Tuesday, 16 November 2010
(Stuart Gordon, 1995)
“Castle Freak” is the kind of movie only a card-carrying horror fan could love. Comprised of material that breaks down as about one third cruel and depressing, one third stupid and cheap, with a final third of intelligent and well-executed gothic tragedy creeping in around the edges, it will take a… sympathetic viewer to find time to appreciate the latter aspect.
I didn’t much enjoy “Castle Freak” whilst I was actually watching it. My main memory is of finding it a grim and disappointing effort from a creative team whose work I usually enjoy, and of waiting for the damn thing to end so I could do something fun. But the more I think about it, the more vague my reasons for disliking the film become, and the more it begins to stand out in my memory as a pretty decent piece of work, all things considered.
Throughout his career as a horror director, Stuart Gordon has specialised in mixing humour and absurdity with a streak of utter, black-hearted nastiness, usually to great effect. From the the rampant sexual dysfunction of “From Beyond” to the bit where that poor guy gets skinned alive in “Dagon”, his movies seem to thrive on a genuinely unsavoury undercurrent, manifesting itself in at least one sequence in each film that will have even jaded horror-freaks pausing to think “jesus… that was pretty intense”, before returning to the comfort zone of likeable characters, goofy situations and chaotic special effects showcases.
Despite the corny name and the fan-pleasing potential of reuniting Gordon with his “Reanimator”/”From Beyond” team of scriptwriter Dennis Paoli and stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, “Castle Freak” sees this darker aspect of the director’s work taking precedence, as he drops the comedy altogether, instead taking his best shot at an straight-faced, emotionally gruelling horror story, with, well… let’s say mixed results.
Not that “Castle Freak” is an unremitting gorefest or a journey into nihilistic oblivion or anything like that. It’s just sort of, well, miserable really – a film full of deeply unhappy people who would probably be having a pretty bad time of it even if they weren’t being stalked by a once-I-was-human monster whose tale of life-long woe puts them all in the shade. I guess I went in expecting a more light-hearted gothic castle caper, and as such the whole experience left me kinda bummed out.
Things are scarcely helped by the fact the film has a squalid, low rent sort of feel to it – not necessarily a bad thing for a horror movie, but rather a shame for a gothic yarn such as this, which could have been rendered a lot more palatable with the addition of a some of the grand, velvety production design that’s seen us (or seen me, at least) happily through dozens of similarly tragedy-heavy ‘60s Euro-horrors. Financed as an Italian co-production by Charles Band’s Full Moon Productions for straight-to-video release at the nadir of the horror genre’s pre-Scream commercial slump in the mid-‘90s, “Castle Freak” is, needless to say, a fairly plain looking affair, shot predominantly on location in a somewhat drab-looking Italian castle, with cinematography leaning a little toward the TV movie end of things.
(Actually, I shouldn’t call the castle “drab-looking” – I’m sure in real life it’s a smashing old castle, and there are lots of good architectural shots and nifty decorative bits and bobs on display. But in one of those odd cows-don’t-look-like-cows-on-screen type dysfunctions, the way it is filmed here makes the whole place seem a lot less atmospheric than the set-bound castles of a good ‘60s gothic horror.)
An original story cobbled together from echoes of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider”, Derleth’s “The Shuttered Room” and subsequent generations of ‘deformed relative in the attic’ tales with just a hint of “Don’t Look Now” and “Phantom of the Opera” mythos sprinkled in for flavour, “Castle Freak” begins with a lengthy pre-credits sequence introducing us to an old crone who lives in a dusty old castle, alone but for her deformed son. She keeps him chained up in a basement dungeon, subjecting him to sadistic daily beatings with a fearsome-looking medieval cat-o’-nine-tails. Delightful. So what happens when Old Crone eventually kicks the bucket..?
“Boy, who’da thought we’d inherit an old Italian castle?”, grins John Reilly (Combs), as he, his wife Susan (Crampton) and their blind daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) are shown to the door by a craven estate agent. Any mainstream viewers will be forgiven for rolling their eyes and giving up right there, but Paoli’s script is at pains (actual, proper pains) to try to shoehorn an extra depth into this rather ponderous creepy castle/meet the monster scenario, investing our American family with a rather harrowing back story that provides the weight of the film’s emotional narrative.
Gradually, we’re filled in on the fact that until recently John and Susan had two children, both of whom were fully-sighted. Then there was a car crash, caused by Dad, who was driving drunk. Ouch. Now John is off the sauce, and trying his best to stay positive and keep the family together as they deal with their grief, but Rebecca is struggling to adapt to a life of blindness, and Susan hasn’t forgiven him by a long shot. Awkward.
So, will John’s new Italian inheritance, and the story of the lonely old widow whose only son “died” in eerily similar circumstances forty years ago help rekindle the family’s relationship, or drive them further over the edge into an abyss of guilt, madness and recrimination? What do you think?
I think it’s interesting to see Jeffrey Combs in a straight role for once. Deprived of his trademark mad scientist tics he makes for a pretty convincing tormented father figure, with his slow descent into guilt-wracked collapse standing up reasonably well to the high standards set for such roles by Donald Sutherland in “Don’t Look Now” or Sam Neill in Zulawski’s “Possession”. Crampton too is a fine and versatile actress, and, as ever, it’s a shame she’s never really been given a shot at movie stardom, beyond the eternal sex symbol status conferred upon her by pervy horror fans of a certain stripe off the back of her memorable turns in “Reanimator” and “From Beyond”. Jessica Dollarhide is, um, I dunno, perfectly acceptable as ‘timid mid-teenage daughter’ I guess, and I don’t know how much acting Jonathan Fuller gets to throw around beneath his grisly full-body make-up job in the role of Giorgio the monster, but either way, he certainly makes for an appropriately frightening and upsetting screen presence.
As befits his background in theatre, good acting and engaging characters have always been central to the success of Stuart Gordon’s films, and everyone in the cast of “Castle Freak” gives a solid, no nonsense performance appropriate to the solid, no nonsense melodrama of Paoli’s script. The overall vibe is akin to that of, say, a committed amateur theatre group working with a harrowing, personal play written by a well-regarded local journalist, and, if perhaps not quite Oscar-worthy, I’ll certainly go out on a limb and say the acting chops on display here are likely to be a damn sight better than anything else put out by Full Moon Productions in 1995.
It is a shame then that for all the film’s laudable attempts to stand alone as a serious drama, the pathos of the tale is undercut by frequent descents into the realm of abject, straight-to-video stupidity – the kind of things you could easily shrug off in a goofier, more fast-moving movie, but that here function a pie to the face of viewers who were just starting to shakily accept “Castle Freak” as a pretty-good-effort-all-things-considered.
In short order, we’re expected to believe that, having been helplessly chained up for decades, the, er, ‘freak’ suddenly wakes up one morning and thinks up a way to escape. Then, when free, this emaciated, deformed fellow, who has never enjoyed the benefits of exercise, sunlight or a decent diet, is apparently capable of near super-human feats of strength and agility. He can evade detection and move around silently as a ninja assassin, in spite of the fact he staggers around with an exaggerated limp, wheezes and groans like an injured bloodhound and is dragging a heavy iron chain around attached to his wrist. The editing in one sequence – which sees the monster practically disappear into thin air, running out of the door of the daughter’s bedroom seconds before her awakened parents run in – is particularly woeful. Subsequently, we see John investigating the creature’s dungeon in search of intruders in the castle, and completely failing to notice either the remains of a recently eviscerated cat in the corner, or, presumably, the telltale signs that some poor dude has been living in there for the past few decades.
Later on, the film takes a somewhat sleazy turn, when Gordon and Paoli suddenly realise they’ve written a horror movie without any sex or easily killable characters, and rope in Raffaella Offidani as a prostitute who John drags back to the castle after a grief-fuelled drunken relapse, and who subsequently finds herself wandering around aimlessly, falling prey to the monster in predictably grisly fashion. As the film’s one go-for-broke gore/sleaze sequence, Offidani’s demise is as horrific as any gore-hounds in the audience could wish for, executed with a streak of sheer nastiness in keeping with the film’s uncomfortable, downbeat tone. What bothered me about this sequence though wasn’t the gratuitous sexualised violence (hey, you watch horror, sometimes you get horror) so much as the fact that the poor lady’s prolonged, bloodcurdling screams were presented as being inaudible the castle’s other occupants, who are separated from the violence only be a flimsy door and a few staircases.
I’m not usually one to make a big deal out logical flaws in low budget horror films (if you want fucking logic, go watch CSI or something), but when a movie like this is trying to build tension and emotional engagement via a small cast stuck in a single location, the flow of cause & effect and the realism of the film-world need to be kept tight, and these goof-ups have a pretty debilitating effect on “Castle Freak”s overall impact, suggesting haste, inconsistency or just plain laziness on the part of the filmmakers. It’s as if one faction of the production team was yelling “fuck it, it’s just a monster movie, who cares”, while the others were striving to make a fairly serious movie. Either of those approaches is just fine, but when they get fouled up together the results are rarely a good time for anyone.
Despite all this though, there’s something itch-you-can’t-scratch compelling about “Castle Freak”s tale of grief and abuse and pointless misery; something about this f-ed up loser of a monster that lives on in the memory after viewing.
Whilst Giorgio’s desire to chain women up in his lair and slobber on them is somewhat less than congenial, Paoli’s script is careful to ensure that each time the monster actually turns violent, it is only because he has been threatened or attacked by one of the other characters. And if he gets a bit carried away in his bloody retaliation and seems to take a sadistic thrill in all the biting and choking and scratching, well, er, yeah, that doesn’t look so good really. But c’mon, give the guy a break – how would you feel if you’d been chained in a darkened basement for forty years and beaten into unconsciousness every day by your crazed mother? (Ok, don’t think to hard about answering that, I’m being rhetorical here for chrissake.)
Various plot elements seem to be converging on the idea of transforming the monster into a sympathetic, misunderstood figure ala Karloff’s Frankenstein monster or Lon Chaney’s Hunchback, but none of it really comes together as would classically be expected. Rebecca’s blindness would seem to be setting the scene for a bond to develop between her and the monster, whose repellent ugliness she cannot see. But as it turns out, she gets the idea pretty quickly from all his slobbering and groping and wants to get away from, and preferably kill, the horrible fucker as soon as possible, as an all-American non-mystical innocent girl rightly should.
Similarly, John’s identification of Giorgio with his dead son, and the shared weight of a parent’s responsibility for destroying their own child, is a big theme throughout the movie, from the moment when John none-too-subtly gazes up at a mural of Cronus devouring his young, to when he weeps over a photograph of the Countess’s “dead” son, and starts to mistake the presence of the monster for the ghost of his own child. As John begins to crack up and act more irresponsibly, implicitly doing further damage to his family in the process, a deeper identification between man and monster seems inevitable, especially when, in the film’s most queasily disturbing moment, Giorgio sets about his attack on the prostitute by mimicking the actions he earlier observed John performing with her. At this point, things seem to be leading towards a moment of pretty dark catharsis for our male lead, but here again, things don’t follow through. When John becomes aware of the monster’s existence, he pulls himself together and sets out to whack it and achieve a happy(ish) ending, weird guilt-tripping temporarily put aside.
You could blame inconsistencies in the script for the failure of these themes to tie themselves up properly, but I’d prefer to think that our eventual view of the monster was deliberately left ambiguous - after all, it is his own grotesque and selfish behaviour that denies him the audience sympathy his sad state deserves. Like the Merrye family in “Spider Baby”, you can shed tears for him all you like, but he’ll still likely gouge yr eye out and eat it, and it is difficult to imagine any future for such a problematic, atavistic creature in our own world, beyond a merciful demise. As a result, Giorgio is a truer and more complex take on what it means to be a ‘monster’ than the amoral killing machines or sentimental tragic figures more commonly encountered in horror cinema.
“Castle Freak” will likely go down in history as shoddy and profoundly unenjoyable film in which a slobbering monster bites a hooker’s tit off. On one level that’s a perfectly accurate summation, and I’ll admit it’s never exactly going to be a good choice for inviting yr pals round and getting the beers in. But at least you and I, my horror-weblog-reading type friend, can perhaps put a few moments aside this winter to appreciate the many finer points of this odd and unsavoury little movie.