Castle Freak Review
How do you live up to a film like Re-Animator? This question has been central to each of Stuart Gordon’s features since making his big screen debut with the genre classic in 1985. That film quite comfortably rubs shoulders with the best of that decade’s horror movies whether they be The Shining or The Evil Dead; few can live up to it, let alone Gordon’s own efforts. Perhaps this explains his regular forays into other areas, from science fiction (Robot Jox, Space Truckers) and family comedies (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, a story credit on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) to a David Mamet adaptation (Edmond) and a tale torn from the headlines (Stuck). And yet whenever he makes a horror flick, or casts Jeffrey Combs for that matter, Re-Animator is always the first thing on our minds.
Gordon’s immediate follow-up to the 1985 feature was From Beyond, another piece of body horror that did away with the comedy but maintained the gore, the H.P. Lovecraft inspiration and the casting of both Combs and Barbara Crampton. It also proved hugely entertaining, if not quite within reach of Re-Animator. Next up was Dolls, involving psychopath-possessed toys and the soon-to-be-murdered guests of an English mansion. In the demon doll stakes it was far superior to Dolly Dearest but not a patch on the original Child’s Play. Afterwards Gordon took a break from the genre for a few years to make the pleasingly creaky Robot Jox and, bizarrely enough, an educational film for children by the name of Kid Safe. (As screenwriter to the latter he was still able to include a werewolf and a mummy.) In the meantime the first Re-Animator sequel had also been made, although Gordon sat this one entirely leaving duties to his occasional collaborator Brian Yuzna.
From the nineties onwards Gordon has alternated between the horror and something a bit different. He’s done a made-for-television vampire movie with Anthony Perkins, more Lovecraft-inspired efforts, a loose take on Edgar Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum and a couple of episodes for the anthology series Masters of Horror (which, once again, turned to Lovecraft and Poe respectively). Some have disappointed, others have been worthwhile and this particular disc, 1995’s Castle Freak, has been among the best. It brought Combs and Crampton back into leading roles and, if mention is even needed, was yet again drawn from Lovecraft, but lost any hint of comedy. Of course, the spectre of Re-Animator was present yet again, though maybe by these point we’d readjusted our expectations. After the relative disappointments of Dolls, Daughter of Darkness and The Pit and the Pendulum, a Stuart Gordon horror on a par with From Beyond would be more than enough.
No mad scientists this time around, but a hilltop castle somewhere in Italy. As the title gives away there’s also a freak in residence. The opening scene provides his introduction, albeit in the shadows. An old lady, who will soon discover is both a Duchess and his mother, heads down to the castle’s cellars to provide him with a light lunch and a heavy beating. It takes it out of her, however, and soon enough she’s dropped dead. Cue Combs inheriting the castle thanks to some complicated genealogy and his family upping sticks for a new home. Not only do they have to deal with the freak - who escapes his cell and indulges some murderous/cannibalistic tendencies - but also Combs’ alcoholism which inadvertently caused his son’s death and his daughter’s blindness. He’s been staying dry these past few months, though a roving psycho and a well-stocked wine cellar aren’t going to prove too helpful.
Combs is usually the highpoint in any given Gordon venture, even if it’s for just a few lines (as was the case with his Robot Jox cameo as ‘1st prole’). He brings a certain energy to their collaborations, just as Michael Moriarty did to Larry Cohen’s genre movies, which has always livened up the lesser efforts. Fortress was so much better because of him and The Pit and the Pendulum too. Castle Freak doesn’t require the same helping hand, although Combs being onscreen for the majority of the screen time is never to be undervalued. As distinctly manic/edgy as ever, he’s a bit like Crispin Glover crossed with Bruce Campbell. Of course his performance as a grieving alcoholic didn’t win any awards, nor was it ever likely to. But then Castle Freak is more concerned with entertainment than quality and in that respect Combs comes out top.
Gordon does well in this respect too. No gags this time around, though the gore quota is firmly in place and ensures that nasty things are done to both an innocent pussy cat and the local prostitute. (Both scenes, previously trimmed on their initial UK release are intact on this new disc.) The sterling SFX work also extends to the castle freak himself, here played by Jonathan Fuller under about three hours’ worth of make-up. Certain VHS and DVD sleeves have gone for a full reveal in the past, which is a bit of a shame as Gordon keeps him concealed - B-movie monster fashion - up until the final reel. He’s forever in the shadows or hidden under rags, instead relying on Fuller’s impressive physicality. The eponymous monster of any horror movie needs to stand out and that he does.
With Combs and the freak in place Gordon needn’t worry about much else. He ensures that the pace is maintained throughout, that the more extraneous plot details are kept to a minimum and that the various genre marks are hit at regular intervals. Castle Freak is no Re-Animator and it isn’t quite a From Beyond either, but it still makes for great entertainment and is far from the director’s worst. Particularly pleasing is the sudden switch in tone for the final scene. Having done his job Gordon throws in a totally unexpected moment on which to end the picture which is really quite touching.
Just four releases in and 88 Films are already onto their second Stuart Gordon film. For this new disc (Castle Freak was previously issued by the Film 2000 label in 2008) they offer up the feature widescreen and in uncut form with its original VideoZone ‘making of’ featurette from the VHS. The presentation is decent without being exceptional and has to cope with moderate dirt and debris at certain points and a slightly boosted image which results in some prominent bouts of edge enhancement. Clarity is very good, however, and there’s certainly nothing here to hinder our enjoyment. The soundtrack offers up the original stereo in DD2.0 form and copes perfectly well with the dialogue, the screams and Richard Band’s score. There are no subtitles, English or otherwise.
As for extras the VideoZone featurette is a great addition, especially for the nostalgist. Here we find discussion of the Italian location and the non-comic tone, a brief interview with Combs and an emphasis, unsurprisingly, on the gore effects and Fuller’s performance as the titular freak. Also present are the original trailer and, as per all 88 Films releases, a trailer reel for other Charles Band-related movies.