Shudder’s Joe Bob Briggs-hosted Drive-In series continues to bear good fruit by introducing me to the 1995 cult horror film Castle Freak, directed by Stuart Gordon and based not so much off the Lovecraft story it vaguely alludes to as the instruction to include both 1) a castle and 2) a freak. Castle Freak delivers admirably on both fronts.
American John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs) inherits a slightly decrepit Italian castle, as we all have at some point in our lives. The plan is to comb through the castle for salable items, create an inventory for the lawyer, and then head back to America; in the meantime, he has plenty of time to mull over how his drunk driving cost him his young son’s life and his teenage daughter’s sight and may yet cost him his marriage. His wife, Susan (Barbara Crampton), doesn’t want to leave him, but she can’t bring herself to forgive him, either. They’re both overprotective of their capable daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide), hampering her from any independence while she tries to learn how to deal with her newly acquired disability. The whole situation makes the castle into a simmering morass of guilt, resentment, frustration, and uncertainty.
And then, of course, there’s the chained-up man in the basement. In a stellar opening sequence, we see the old duchess, Reilly’s aunt, preparing a meager meal and taking it down the stairs, eagerly trailed by a cat. She opens a metal door and puts the plate down; the cat immediately descends upon the slices of sausage. The duchess beats a mostly-unseen figure with a cat-o’-nine-tails studded with broken glass while he wails in terror and pain. Then she leaves him his meal–already partly gnawed-on by the cat–and exits the movie via an all-too-painless heart attack.
Rebecca inadvertently discovers the man in the basement, though she can’t identify him and no one believes her about there being someone else in the castle. Inspired to live–and given strength by a delicious meal of raw cat–the man tears his own thumb off to break free of his manacles, and that’s when the movie really gets going.
The figure in the basement is played by Jonathan Fuller, and despite layers and layers of disfiguring makeup, Fuller manages to give a genuine performance, one that’s both touching and terrifying. The freak isn’t inherently cruel, just maddened from a lifetime of seclusion and abuse, and largely uncomprehending. His violence is visceral, intense, and repulsive, but it stems from understandable motivations and misconceptions, and his origin story has the cadence of a Greek tragedy. The combination of empathy and over-the-top horror is something Castle Freak does bizarrely well. Ultimately, Stuart Gordon crafts a film with brutal and sexually violent murder that still respects the dignity and humanity of its female characters, a film about an American family moving into the midst of Old World sins and debauchery that makes its Italian characters particular and grounded, and a film that juggles both pitch-black bleakness and awesome creature effects.
Castle Freak seems to have taken a hit on its initial release for not having the comedic streak of Gordon’s other films, but it’s well-worth seeking out this dark little gem.
Castle Freak is available streaming on Shudder.