Castle Freak (1995)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Writers: H.P. Lovecraft, Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton and Jessica Dollarhide

The Plot: Our story begins with an elderly woman, kept up in her massive castle all by herself. We follow her on her daily ritual as she grabs her whip and heads to the basement where we discover a beaten and disfigured man lays in wait. She proceeds to whip the man while he sobs. Taking her bloody whip with her, we watch as this woman dies in her bed. We skip forward a few days as we meet John Riley (Jeffrey Combs) and his wife Susan (Barara Crampton), who are notified that this strange woman was indeed John’s long lost Dutchess relative and she has left the castle to him. So John and Susan have packed up their bags and taken their recently blinded daughter Rebecca out to this foreign country in order to investigate the castle with the hopes of selling it as soon as possible. Inner turmoil is rife, as Susan and John are on the outs because the tragic death of their son and the vision impairment of their daughter was caused by John who had been drinking and driving with the kids in the car. He is now haunted by this horrible incident within his dreams and Susan can’t seem to forgive him. On the first night in their new castle, John overhears some howling within the castle. The sounds of a tortured man whaling can be heard and young Rebecca swears she has felt the presence of someone in her room with her when no one could have been. What will be the end result of this monster being loose within this castle?

The Review
Castle Freak is the type of movie where so many elements are mixed into the pot that there should be no question as to whether or not it will be a resounding success. Stuart Gordon in the director’s chair, paired up once again with Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton for a gory and Gothic horror tale, how could such a premise possibly go wrong? I suppose its the same as cooking anything else really, when you add too many ingredients you sometimes run the risk of losing your flavor along the way. Castle Freak, in comparison to Re-Animator or even From Beyond, certainly seems to have lost a lot of that flavor that made them so well respected. Although at this point I sound fairly somber and down on Castle Freak, I will admit right now that it isn’t a BAD movie. It holds a lot of promise and there are some really interesting elements to it that almost add up to something really great but unfortunately it adheres heavily to genre convention and is buried heavily under the burden of cliche vehicles for suspense.

Full Moon productions knew exactly what they were doing when funding this project. Looking to capitalize on the cult popularity of Re-Animator, it seems as if they handed Stuart Gordon a very small budget and gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wished to do as long as he brought in the right cast. So what we end up with is a horror picture that wraps the audience up in a melodrama story about a family on the verge of collapse. While that certainly sounds uninteresting and more than a little self-serving on the part of the filmmakers as an attempt to stretch out of the confines of genre, this aspect of the movie never actually bothered me. I have to give both Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton credit as they deliver two very strong performances. They show a great deal of conviction as they delve into these roles which are surprisingly three dimensional. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the movie as it was a nice diversion from the average. Unfortunately for us the rest of the movie is rife with cliche content that might not overshadow the decent melodrama, but it adds a unsavory and bland atmosphere to the rest of the picture.

Full Moon titles always share that same “cheap” look in all of their films. Despite Stuart Gordon being at the helm, it doesn’t help the cheap look. The only thing that actually saves the movie from having the visual quality of something like Hideous or Head of the Family (also Full Moon titles, and admittedly campy fun) is the fantastic European location which offers some really nice architecture. There are moments throughout where the suspense really hangs on the location, sequences where Jeffrey Combs may slowly stumble down a corridor within this incredibly creepy castle helps paint the movie with a creepy bit of atmosphere. The location certainly saves the visual aesthetic of the movie, but ultimately there is little style or quirkiness to the photography. The majority of the movie relies on jump-scares and practical FX in order to bring about any horrific moments that may occasionally pop up. This normally wouldn’t be an issue, as I am of course a fan of Lucio Fulci (a man best known for these traits, to be sure) but the hodgepodge use of suspense, gothic set design and cheesy FX just didn’t seem to work for me here.

In terms of onscreen violence, Castle Freak does not disappoint! The prosthetic FX work for the most part is handled pretty well and there are a few nasty moments throughout. Breasts are bitten off, eyes are gouged out and there is one particularly brutal moment involving our castle “freak” ripping his own thumb off that really grinds its way into your mind. The freak himself, depending on the lighting, has a fairly convincing look to him. When the light hits his back just right however, you can see the wrinkles of his latex costume popping off of the actor’s flesh. It is barely noticeable however and is made up for in the fact that we see his castrated penis in up-close fashion on more than a few occasions and THAT is much more convincing… and horrifying.

The Conclusion
I am generally very torn on Castle Freak. As already stated, this isn’t a BAD movie per se but it doesn’t really engage the audience all that often. There are a couple of good performances, some decent gore and a tiny bit of atmosphere but that does not a great movie make. I give the movie a three out of five as it steps right on that threshold of being average in most respects. For fans of Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton or Stuart Gordon you probably won’t want to miss this, but if you aren’t particularly tied to any of these filmmakers then you can probably skip this one.

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