Written by: Dennis Paoli
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Reviewed by: Dave Dunwoody
Taking the basic concept of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and building a powerful, gruesome drama around it, Stuart Gordon’s unfortunately-titled Castle Freak is a gem in direct-to-video horror, coming to you from the good folks at Full Moon and reuniting Re-Animator stars Jeff Combs and Barbara Crampton.
Dennis Paoli, who also wrote the Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator and From Beyond, scripts this tale of a broken family that finds their dysfunction made manifest in the form of a ghoulish, cannibalistic freak prowling an ancient castle. John Reilly (Combs) has inherited an Italian estate from a distant relative, a reclusive duchess who recently dropped dead. Unfortunately for John and his family, the duchess left a terrible secret deep in the cellar: chained in a tiny room is a pale-skinned, long-haired monstrosity, a once-human freak by the name of Giorgio who has spent his life in shackles for some unknown crime. But now, he’s breaking out – in a particularly icky sequence, Giorgio tears off his thumbs in order to shed his chains and returns to the surface world.
The Reilly clan has its own share of horrors from the recent past. John, an alcoholic, was in a terrible car accident that not only claimed the life of his young son, but blinded his daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide). Wife Susan (Crampton) has been estranged from John ever since, and while he sees the trip to Italy as an opportunity to heal old wounds, she doesn’t seem interested in the least.
Giorgio, the ghoul hidden away in the basement, acts as a metaphor for the other elephant in the room – the tragedy that has driven a wedge into John and Susan’s marriage. But why was Giorgio in the cellar in the first place? Why, in the opening scene, do we see the duchess flogging him with a cat o’ nine tails? John becomes absorbed in this mystery, although he remains unaware that Giorgio is still alive and well in the castle.
As John and Susan continue to drift apart, John finds comfort in the arms of a prostitute. This is when things kick into high gear. In a truly unsettling sequence, a drunken John ravages the prostitute while Giorgio looks on – and then, once John is gone, the freak takes his turn with her. I won’t say much here, except that there’s a sexual term involving “eating” that the freak happens to take quite literally. Yep, it gets pretty grody down there in the ol’ basement.
The prostitute’s disappearance brings a local cop into the picture, complicating an already unpleasant situation. Others sticking their nose into the Reillys’ business soon fall prey to the castle freak, and it isn’t long before John himself discovers the nightmare beneath the estate.
It’s a tight, taut little tale fraught with emotion and nail-biting terror. When things come to a head, it can only end in tragedy – though redemption is found as well. This, despite the corny name, is quite a powerful drama, with wonderful performances from Combs and Crampton. Jeff Combs, whose antihero drives the piece, really shines here and shows that he’s not just some over-the-top cult actor. The man is an accomplished and captivating performer.
I watched this film for the first time on the heels of Re-Animator, and was struck by the contrast in tone and depth. This Lovecraft adaptation (although it really takes great liberties with the original story) is nothing like the comic, pulp tale of Herbert West. This is an intimate, dark story of dysfunction and alienation. And it’s just a hell of a movie.
The direction is superb, the gore and makeup are spot-on and the acting is excellent. This is a Hall of Famer for sure, and a standout among Lovecraft movies. If you love H.P., or Jeff Combs, or just a good ol’ creepy haunted castle movie, then Castle Freak is Essential!
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