Castle Freak

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos

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Castle Freak  (1995, dir: Stuart Gordon; scp: Dennis Paoli; cast: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Jonathan Fuller).

 

 

 

Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Stuart Gordon teamed up for Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). They did so again for Castle Freak.

Well, two out of three ain't bad.

Not that Castle Freak is awful. It just falls short of what one has come to expect from this talented troika. Such as sharp witty dialogue, pitch black humor, innovative stories, and envelop-pushing carnage.

Instead, Castle Freak is about this guy. You know who he is. You've met him in hundreds of horror films. We all have. He's a regular Joe, kind of a horror everyman, who's suffered some tragedy. Could be he was born deformed. Or maybe burned or disfigured in a prank gone bad. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Been there, done that. Anyway, he's shut away somewhere. An attic, a basement, an asylum, a cabin in the woods. It's an old story.

But in case any Julia Roberts fans need to be clued in, the film is called Castle Freak. Subtle title, no? At least Senator Lieberman can't call on the FTC to charge Full Moon with false advertising.  The film is Castle Freak, and it's about a castle freak.

Here are the details of his all-too-common tale of woe: His mom was an Italian noblewoman who fell in love with an American soldier. The soldier married and impregnated her, then deserted her for the States. Left her heart-broken, alone in her castle (well, where else would a noblewoman live?). So she took vengeance on their son. Chained him inside a dungeon, whipped and beat and tortured him every day of his miserable life. Even maimed his genitalia. (I won't spoil the details, but guys, be prepared to cringe.) After forty years of this, the noblewoman dies intestate. Nobody knows about the son in the dungeon, so her attorney locates her heirs in America.

A few minutes into the film, the American family is already arriving to inspect their newly acquired castle. The lucky heirs consist of dad (Jeffrey Combs), the missus (Barbara Crampton), and their blind daughter. Soon after they're settled, the freak escapes and the body count mounts. It's all pretty straightforward killer-freak-on-the-rampage stuff.

Naturally, this freak desires women, although, his manhood incomplete, he's unable to enjoy or satisfy them. This further frustrates him, with predictably bloody results. "Progressives" might disdain another entry in horror's long tradition of portraying freaks and retards as sexually frustrated rapists, but there you have it. Take it for what it's worth.

 

 

Castle Freak does try to "stretch" the genre with an Oprah subtext. Dad's alcohol problem resulted in the car crash that killed his son and blinded his daughter. Although his daughter has forgiven him, his wife cannot. They haven't slept together in nine months. So dad too is sexually frustrated, and guilt-ridden, even as he continues to fight the bottle.

It's an okay subtext, in a soapish sense. Yes, there's symbolism in there (the freak's childhood photo resembles dad's dead son), and it allows for some closure at film's end, with the wife finding reason to forgive. It's not a bad storyline, but considering the talents involved, one expects more.

Full Moon likes to attach promos it calls "video magazines" at the end of its films, mainly trailers and "behind-the-scenes" stuff. Combs and Crampton provide aesthetic assessments of Gordon's work. (Now, just how honest will the average out-of-work actor be when discussing an employer's work?) Combs allows that Castle Freak is humorless, but claims to believe it strengthens the horror, and that Gordon was right to eschew humor.

Not!

Combs is a sterling character actor, with unique features and intense facial ticks. He shines when delivering quirkily funny lines. Re-Animator and The Frighteners (1996) display Combs at his darkly comedic best. But he disappoints in the dreary Dr. Mordrid: Master of the Unknown (1992). To cast Combs in a humorless role is to waste his edgy gifts. It's like hiring Tiger Woods to caddy.

Barbara Crampton was only called to be pretty in Re-Animator, but rose to glory in From Beyond, playing a broad range from repressed scientist, to sexual libertine, to madwoman. In Castle Freak, she's cast in the thankless role of mother. She's got the soap credentials (The Young & The Restless), and competently handles her limited material. But she can handle so much more than she's given.

Jonathan Fuller plays the freak. He claims the body makeup required six hours to apply. He's an effective freak, but no more. Unlike Karloff (Frankenstein) or Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire), Fuller fails to emote a sympathetic persona from beneath his heavy makeup. The fault is not entirely his. The script offers him little opportunity. (But neither did Karloff have lines in his first Frankenstein monster portrayal).

 

 

 

Before anyone protest that Castle Freak's low budget makes comparisons to Frankenstein or Shadow of the Vampire inapposite, note that the freak in The Unseen was hideous and inarticulate (and yes, he had a frustrated sexual thing for Barbara Bach), but his death was unexpectedly poignant. (On the opposite end of the freak spectrum, fans of envelop-pushing, grindhouse splatter will delight in The Grim Reaper (Italian 1981, aka Anthropophagus), whose freak performs a late-term abortion on an unwilling woman, with his bare hand.)

Fuller's freak resides in the middle of the spectrum. Yes, he callously racks up a body count, but other freaks are both more prolific and more savage in their technique. Yes, he has personal issues, but other freaks have handled their issues with more aplomb.

Combs and Crampton are enjoyable to watch, but you wish the script had given free reign to their talents. You wish Gordon had used his immense talent for frenetic black comedy to deliver another Re-Animator or From Beyond. (The dreadful Bride of Re-Animator (1989) could have used his touch.)

Yes, artists want to stretch. But sometimes their old work is so outstanding, you want multiple encores. Instead, we have Castle Freak, a serviceable killer-freak film.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos

 

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