2 out of 5
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Castle Freak was always the Stuart Gordon movie I had trouble getting behind. Re-Animator is a gem, and always will be; it’s been perfect since I first saw it, and has never dimmed upon various re-views at different points in my film education. Some of Gordon’s other movies – say, Space Truckers – I’ve warmed to greatly over the years, and then there are some, like King of the Ants, that have never been great, but that I appreciate for what they are or attempt to be. But Castle Freak… Castle Freak has never sat well with me. It’s lurid in a way that other Gordon movies aren’t, and sloppy and unfinished feeling in a way that his other lower-budgeted movies don’t come across as. What’s frustrating is that there are some really sharp plot elements to it, and it feels like it could’ve been a really unique film if stripped of some of its questionable trappings.
John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs), wife Susan (Barbara Crampton), and daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) have traveled to Italy to check out the castle that John has inherited from a passed family member. A prologue hints to us that something might be lurking somewhere in one of the castle’s many rooms… and Rebecca’s explorations and some howling at night would seem to suggest the same. Soon enough, the titular freak is released from the structure’s bowels, and causes some bloody havoc that causes John and Susan to face up to a past tragedy that has driven them apart…
…Except not at all. This was always one of my big problems with Castle Freak: there’s an appreciated subtlety to the way Gordon (and his script with co-writer Dennis Paoli) suggest there’s trouble between our couple, and Combs and Crampton both do a great job with that nuance. We learn the cause soon enough – a cause which lies almost solely at John’s feet – and it’s a great addition to the attempted Gothic overtones of the story, but from thereon out, the character never goes through a proper redemption arc. Instead, Gordon seems to figure he’s making a low budget Blue Moon nasty, and turns John into a drunken adulterer, and our castle freak into a sex-craved fiend. If this was thematically more important – if the whole setup had wound some kind of sexual element into it – it would seem more excusable, but instead it just comes across as depraved in the way the laziest of 80s / 90s horror could be, going in for rape-with-nudity as titillation.
There’s also the incredible clunkiness with how the creature goes from off-screen horror to prancing around in the daylight, somehow not making any noise despite the clanking chain he carries with him. On the one hand, it’s interesting that the movie casts the monster as a full on “character” in this sense – not hiding him – and is part of the Gothic sensibility, of making this into a tragic character. But there’s no transition to that. Again, it felt like Gordon wanted to make a few different styles of flick at once, and didn’t have the time to figure out how to segue between them – they’re just slapped together.
Both of these elements slam in to the conclusion, which, although featuring some excellently shot and staged and conceptualized dramatics – the pouring rain and a rooftop showdown especially impressive with the budget – feels slight in its forced “redemption” for John, because he’s had no such thing.