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Castle Freak - dir: Stuart Gordon

Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton

Stuart Gordon's first film, "Re-Animator," (1985) was a cinematic retelling of H.P. Lovecraft's story of the same name, and was cult smash. It established Gordon as a credible director, though one on the fringes of horror, and ensured that most his films from then on would be feature the phrase, "Stuart Gordon's" in the title. "Re-Animator" achieved a lot of its saliency because of its over the top use of gore - blood spatters and organs fly throughout the film - but the punch of such morbidity is softened by the movie’s inherently comic nature. In years that have passed since the film's release, the contention has surfaced in horror fan circles that "Re-Animator" was originally meant to be a serious flick and its excessive bloodletting was not meant to amuse but too shock. The story goes that it wasn't until composer Richard Band devised a somewhat comical score for the film, that the movie's humorous potential was seen. (Had this not happened, it's a safe bet that the “Re-Animator’s” cult success would not have occurred.)

I mention "Re-Animator" because "Castle Freak," released a decade later for the same distribution company, Charles Band's Full Moon Entertainment, brings together many of the creative forces that made Gordon’s first movie a success. Jeffrey Combs, who nailed the part of the unhinged Doctor Herbert West in "Re-Animator," takes the role of John Reilly, a guilt-ridden patriarch. Barbara Crampton, who fulfilled obligatory female-in-distress role in "The Re-Animator”, plays the part of Reilly's embittered (with good reason, we find out) wife, Susan. Dennis Paoli, the screenwriter who's written all Gordon's "Gordonian" films, mans the typewriter on this one as well. And Charles Band’s brother, Richard, returns to write the musical score.

But there's one big difference between the two films.

There's not a single thing funny about "Castle Freak."

This is a good thing. "Castle Freak" is one of the more disturbing films ever made, a horror film with a decidedly classic feel, and my second favorite Gordon offering. ("Re-Animator" still grabs the top spot.) This is gore without giggles, carnage without camp. The violence is uncomfortably real (and sexual) and not for the squeamish.  Its brutality that serves as an exploration of the dark side of man (and woman) and the fallibility of human beings.

At the beginning of the film we see an aged European woman preparing a rather unappealing meal. She walks down the caverns of an ancient Castle and enters a prisoner’s cell occupied by a hideous, diseased wretch who is moaning and mewing while cast in the shadows. The old bat pulls out a cat-o-nine-tails and gives the creature a good whipping, and then retires to her bedroom. But the exertion seems to have taken its toll and the women falls prey to a heart attack.

Some weeks later, an excited American, John Reilly, is being driven up to the very same Italian castle with his wife and blind daughter in tow.  Reilly recounts his excitement at the notification that he had inherited the estate of his mother's sister. Upon arrival, they are greeted by the obligatory creepy housekeeper in the form of a flighty Italian woman who shows them to their rooms. The strained relationship between John and his wife is defined when Susan asks the housekeeper to make up separate beds. Later that night, John is plagued with bad dreams that explain the split. Many months earlier, Reilly blinded his daughter and killed his young son while driving drunk, a burden that is eating away at his soul and has torn his family apart.

The next day, John and his daughter explore the castle. Rebecca, the Reilly daughter, wanders off (of course!) and comes across the cell containing the misbegotten beast. She can’t see him, but we can, and we see what her presence does to him. After she leaves, the creature manages to gather strength by eating the local housecat (an excellent source of protein) and bursts free. The freak is loose upon the castle!

Like the best horror flicks, "Castle Freak" is not so much about external demons, but internal. (In fact, the one can't help feeling a bit sorry for the monster, especially once we find out his true past.) John Reilly’s interior battle leads him to fall of the wagon and embrace a prostitute (Hey, we’ve all been there.) who becomes the freak’s first victim. Granted, hookers are common prey for the escaped monster in horror films, but Gordon humanizes the prostitute in a way seldom seen onscreen. The woman’s death attracts the attention of the local authorities and exposes John’s dalliance to his family. Susan and John’s feud comes to a head which takes its toll on the only real innocent character of the film, their daughter. The family disintegrates while the freak runs amuck, eventually leading up to a climatic finale, where all of the guilty are punished in appropriate measures, thereby augment the "classic" feel of the movie.

I interviewed Gordon not long ago and made a point to ask him about the effects of violence in horror films. (At the time, there was a small controversy raging in Europe over Wes Craven’s “Scream” films.) Gordon expressed his belief that the gore in his movies did not glorify human pain and suffering, as does a lot of horror, but exposed the true nature of brutality. I found the answer a bit cliché and not all that satisfying, but upon viewing “Castle Freak” I’m a step closer to agreeing with him. There’s nothing fun or funny about the carnage in “Castle Freak,” especially the twisted way in which the freak mimics sexual acts while ravaging his prostitute victim. “Castle Freak” refutes contention among highbrow movie critics that films should turn the camera away once the bloodshed starts. Gordon’s camera never wavers and the result is a much more powerful exposition on what violence really is.

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