DVD Review: Castle Freak / Cert: 18 / Director: Stuart Gordon / Screenplay: Dennis Paoli / Starring: Jefrey Combs, Barbara Compton, Jonathan Fuller / Release Date: Out Now
The strange three-way collaboration between director Stuart Gordon, producer Charles Band and long-dead writer H.P. Lovecraft resulted in several bona fide cult classics, of which Castle Freak (1995) is arguably the subtlest and most haunting. Based on the short story The Outsider, it starts with an unforgettable pre-title sequence wherein a seedy old lady, a duchess as we later discover, shuffles down through the labyrinthine passageways of an Italian castle to a gloomy dungeon. Having exhausted herself by flogging the prisoner cowering inside, she drops dead on her bed, where she lays undiscovered, slowly becoming encrusted in mould.
The eventual beneficiary of her demise is John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs), an American who is her only living descendant. Hoping to sell the title and the estate as quickly as possible, he visits the castle with his wife Susan (Barbara Compton) and daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide). But it's far from being a happy holiday. Susan has never stopped blaming John for a drink-driving accident which cost Rebecca her sight and their five-year-old son JJ his life. Tortured beyond endurance by her hostility and his own sense of guilt, John consoles himself with a fumble with the local prostitute and a bottle from the castle's well-stocked wine cellar. But meanwhile, the duchess's prisoner has escaped and is prowling the corridors…
Covered from head to toe in scar tissue and trailing manacles, the castle freak is one of the most disturbing of Charles Band's monsters, because he's human, but humanity reduced to the status of bare forked animal. He's ferocious and grotesque but also pitiable, since it is nurture rather than nature that has made him as he is. Jonathan Fuller plays him with brilliant exactness, lapping water from the leaky dungeon walls (the pathos being you know this is how he has had to slake his thirst for years) and ducking and diving almost balletically around the castle in a cape and mask made out of a dustsheet.
The movie was shot in a real castle in Giove, Italy, and Gordon makes the most of its crumbling splendour and long, shadowy vistas. His directorial style is notable for its spareness and sense of urgency, and never more so than here, where every swoop and lurch of the camera points a beat in the developing storyline. You don't get the belly laughs and anarchic sense of fun of his earlier cult favourite Re-Animator (1985), but he brings out the dry, mordant humour of what is a very taut and well-crafted script by his regular screenwriter, Dennis Paoli. This is lean, mean filmmaking without an ounce of fat on it, and that's why it has lasted. New DVD label 88 Films are currently giving many of the classic movies directed or produced by Charles Band a very welcome re-release. If you're tempted and looking for a place to start, you can't do better than Castle Freak.
Special Features: Making Of Documentary, Theatrical Trailer, Full Moon Trailer Park, Reversible Sleeve With Original Artwork