Stuart Gordon Retrospective: Castle Freak

Something happened to me this week that hasn’t happened in many years. Something both wonderful and terrible. Something I thought I’d missed, but I was wrong.

A horror movie gave me a nightmare. That movie? Castle Freak.

castle freak poster 2 by you.

The thing is, I’ve seen this movie before. At least twice! And I do not remember having been quite so frightened. It REALLY scared me, you guys! It’s both odd and cool that, unlike one’s tolerance with alcohol, the more scary movies I watch, the more of a lightweight I seem to become. It’s pretty great, because the thing I like most about scary movies is being scared, and it would suck if that part went away. Still, yeeps!

Stuart Gordon filmed Castle Freak in Italy in 1995 with all his usual suspects: actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, screenwriter Dennis Paoli (from the Lovecraft story “The Outsider”), Richard Band on the thrilling score and Everett Burrell on the absolutely revolting (and incredible) effects makeup. But it’s quite different from many of Gordon’s other films in the respect that it’s played entirely straight. It’s not goofy or over-the-top or even strange and illusory like Dagon. It’s serious, dramatic and dark. And, well, reeeeeally scary.

Americans John and Susan Reilly and their daughter Rebecca are elated to discover they’ve inherited a grand Italian castle from a duchess aunt of John’s whom he’s never met. They plan to live in the castle while they finalize the business of liquidating the assets and selling the place. It’s the best idea, really; the taxes would be a pain in the ass, as would the upkeep. Also the castle freak inside.

arrive at castle by you.

Yes, this castle comes with a freak, monstrously deformed and chained in the cellar. The wise Italian housekeeper instantly warns the Reillys to be about their business and leave the castle as soon as possible. As always happens in this type of movie, the family ignores the knowledgeable house staff’s ominous warning and settles in.

We soon learn that despite the affable nature of the Reillys, they’re hiding some secrets of their own. Susan and John sleep in separate rooms; Susan has never been able to forgive John after a drunk driving accident killed their son, JJ, and blinded Rebecca. John has been sober ever since and has made every attempt to make amends; Susan’s really not having it. She hates him so much! She’s always looking at him pretty much exactly like this:

reillys 3 by you.

Blind Rebecca is exploring the castle (when John is supposed to be watching her; maybe there’s something to this seething hatred of Susan’s) when she hears moans and chains rattling in the cellar. She tries to convince her parents that there’s someone else in the castle, and they coddle and patronize her, but do not believe her. When the castle freak manages his escape from the cellar (gnawing off two of his fingers to free his hands from the chained cuffs), he wanders into Rebecca’s room and touches her face, waking and terrifying her. Rebecca runs to her parents—more coddling, more patronizing, still no believing. “Sweetie, you’re blind, what do you know?”

mother daughter 2 by you.

Soon the housekeeper shares the castle’s tragic story with John: Duchess D’Orsino was married to a dashing duke and they had a son, Giorgio, together. After many years of happiness, the duke abandoned his wife and child and ran off with her younger sister. The Duchess became a recluse, and many people believe she murdered her son Giorgio to exact revenge on the duke. Or, you know, horribly disfigured him and chained him up for three tortuous decades.

chains by you.

As the violence and terror escalate in the castle, John’s tenuous relationships with his family and his sobriety begin to collapse.

Gordon does a phenomenal job of building atmospheric tension in this movie. Richard Band’s gripping, frantic violin score rushes the action and emotion of the film into a violent swell over and over until you can barely breathe for the intensity. The lighting and colors are beautiful, vibrant and engrossing; the first two times I saw this were on VHS, and I’m wondering if the crisp look of the DVD resulted in the enhanced fear I felt this time. Gordon chooses odd and surprising angles for each shot, and he uses vast amounts of light, better to show off the horrific makeup of FX company Optic Nerve.

horrible face by you.

I hate looking at Giorgio so much! I could honestly just barely stand to look at him the entire movie. Everett Burrell did a fantastic job of evoking a strong, violent repulsion in me every time Giorgio was on screen. He is absolutely abhorrent and horribly realistically so. The makeup’s both terrible and amazing for that reason.

cf mom daughter by you.

Sorry, I’m mostly sharing these with you so I don’t have to suffer alone. Because look!

naked cf whip by you.

Blurg! I also grew VERY tired of seeing Giorgio’s junk. He’s just swinging his mutilated manparts hither and yon for most of the movie, making me want to vom. Stop it!

The story’s moving and compelling, as are the characters. It’s interesting to see Jeffrey Combs play it straight—not that he didn’t err on the theatrical side now and again, but he’s got an amiable way about him, and he obviously cares deeply about his wife and daughter. But he does come across as pretty oblivious: he makes a lot of idiotic choices, seems incapable of placating his wife and is several times in the same room as Giorgio without ever noticing him.

jc lady by you.

 Barbara Crampton as Susan is so great in this role. She’s insanely gorgeous and freaking pissed, but you can’t fault her for punishing John for his unconscionable mistake. Susan also proves to be incredibly brave and clever, ultimately saving Rebecca from Giorgio without hesitation or doubt. Rebecca herself is lovely and absorbing, although far too angelic to be believed. I also really love Italian vet Massimo Sarchielli as Giannetti, the housekeeper. She’s got some serious onscreen presence.

housekeeper by you.

But Jonathan Fuller’s Giorgio can’t be topped. He’s a sensational physical actor, stumbling around, crouching stealthily, portraying despair and fury and vulnerability without a word of dialogue. I wish I didn’t hate looking at him so much!

peekaboo by you.

That’s better, keep it covered up.

Castle Freak is quite violent and gory; I might even say excessively so. That’s not something I often claim, but this movie is so hard-core, particularly one scene that I honestly cannot even watch, not even one second of it, not even through my fingers. It’s not as if the violence is gratuitous; it adds a substantial weight to the story and to the character of Giorgio, as he’s attempting to express love in the only way it’s been shown to him, through cruelty and destruction, but…it’s rough. That scene is really disturbing, not least because it’s sexual violence, which is definitely the line for me, the line that I don’t ever enjoy crossing in the fright flicks I watch.

But Gordon is using that violence to expose a deeper, more tragic undercurrent of the film. Giorgio’s story is heartbreaking; his father abandoned him and his mother imprisoned and tortured him, day after day for thirty years without a friendly face or a kind word to alleviate the anguish. He’s exposed to nothing but hatred, torment and rage for the long years of his life, and when he is finally free to make his own choices, he’s far too afflicted with the sickness inherited from his mother to embrace anything but more hatred, torment and rage.

cf daughter by you.

John’s life is his own tragedy. He’s daily overwhelmed with the guilt of having killed his son and blinded his daughter. His wife will never forgive him, and he is incapable of redeeming himself, of absolving this terrible transgression. He becomes convinced that the castle is haunted by the spirit of little JJ, the son he would give anything to see again. And yet when he is given the chance to absolve Giorgio for the crimes he commits against John’s family, John indicts him with the same hatred and reproach that he’s been receiving from Susan since his drunk driving accident.

jc rain by you.

Like any Stuart Gordon film, Castle Freak boasts some serious gore and terrifying thrills. But it’s the heartwrenching tale of two men beyond redemption that makes this movie truly substantial.

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11 Responses to “Stuart Gordon Retrospective: Castle Freak”

  1. “swinging his mutilated manparts hither and yon”
    HA!

  2. GOOD LORD I WILL NEVER WATCH THIS MOVIE.

    even the review terrified me, mostly cos i really can’t imagine a scene that marla can’t watch. like, it’s beyond me, in a land of darkness and evil and creepy awful things that i really really really don’t want to think about.

    but i do feel sorry for the castle freak. also? i found it ironic that i read this review the day after mother’s day. dude, the duchess sucked!!!

  3. First of all, that is one fantastic review! Let me second Reverend Jon in saying that “swinging his mutilated manparts hither and yon” is classy, classic, and totally accurate. My God, Castle Freak! At long last, have you no shame at all?

    Having just rewatched Castle Freak (benefits of being neighbors with Ms. Marla) let me add a couple of observations:

    1: Stuart Gordon has weird issues with women. Gordon’s films, more than almost any others in the horror genre, tend to feature strong, intelligent female leads. The women in his movies are routinely smarter, tougher, and more cunning than the men. Speaking of cunning, however, we get to the weird part: freaky cunnilingus. Stuart Gordon films – a solid majority of them – feature scenes of cunnilingus. Sounds good, right? Except that NO. Whether being performed by a severed head, on a sea-mutant, or by an actual Castle Freak, one thing you can count on is that Stuart-Gordon-sponsored oral sexcapades WILL NOT END WELL. Why would you keep doing this, Mr. Gordon? And what does it mean? I don’t know, except that if I were Gordo’s wife/girlfriend, I’d watch out.

    2: I’ve noticed a pattern in the story construction of many of my favorite horror movies (props to this site for bringing it all back), and I think it’s worth pointing out. Many (most?) of my all-time favorites feature family issues as the central plot, with the monsters/scariness coming about as a result of the domestic issues. Whether Candyman (infidelity), Hellraiser (infidelity, evil stepmother), Castle Freak (alcoholism, infidelity), or The Shining (alcoholism, infidelity, child abuse, um…everything), it’s always family problems that put the story in motion and expose them all to evil, in whatever form it takes. Are broken families more susceptible to evil? Are the monsters n’things simply manifestations of the problems the people have suppressed? It’s interesting that the pattern shows up ALL OVER, is all I’m saying.

    Finally, Marla made a conscious choice not to discuss certain aspects of the Castle Freak storyline, so as to avoid spoilers for future Castle Freak viewers, I will as well, reluctantly (me wanna discuss!). Let me just say that the relationships between characters, and how they choose to acknowledge and/or ignore them, really do elevate this movie beyond its b-film roots. Marla’s description that Castle Freak is ultimately about two flawed (though not evil) men who are beyond redemption… is entirely accurate. The movie is sad, thoughtful, and of course, disturbing as all hell. If you can take it, you should see it.

  4. xymarla Says:

    Thanks for all the nice comments, friends! Sarah, yeah, the DUCHESS SUCKS SO MUCH. She’s the true villain of the story, even if you only see her for the first 2 minutes of the film.

    Jerry, I know, I reeeeally wanted to discuss that one aspect of the plot (I even wrote a paragraph and deleted it), but you and I can just continue our discussion over cocktails, as we are wont to do!

  5. I would like to say that I think that if Stuart Gordon a) always features c****lingus in his films and b) the women are smart and intelligent, then I would counter Jerry’s proposition and say that rather than having weird issues about women, he may actually be Respectful of women, unlike all other filmmakers.

  6. xymarla Says:

    I feel the same way, Jon, although there is something to be said about the disastrous results of said cunnilingus. Maybe he’s just really worried he does it badly?

  7. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly a generous trait that Gordon always includes lady-pleasuring, except that THE LADY IS NEVER PLEASURED! Re-animator may have actually invented the idea of “tongue-rape,” (It is a severed head performing the action, and the smart, intelligent woman is strapped down and screaming) and as for Castle Freak’s technique… let’s just say “less teeth, good sir” and leave it at that.

    I stand by the “weird issues” evaluation, though maybe he just recognizes that this particular type of violence – sexual, invasive – is much more horrifying than typical horror movie violence. And I do give him credit for the strong women. He and James Cameron stand oddly alone in the horror/sci-fi genre when it comes to consistently creating tough, smart female protagonists.

  8. xymarla Says:

    Having just rewatched the first Terminator last night, let me say a rousing hear! hear! to that. And although Ridley Scott first ushered in the character of Ripley, James Cameron made her even more bad-ass!

  9. I also love Castle Freak. I think it’s one of those movies that a lot of people would dismiss right away for 1) being a horror movie or 2) being superficially lower quality. If you give it a chance though, it will reward you with awesome. It’s got so many interesting and tense moments going on in it too. I’ve seen it a couple of times now and have very much enjoyed it. I wish there were more movies like this out there: scary and deep.

  10. Jen && Jenny Says:

    Me (Jen) and my friend Jenny have seen this movie twice. Giorgio doesn’t have a penis, apparently it was cut off in his younger years. Its depressing seeing the way he falls in love with Rebecca (blind girl) and doesn’t know how to express himself properly. We’re so sickened every time we see him, its disturbing! But this movie could never get old; the story is so sickening you just can’t look away! (even though you want to when Giorgio is on the screen).

    We wish more scary movies of this time are like this with an actual plot and story behind every person.

    && also, if I was Rebecca’s mom, I would have left her and saved myself. Like, she’s blind. (no offense) But she’s not going to go far with her life. Not in that time period at least. And she always screamed so much! Like seriously, you can’t see him, but he can hear and see you, so shut up!

    And that one whore was disgusting. In our time, we shave. And we have hair that makes us look feminine. But, she’s a good actress. And I was sickened to see the way she was destroyed.
    But hey, its not like Giorgio knew any better, he was trying to show “love” the way he saw from John; but his mouth didn’t want to cooperate.!

    This movie is good for everyone. We’re fifteen; we were 1 when this movie came out! And we still love it.

    && our favorite parts are when Giorgio jumps out of the window, when Rebecca is running and looks behind her (come on!) and falls, and when Giorgio is hiding within the furniture and has a sheet over him and runs so funny! (we act that out in my living room!), and also when he attacks the woman its so disturbing that she lives through it all!

  11. This post almost made me cry laughing. Bravo.

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