OK, so I’m showing my age a bit with that tagline, borrowing from the ol’ disco era; y’see, there’s a little film from the mid-nineties that I just can’t even think about without that line from the popular song from back in ’78 rolling though my head. Of course, further pondering of that same film brings forth some thoughts that might not be quite so festive, but for we Fellow Fans, the feelings are still those of nostalgic smiles and good times.
Famed horror director Stuart Gordon reunited with his stars from Re-Animator ten years later to bring us the dark, surprisingly straightforward and emotionally-vested 1995 Full Moon film, Castle Freak.
John Reilly can’t believe his good fortune; by some strange set of circumstances, he’s inherited an ancestral title and massive castle in Italy. He and his family journey there after receiving the news, intending to spend a little time in his “hereditary home” before liquidating the property and hopefully pocketing some substantial funds. Things aren’t exactly peach pie and roses in the Reilly family, however, as we learn that John and his wife Susan are estranged, John’s alcoholism in the past having resulted in a car accident that claimed the life of their young son and left their teenage daughter, Rebecca, totally blind. John obviously hopes this financial boon can represent a fresh start, a new beginning for he, Susan and “Beck”, however Susan seems perhaps too far gone, the pain of her loss simply too great for forgiveness.
Against this family disharmony, however, looms a more prescient, immediate threat; you see, the Duchess whose death resulted in the Reilly’s windfall left a bit more than the stone castle and the land it sits on to the unwary family…she also left a twisted, tortured shell of a man chained up in the medieval dungeon in the bowels of the property. This horrid, stunted thing has a thirst for freedom, and once that is gained, learns that he has….other lusts, more primal urges…urges he attempts to exercise on any woman he can get near. With animalistic shrewdness, this “freak” remains unseen within the castle and unknown to all except the unfortunately sightless Rebecca, and circumstances result in John himself being held responsible for some of the creature’s…er…failed experiments in romance. Whether or not John can figure out the castle’s secret and save his family…and himself…remains to be seen.
When I first saw this years ago, I was expecting something more like Re-Animator, in respect to having as much dark humor as horror. This is not the case, with Combs and Crampton turning out very serious, very emotional performances. While this kinda bummed me out back then, time and maturity (more of the former than the latter, methinks) have tempered my sensibilities, and upon re-watching I find this one to be a pretty damned good flick. The richness of the angst between the Reilly’s is palpable and relatable, and makes them people that I actually give a damn about. Beyond simply the struggle of husband and wife, the story also does a good job of showcasing the impact circumstances are having on the daughter, now dealing with a debilitating handicap as well as a family slowly self-destructing.
Gordon doesn’t stop there; he plays both sides of the emotional fence by making the titular freak something of a sympathetic character himself, showing empathetic and sorrowful glimpses of humanity through the tortured spirit, maddened mind, and deformed physicality of the creature; it was difficult to hold the poor thing wholly responsible for it’s actions, despite their savagery; hats off to the man behind that makeup, Jonathan Fuller, for such a great, nuanced performance.
Compelling family drama aside, this is a horror flick, and keeping with his rep, Gordon does not disappoint; while not a gore-fest (as again, my younger self was hoping for back in the day), the scenes of carnage that are thrown at us are appropriately nerve-jangling, and the visuals do an excellent job of evoking the physical discomfort that was aimed for. There’s even a scene that fans of ol’ Dr. West will find familiar…albeit perhaps even more disturbing (certainly a hell of a lot less humorous) than it’s spiritual predecessor in Re-Animator. This, coupled with Gordon’s masterful use of the location of the castle as a labyrinthine series of shadowy corridors, maximizing the in-and-out lighting, creates a foreboding that has you apprehensive around every corner; that’s where the terror lies, folks.
Re-evaluating (as I’ve had to do on occasion) my brash and youthful opinion, I have to say that this flick acquits itself as one of my favorite horror films of the nineties. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it is a tale that grabs your interest with plausible, relatable tragedy, and slings that against a dark and harrowing tale of spite and torment that is both pitiable and frightening.
I like it, folks. I think a lot of you will, as well. Those that don’t…well, mebbe I’ll have better luck with you guys next time. 😉
That’s my two.
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