Horror movie fans know Stephen King’s work. To date, Hollywood has adapted the vast majority of King’s literary output. Even some of his less substantial short stories have made the jump to the big screen. Comparatively, Hollywood hasn’t given the same attention to HP Lovecraft’s legendary work. Lovecraft film adaptations are few and far between. Nicolas Cage’s upcoming Color Out of Space has generated positive early buzz. Director Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator is an 80’s classic. And the recent Underwater had connections to Lovecraft’s creations. But most Lovecraft adaptations have been straight-to-video efforts. One of those adaptations – also a Stuart Gordon movie – Castle Freak has built a small following. But is Castle Freak a 90’s movie worth re-visiting, or is it best left in the decade of plaid and flannel?
Following a tragic accident, the Reilly family head to Italy where they’ve inherited a 12th century castle. But the castle comes with a dangerous secret. Its previous owner – the Duchess – had a son whom she imprisoned and tortured. Though the Duchess passed away, her horribly disfigured son still lives somewhere in the castle’s bowels.
Castle Freak an Old-Fashioned Haunted House Movie
In many ways, Castle Freak is far removed from Lovecraft’s more outrageous, psychedelic works. Instead, Castle Freak feels very old-fashioned in both its story and much of Gordon’s directorial style. Simply put, this is a haunted house movie. It’s all there – a Gothic castle, secret tunnels and rooms, hidden past secrets, and old caretakers with stories of sins past. Characters explore shadowy halls at night during thunderstorms. And the past sins eventually creep up from the basement to confront normalcy. In spite of its lower budget – Castle Freak lacks the elegance of a Hammer Films production – Gordon’s straightforward approach to the material makes it work.
It’s all there – a Gothic castle, secret tunnels and rooms, hidden past secrets, and old caretakers with stories of sins past.
Though Re-Animator boasted over-the-top gore, Gordon emphasizes slow-burn, atmosphere. There’s not necessarily much in the way of scares or good jumps. And some patience is required; Gordon takes his time getting to the good stuff. But the appeal of Castle Freak emerges from its commitment to mood over cheap thrills. With its sympathetic ‘monster’, Gordon also channels just a bit of the classic Universal Monsters. Aside from its straight-to-video aesthetics, Gordon does awkwardly veer into territory that feels out of place in the movie. If Castle Freak is, at its core, a haunted house movie, it occasionally dips its toes into 80’s weirdness. Some of the scenes with the teen daughter have aged poorly. In fact, these scenes would have been awkwardly uncomfortable in the mid-90’s. And it’s these scenes that feel out of place in the movie.
Horror Royalty Take Up Residence in Castle Freak
Like it’s haunted house setting, Castle Freak’s Reilly family feels ripped from dozens of ‘family-in-peril’ horror movies. Not unexpectedly, it’s a family reeling from a crisis and torn apart. Most astute horror fans can probably piece together what happens over the course of the movie. Fortunately, Castle Freak has not one, but two, horror legends to anchor its familiar story arcs. Re-Animator alums Jeffrey Combs (Would You Rather) and Barbara Crampton (You’re Next) take recycled characters and slightly clunky dialogue and make it work. In a surprising twist, Combs plays it straight in this one. While Combs is always most fun when he hams it up a bit, he adds a certain amount of gravitas to the movie. The Reilly’s blind teen daughter is a little wood, but no so much as to distract from the movie.
Castle Freak a Minor, But Effective, Straightforward Horror Adaptation
Though Castle Freak boasts the same low-budget ingenuity of Stuart’s Gordon’s past work, it does lack the same black humour. Rather it’s a pretty straightforward Gothic haunted house movie with some awkward moments that might have fit better in the 1980’s. However, where Castle Freak does work is in that same straightforward approach to the material. It’s a tightly paced thriller – almost economical – with enough old-fashioned Gothic atmosphere to compensate for familiarity. No, it’s not Re-Animator, but it’s a neglect 90’s movie that’s worth revisiting.