Horror 365, Movie 108: Castle Freak

Stuart Gordon, the man who brought us the 1980s Combs/Crampton killer combo that’s so great in Re-Animator and From Beyond– a combo he’ll bring back a decade later in this Lovecraftian direct-to-video effort. Generally I really like Combs and Crampton together and would not at all have minded seeing Barbara Crampton in Would You Rather. How great would thatta been?

Here’s what happens. John Reilly (Combs) inherits a castle not knowing the late Duchess Orsino kept her monstrous son Giorgio chained in a dungeon (he’s still there). The creature turns out (spoiler 1) to be John’s half-brother who, of course, escapes the minute John moves in with his wife Susan (Crampton) and teenage daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide). Incidentally, Giorgio’s escape almost destroys the movie for me.

Remember, the Duchess kept Giorgio shackled for about nineteen years. To escape, he bites into then rips off his thumb in order to slide the shackle off one hand. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it took him nineteen years to figure this out. Apparently Giorgio never read Gerald’s Game (though I wonder if Gordon did). Still, it’s a good vehicle for Gordon to fling the gore around which he does admirably here and elsewhere throughout the movie.

Crampton does a good deal more actual acting here than in Chopping Mall (she is, in fact, the best of the lot), moving from teenage fodder to bitter, unforgiving wife, and rightly so. In a drunk driving accident, John kills their five-year-old son JJ and blinds Rebecca. Since then, he and Susan sleep in separate rooms and no longer have sex, much to John’s vexation.

John is thoroughly unlikeable (aided by the scenery-chomping Combs’s portrayal). At one point, he finds an old photo that looks like JJ and breaks down in front of his wife. When she attempts to comfort him, he tries to sexually capitalize on it. Ew. After Susan rejects him, he gets drunk and brings home a prostitute. They have sex resulting in a gore-soaked but predictably demoralizing, classist, misogynistic Dead Sex Worker scene. Negative points as well for the hit-you-over-the-head contrast of the raven-haired Sylvana with the blonde Susan.

Susan holds her own passably as the protective mother until the final confrontation in which she and Rebecca are inexplicably reduced to helpless, cowering damsels in distress. This allows John to suddenly find his nobility, along with his spine, and become the unconvincingly tragic hero who (spoiler 2 albeit a predictable ending) sacrifices himself to save his family.

Castle Freak is said to be loosely based on Lovecraft’s story “The Outsider,” and I do use the phrase “loosely based” as, well, loosely as possible. If you’ve read Lovecraft but are not familiar with the story, you might gloss over this and think, “Cool.” If you are familiar with the story, what you will see will be nearly unrecognizable. For one thing, “The Outsider” is a first-person narrative from the point of view of a ghoul. Second, the only connection I can readily identify is when Giorgio looks in the mirror. “Inspired by” might be marginally more accurate than “loosely based,” but even that’s a stretch.

There’s also a 2020 version I haven’t gotten to yet, so I don’t know if it’s a remake, a reboot, or just a new adaptation. Judging from one of the characters being Lavinia Whateley, it could be a mishmash of “The Outsider,” the yet to be made into even a half decent movie Dunwich Horror, and who knows what the hell else. But fear not, boils and ghouls. I’ll give it a shot at some point. We are, after all, total professionals.

BODIES-8 onscreen, 1 cat eaten offscreen
Free on Apple TV, Pluto, Prime, Tubi

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