Film Review – Castle Freak (2020)

The 90s was a peculiar decade for horror films. A transitional period from the bombardment of slashers, video nasties and creature features of the 80s. And though there was a rather unnecessary continuation of our most beloved horror icons, with more Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th films which were mostly poorly received, the 90s did have to offer a handful of movies that have gone on to become a staple in any “Top [however many] Horror Films of All-Time”.

Wes Craven revitalised the tired slasher genre with his satirical, “whodunit” instant classic, Scream. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez took the “found footage” concept of Cannibal Holocaust, utilising the infancy of the Internet to utterly shake the world with The Blair Witch Project. Japan proved to Western audiences they could conjure up as much terror as the Americans and Europe with Ringu and Audition. And audiences were challenged with unconventional and thought-provoking psychological thrillers such as The Silence of the Lambs, Jacob’s Ladder and The Sixth Sense.

A film I believe that’s worthy of a spot on any Top Horror Films of the 90s is Castle Freak. The 1995 horror thriller was directed one of the few people in cinematic history who has has success with being able to depict any H. P. Lovecraft fiction – on multiple occasions I might add, the legendary Stuart Gordon. Castle Freak serves (loosely) as another H. P. Lovecraft vignette.

Starring frequent collaborators, Jeffery Combs and Barbara Crampton play a grieving couple whose marriage is on the rocks after the tragic death of their son. Inheriting a Roman castle, the two and their blind teenage daughter move into their newly acquired property. Shortly after their arrival, Rebecca is harassed by hideously deformed creature who has been living in the bowels of the castle for years. In quick succession, the “freak” manages to break-free of his shackles and goes on a kill-crazy, gory rampage.

And that just about covers Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak without giving away the entire movie. Think a typical 70s or 80s slasher, only with a Quasimodo-type malformed man-child named Giorgio as the antagonist/icon. The film plays as a slasher/creature feature and poor Rebecca is the Laurie Strode to Giorgio’s [as] Michael Myers with a desire for blood.

Castle Freak was initially met with mixed reviews but would later go on to gain a strong cult following.

The praise: The purity in its Lovecraftian storytelling, gratuitous gore, make-up and special effects. And when I say gratuitous gore, I mean GRATUITOUS GORE. Castle Freak could rival any of the “torture porn” flicks of the mid-to-late 2000s. There are some truly grotesque scenes across the 90 minute runtime and that’s coming from a seasoned horror fanatic who’s seen almost all there is to see. The gore could rival that of Fred Vogel’s repugnant August Underground trilogy. That is most likely why the film never saw the light of day in cinemas across the globe. Not only that but the Gordon’s film was made for a skimpy $500,000.

Speaking more in depth on the initial praise of Castle Freak – honestly, the “freak” is horrifying to look at. A ghastly sight. If you’ve seen 2016’s Blair Witch, you’d probably think they ripped-off their look for “the witch” from Stuart Gordon’s film. The similarities are near indistinguishable. Well, that’s if you managed to catch the long-limbed creature in Wingard’s entry into the franchise. The moment was brief. The epitome of, “blink and you’ll miss it”. But I digress.

The not so good: Critics missed the B-movie quality and humour of Re-Animator and From Beyond. Instead, Gordon’s film was a more straight-forward horror. Personally, I don’t see what the issue with that is, especially during a time when video nasties had almost completely phased out and horror had become far less visceral. Castle Freak could have easily been released amidst the triumphant years of the 1980s and fit right at home. It’s cheap, nasty, perverse and in equal parts, theatrical, camp and unintentionally funny in segments.

I suppose Gordon had been pigeonholed into being a filmmaker who blessed audiences with over-the-top horror films filled with subterranean comedy. His legacy lies heavily within the two legendary Lovecraft tales he brought to life. Which is absurd when you think that Gordon went on to write two films alongside Brian Yunza for Disney Studios…

However, 25 years later – produced by Fangoria and original cast member Barbara Crampton, Castle Freak has been revised for audiences both new and old across the world. In 2018 Crampton took to Twitter to state the bold reimagining would feature an “expanded Lovecraft universe”.

I’m disappointed to report, it isn’t great news for this not so bold “bold reimagining”.

The concept of Tate Steinsiek’s soft reboot remains mostly unchanged to Gordon’s version. The focus of a family inheriting a gargantuan castle in a foreign country shifts to an American couple who inherit a gargantuan castle in Albania. And after a rather underwhelming and undramatic car accident, in said accident the lead role loses is the one who unfortunately loses the gift of sight.

Fast-forwarding to arriving in Albania, Rebecca and her leather jacket-wearing, drug abusing, gaslighting boyfriend, John are given a tour of their grandiose Albanian fortress and it is quickly established they aren’t going to be alone. Cue the entrance of the “castle freak”.

Now before I get deeper into this review, I have to address the elephant in the room: “the freak”.

In Gordon’s film, Giorgio was a sight to behold. Steinsiek’s film however, the shock factor just isn’t there. After doing some quick research, I discovered that Steinsiek is a multi-award-winning prosthetics artist. So, how could it be possible for Steinsiek to have modern technology and special effects at his disposal and his “freak” not be more gruesome? The answer is simple. The difference between his film opposed to Gordon’s is the vast difference in use of lighting. In the original film, Giorgio is mostly shown in darkly lit scenes with only brief flashes of whites and blues. However in Steinsiek’s film, there’s no mystery surrounding this hideous being as almost all the scenes display strong use of light, vibrant Argento-esque colours and leave next to no room for foreshadowing.

After a couple of nights of Rebecca having visions of her estranged mother’s death in her nightmares, John’s friends rock up to the property to help get the inventory of the castle sold. Suffice to say, this isn’t going to end well for them. And true to horror movie tropes, the teenage group has every stereotype conceivable within the squad. An overly geeky guy, a blonde harlot, the tough guy and a token black guy. It isn’t very contemporary of the more progressive horror films we’ve seen over the last decade. Played by second-rate overacting newcomers, the characters are extremely uninspired and extremely unlikeable. You really don’t care for them, their backstory, their character arc or their fate.

It isn’t long before the curious and knowledge-hungry geek, “Professor” discovers a Necronomicon among the inventory and a secret passage inside of Rebecca’s mother’s wardrobe. Entering the secret passage, he and Rebecca learn that the creature that lurks the floors of the castle is as a result of a religious ritual involving a group named the “Old Ones”. I know what you’re thinking, a book of the dead, a secret passage among a creepy, old castle in a wardrobe, religious rituals and a Satanic spawn; how original. This film could be renamed, The Blind Girl, the Freak and the Wardrobe.

Having gaslit Rebecca for the one-hundred and forty-seventh time up to now, John lives up to the stereotype of his being the chauvinistic bad boy and has a drunken, drug-fuelled romp with the bimbo of the group. Unbeknownst to the two, the freak is being a peeping Tom, watching the raunchy action through the cracks in the walls. It’s perverse but not quite as voyeuristic as Norman Bates. Whilst John is blindfolded (by panties, of course) and handcuffed to a bed, the freak soon makes their move, brutally killing the floozy.

In true (recent) Fangoria Films’ fashion, this gory and twisted sex scene is both shocking and highly comical. It’s an over-the-top, maximum gross-out, laugh-out-loud segment that in my opinion serves as the main highlight of Steinsiek’s film. I’m not sure whether the scene is meant to incite shock or incite laughter. The lines are blurred. That speaks volumes for where this analysis is heading.

When John’s two remaining friends discover him handcuffed to a bed, covered in blood they realise that Rebecca wasn’t delusional about something or somebody being on the within the grounds of the castle.

And so their revenge begins!

One by one, they’re picked off by the freak in dull and anticlimactic ways. The special effects-heavy gore doesn’t make these kills anymore exciting. They’re very forgettable. Not as iconic as the grisly kills Giorgio made in the 1995 film. Further reinforcing style over substance doesn’t make a great, nor even an OK picture.

Where Steinsiek’s film takes a swan dive in the third and final act.

After John finally getting his comeuppance via a vicious and satisfactory head crush, Rebecca the freak embrace. It’s learned a few moments prior by only remaining survivor of the group – “The Professor”, that the abomination belongs to the same bloodline as Rebecca. Rebecca inheriting the castle was only a ploy for her and the abominable to fulfil a ritual and complete their grandfather’s prophecy.

And at long last, cue the Lovecraftian elements!

The CGI-heavy Albanian skies begin to glow with psychedelic shades of red, blue, pink, purple and black. Cthulhu appears in the sky as Rebecca and the freak hold hands, embracing the presence of the Great Old One. In rapid succession, Rebecca then gives birth to what we can only assume is the Antichrist. There’s no time to find out as the end credits begin to roll.

We see less than five minutes of the “bold” and “expanded Lovecraft universe” Crampton promised back in 2018. Hardly an expansion, more a quick and unconcise forced inclusion in an attempt to add more depth to this rehashing. I’m not dissing Crampton. I utterly adore her and her eternal enthusiasm and passion for horror all these years later. I’m sure she really believes in this film and its ambition; enough to want to be a producer. It just didn’t deliver on what it promised. It’s yet another half-baked adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft fiction. Once again proving that Lovecraft’s niche brand of cosmic horror is difficult to translate onto screen.

To sum up, whilst admirable in his attempts at revamping Gordon’s original body of work, the end result is way off the mark. Whereas the 1995 film triumphed in its thrills, accidental quirk, low budget and cheap and nasty, 80s B-movie/grind house aesthetic, Steinsiek’s film doesn’t leave the same impression. It has no genuine scares. At no fault of its own, it’s too predictable. It isn’t capable of flourishing into the same beast as it takes itself too seriously. It’s almost meta in that it acknowledges the shock factor will always be non-existent and forces in a new angle that is a complete misfire. The end result is a downright cheap and nasty horror film that doesn’t sit well among the instant, thought-provoking classics we’re blessed with today.

With Gordon sadly passing away in March of this year, mercifully for him he won’t have the misfortune of seeing one of his celebrated achievements as a filmmaker be soiled.

★★


Horror | USA, 2020 | 15 | Digital HD | 7th December 2020 (UK) | Bluefinch Films | Dir.Tate Steinsiek | Clair Catherine, Jake Horowitz, Emily Sweet, Chris Galust