Troubled American couple John (Jeffrey Combs) and Susan Reilly (Barbara Crampton) come to Italy to visit a twelfth century castle they just inherited. While John retreats into alcoholism to deal with the guilt of causing a car crash that blinded his teen daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) and killed his young son the castle is plagued by inexplicable events. Including strange scary noises at night and mysteriously broken objects. Later Rebecca is disturbed when someone or something sneaks into her bedroom to watch her sleep. Then there is the matter of two women vanishing after visiting the castle leaving John a target of suspicion from the Italian police. Maybe it has something to do with the freakishly disfigured creature (Jonathan Fuller) that broke out of the castle's secret dungeon a few days ago.
Or could that be a coincidence? Nasty, grimy and well-received by horror fans back in the mid-Nineties, Castle Freak saw cult horror director Stuart Gordon re-team with low-budget genre mogul Charles Band after flirting with the mainstream with Disney family film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) (which he developed but did not direct) and sci-fi actioner Fortress (1992). It is likely the stress of dealing with big studio executives drove Gordon to recharge his batteries with a return to his indie roots. Even if that meant working with his lowest budget ever ($500,000). Happily Castle Freak also reunited him with his two favourite leads: Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. Both of whom characteristically deliver impassioned performances above and beyond the call of duty for a cheap straight-to-video gore flick. As indeed does the engaging Jessica Dollarhide who strangely never made another film. Also worth singling out is Jonathan Fuller whose remarkable, skin-crawling turn as the titular menace strikes the right balance of pity and revulsion.
Filmed on location with an Italian crew, including D.P. Mario Vulpiani (who alternated working with art-house auteurs Marco Ferreri, Mario Monicelli and painter-turned-experimental filmmaker Mario Schifano with shooting trashier fare from Euro-crime favourite The .44 Specialist (1977) and giallo Bloodstained Shadow (1978) to infamous cut-price superhero romp The Puma Man (1980)), Castle Freak has a seedy gothic ambiance that evokes the work of Lucio Fulci. Both with its grisly makeup effects, sexual sadism and scenes with a blind heroine in peril. Grimy production design coupled with Gordon's artful direction serve to elevate a fairly threadbare story. The film also has the benefit of an atmospheric castle location owned by Charles Band himself and a fixture of many a Full Moon production.
Like Gordon's earlier classics Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) the film is very loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft story. However screenwriter and frequent Gordon collaborator Dennis Paoli also lifts a lot of well-worn motifs from the old Edgar Allan Poe movies American International Pictures used to make with Vincent Price. Combs essentially does a more grounded take on Price's brooding, tormented antihero routine, haunted by cries in the dark he mistakes for that of his dead son. Only Stuart Gordon would mix a stalk and slash gore fest with heartwarming family drama. What subtext Castle Freak does have is admittedly a stock Nineties cinema trope wherein danger helps bring a fractured family back together. Yet it is emotionally engaging, well played by the accomplished cast and certainly appreciable in a genre that routinely couldn't give a monkey's about a strong dramatic hook. Especially artful is the subtle implication that the 'freak' represents the dark side of John's psyche, the tortured, self-destructive streak that unless subdued threatens to destroy his family.
Gordon and Paoli's horror films typically have a kinky edge to them. There is a little less of that in Castle Freak even in spite of the creature's lascivious interest in young Rebecca and a nasty scene of sexual torture visited upon an unfortunate prostitute. Richard Band supplies a typically effective score that only treads regrettably into cartoon territory towards the finale. The plot ticks along predictably though amiably until a lively denouement with Crampton in full-on scream queen mode prior to a poetic closing image.
American director of horror and sci-fi, who made his debut in 1985 with Re-Animator, following 15 years working in theatre in Chicago. This HP Lovecraft adaptation was a spectacular mix of chills, black comedy and inventive splatter, but while it still remains his best film, the likes of From Beyond, Dolls, The Pit and the Pendulum, Space Truckers and Dagon do have their moments. He followed these with the David Mamet adaptation Edmond and true crime-inspired Stuck. Gordon also wrote the story for the box office smash Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.