Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday Flashback: Castle Freak (1995) - Do People REALLY Inherit Italian Castles These Days?

From Full Moon Productions and directed by genre fave, Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond), Castle Freak is based (albeit loosely) on the H.P. Lovecraft tale, The Outsider.   Gordon staples Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton star as John and Susan Reilly.  With their daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide), they move into a 12th century castle they inherited from a distant relative who was a well-to-do  duchess. 

When something is too good to be true, it usually backfires. Which is exactly what happens here.

When the film starts, an old woman (apparently the famed duchess) is getting some food scraps ready to feed to a mysterious guest in the dungeon.  Once she opens the dungeon door she pulls out a cat o' nines whip and proceeds to whip the living hell out of someone (something?) that is chained to the floor, and it's safe to assume it's a regular occurrence. Unfortunately for the duchess, she overdoes it a bit and has a heart attack, dropping dead and leaving our poor soul alone to rot away in the dungeon.

Enter John Reilly, a man so filled with guilt yet so eager to get laid.  Just how we like our heroes, right?
He has brought his wife and blind daughter to live in the Italian castle he has inherited, but Susan is still blaming John for the death of their son in a car accident.  Seems John was drunk, and not only did little mini-Reilly get killed, but Rebecca was blinded.  John keeps trying to make it up to Susan but she isn't having it and in fact rebuffs his advances in a major way several times in the film. 

Almost immediately after arriving John learns both the fate of the duchess and the ghost story surrounding the castle. Tales have been told that the duchess had a son, Giorgio, who must have disappointed her terribly by being a "freak" so she locked him up in the basement dungeon.   It's tough to determine why on earth the duchess even kept her monstrous son alive and captive if she was so disgusted by him she never let him see the light of day.  Perhaps she knew it would make good ghost story fodder.

When Rebecca finds a cat prowling the estate, she follows him down to the dungeon (apparently, though blind, she is unafraid of tripping and falling down stairs) and keeps calling out for kitty.  Kitty makes the monumental mistake of going into the freak's cell through the small window at the bottom of the door. (Now, you know how much I hate it when animals die in film, but I can truthfully say I'd been expecting it since I saw the kitty in the first real, so I'm not really spoiling anything.)
The thing is, Giorgio the Freak (Jonathan Fuller) hears the commotion of Rebecca chasing after the cat and from then on he makes it his mission to get out of his restraints and head upstairs to mingle with the new owners.

John is chastised by Susan for letting Rebecca roam the castle alone, and in a weak moment he heads to a nearby bar in town for some local flavor.  Not only does he get blindingly (sorry, couldn't help it) drunk, but he latches on to a hooker and brings her home to play.  From listening to prior conversations with his wife, it seems like it may not be the first time he's satisfied his urges outside the marital bed.
 Unfortunately, John's satisfaction is short-lived and he becomes despondent after having castle-wall sex with said prostitute.  When he hears his wife he makes the hooker hide, leaving her vulnerable and looking very much like a delectable victim-in-waiting.

Meanwhile,  Giorgio is now exploring the castle on his own, thanks to his appetite for his own thumb and a little drool.  He sets out to satisfy a few urges of his own.  John's hooker is his first victim (human one, that is) and the entire scene is a raunchy, gore-infused frolic that really redefines "going downstairs".  After that, Giorgio is insatiable and tears off into the castle to track down Rebecca or any other woman that may be able to assuage his appetite.

As the film comes to its inevitable clichéd ending,we have ridiculous chase scenes and excessive gore, but that should come as no shock to any seasoned horror fan.  As Rebecca continues to feel Giorgio's presence nearby she attempts to convey her fears to her parents but they have a rough time believing her, in particular her mother.  When the mutilated corpse of the prostitute is found by the cops searching the premises, John can't seem to talk his way out of it and starts to believe his daughter's crazy stories.  The cops arrest him and take him away, leaving Susan and Rebecca alone and vulnerable with Giorgio hunting the castle grounds in search of his next victim.

While Castle Freak may just appear to be another 'monster in the dungeon' kind of horror flick, there is a lot more going on here.  It truly is a character-driven film, with another great performance by Jeffrey Combs (who doesn't love him?) and pretty good acting by the rest of the sparse cast.  As John Reilly, Combs brings a believable amount of grief and guilt to the part of a man who is haunted by his past but hoping for a brighter future.  At times, it can be somewhat melodramatic, and unlike most of Gordon's films there's nary a bite of comedy to be found.  You keep expecting Combs to throw out a one-liner, especially in some of these preposterous circumstances, but he keeps it serious throughout. Despite his flaws, it's easy to feel some sympathy for his situation, and even easier to connect with the monster than in most films.  It's obvious that he has had to live through some truly horrific years trapped in that cell, and we are left to wonder how it may have turned out if he was cherished like a son should be. Juxtaposed with John's grief over the loss of his own son turns out to be one of the best selling points for the film. 

You could do a lot worse than this atmospheric offering from the same people that brought you films like Subspecies and Puppet Master.  And anytime there's a scarred naked man-creature running amok through an ancient castle, count me in. 


The Film Connoisseur said...

Kudos in my book to Gordon for achieving this cool little movie on such a small budget. I like how melodramatic it can get, and I agree, you feel sympathy for Comb's character who is simply looking for some redemption.

Great make up effects and gore on this one! I also enjoyed the fact that they shot it in a real castle in Italiy I believe it was.

Christine Hadden said...

Yes, it's my understanding that the castle they used was authentic. I've liked this film since the first time I saw it, only recently got it on DVD. It was time for an upgrade, my VHS copy was getting sad.

And I love Comb's work in this one - you expect there to be humor in there somewhere, and it's refreshing that he pulls it off without.