According to the internet, so it must be true, filmmaker Stuart Gordon was in producer Charles Band’s office when he noticed a poster for a film called Castle Freak. There was no film, as yet — just a poster. But, if Gordon wanted the project, Band said, he could have it, as long as the film he made had a castle and a freak in it. It’s a scene straight out of Ed Wood, so who knows how true it is. True or not, Gordon took the idea and ran with it, making a horror film that was…unique.
Castle Freak was released direct to video in 1995. It was directed by Gordon with a screenplay from Dennis Paoli, and stars frequent Gordon collaborators Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton as John and Susan Reilly. John just inherited an Italian castle from an aunt he didn’t know he had, and the Reillys decide to check the old place out before putting it on the market. Accompanying them to Italy is their teenaged daughter, Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide).
There’s drama surrounding the Reillys, even before they set foot inside the castle. Young Rebecca is blind, and her condition is her father’s fault. Some months before, Rebecca, with full faculties of sight, was riding in the family automobile with her father and her younger brother. John, however, was dead drunk, and wrecked the car. John and Susan’s son was killed, and Rebecca was left blinded. This family trip, then, is being conducted amidst crushing tension for John. He knows what he did, but he still has some illusions that he can repair his relationship with his family.
As if familial tensions weren’t enough, the castle has a secret. The old aunt kept someone chained up in the old castle’s dungeon, whipping him on a daily basis with a wicked-looking cat o’ nine tails. This is the freak of the title. When the old bat died, no one in the town knew of her prisoner, so he was left to starve in the dank, dark cell. But, when the Reillys arrive on the scene, the freak finds the energy to escape, and begins terrorizing the Reillys and anyone else who happens to be in the castle.
A decade before Castle Freak, Gordon made Re-Animator, which became a classic of the horror genre. That film featured a scene with a decapitated head giving forcible cunnilingus to Barbara Crampton, so I was ready for similarly shocking moments during this film. In fact, I was looking forward to it, and Gordon delivered the goods.
The freak, played by Jonathan Fuller, is a masterpiece of nauseating makeup. Fuller wears a full body suit of grey, waxy skin. His face is cleaved and toothy, and his hair falls in greasy strings. Oh, and he’s naked. Gordon uses the freak’s nakedness as a weapon, bludgeoning the audience with it. The idea of being chased through an old castle by this character instantly causes serious creepy-crawlies in the viewer. I don’t want to give any more away about the freak, but between the makeup and Fuller’s performance, the freak is one of the best horror film monsters I’ve ever seen, and this out of a movie that was released direct to video. It’s incredible.
But why was it released direct to video? It obviously has to do with the freak, and what he does to his poor victims. This is not a film for the faint-hearted. The visuals are well past what the MPAA would find acceptable for an R rating. But, I don’t think the film would be nearly as effective with the nasty bits sanitized. And that’s saying something. An R rating still allows for plenty of gore and freak nudity, just not to the levels Gordon filmed. But the impact of Gordon’s uncompromised cut outweighs these considerations. As hard as some of the stuff in this film is to stomach — especially a savage attack on a prostitute played by Raffaella Offidani — it’s all in service to the plot.
Castle Freak is an outrageous horror film. It pushes the boundaries of decency, and what is acceptable for cast and audience to endure alike. That’s a good thing. Films like this keep the genre and its fans on their toes. Many potential viewers would be disgusted by this film, and that’s okay, as well. As for me, I loved the spectacle of it all. Once the film got going in the second act, I kept saying ‘wow’ every time Gordon would show something on screen that he wasn’t supposed to.