewhat notorious for being derivative. His music for “Castle Freak,” however, represents some of his best work. The soundtrack represents nearly the entire emotional spectrum. Band's music is often discordant, full of darkly strumming bass, wild strings, and disharmonious chimes. This is perfect for the final act, when Giorgio is chasing the women through the castle. Yet there's also a mysterious and melancholic quality to Band's music, evident in the end credits music, hinting at the immaturity of Giogorio's character and the tragic subtext of the film.

“Castle Freak” doesn't get the praise that “Re-Animator” or “From Beyond” does. It's most remember today as an in-joke on the Flop House podcast. This is a bit unfair to the film, an intense and nasty piece of horror that is deeper than you'd expect. While it doesn't reach the giddy heights of those two films, it's the more nuanced, mature movie, while still functioning as a shocking horror story. If nothing else, it's undoubtedly the classiest thing Full Moon has ever released. [Grade: A]

No comments: