Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A chilling horror film lurks behind a goofy title...

Castle Freak (1995)
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Jessica Dollarhide, and Jonathan Fuller
Director: Stuart Gordon
Producers: Albert Band, Charles Band and Maurizio Maggi

John and Susan Reilly (Combs and Crampton) travel to Italy with their recently blinded daughter Rebecca (Dollarhide) to inspect a castle they've just inherited. The Reillys soon discover the old owner of the castle had harbored a deep and twisted secret... a secret which has escaped and is now roaming the shadowy halls claiming victims.

"Castle Freak" is a horror film of such exceptionally high quality that it's surprising to learn it was made as a direct-to-video release. It is without question one of the best movies to come out of the Full Moon low-budget fantasy factory.

The film features a great script that presents three-dimensional characters dealing both with all-too-real horrors that normal people face every day (a family that's disintegrating due to a tragedy caused by the negligence of one parent, the inability of another to forgive, and the strain and guilt both feel in trying to live with the reality that one child is dead and another is permanently crippled) and the inconceivable horror that lurks within their new home. Even minor characters, such as the chief of police in the small town by the castle, feel fully realized and come across as living, breathing human beings.

These very well-rendered characters are brought to full life by the extremely talented cast, with Jeffrey Combs delivering a particularly impressive performance. In other films I've seen Combs in, he's seemed most comfortable when doing comedy--he was a bit wooden in "Doctor Mordrid" , but he ROCKED in "Re-Animator" and the 1991 version of "The Pit and the Pendulum" where he played roles that were marked by dark humor and twisted levity--but here in "Castle Freak" he plays a part that is purely dramatic and he delivers a nuanced and thoroughly convincing performance of a man who is trying his best to make up for a horrible shortcoming while trying to save what's left of his family. His eventual transformation from Everyman into Hero when he realizes the danger his family is in is more convincing here than in just about any other horror film you'd care to mention.

Another remarkable performance is given by Jessica Dollarhide who plays the recently blinded Rebecca. She portrays a kid who is genuinely nice and likable, someone who wants to be independent yet who also recognizes that her parents have needs as well. She plays the part with very little of the obnoxiousness and hysteria that seems to be the hallmark of teenaged characters in this genre... except for the well-justified hysteria that arises when the "castle freak" visits.

The film is also perfectly photographed and expertly edited. Director Stuart Gordon and cinematographer Mario Vulpiani use every trick in their cinematic bag to make the castle where the film takes place--which was a genuine 12th century castle owned by Full Moon Entertainment, and which served as the location for a number of the company's productions--take on a life of its own and make the film that much more intense. The effectiveness of the gore and make-up effects are gut-wrenchingly believeable, and, together with the skillfully executed camerawork make this movie seem like it was made for ten times the money that was actually spent.

"Castle Freak" truly is a film where every dollar of the budget is visable on the screen, and it's a movie where they get just about everything right.

Unfortunately, the one area where they miss the mark is with the titular "castle freak." The film would have been perfect if he had been just a little more sympathetic (ala Boris Karloff's portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster in the 1932 version of "Frankenstein"). All the elements are here to have made the creature an object of our sympathy--and given the horrible tortures that shaped him into what he is, we still end up feeling a little sorry for him, but not as much as we could have if Jonathan Fuller had been an actor of Karloff's caliber. Fuller isn't bad as the creature, but he's not great. (A more sympathetic portrayal of the "castle freak" would have made the gruesome cannibal rape scene all the more horrific.)

A slighlly bigger flaw than Fuller's okay-but-not-great performance is one that's built into its very basic story. The old duchess dies and no curious townsfolk or police do a walkthrough of the castle? That's all it would have taken to find the poor "castle freak" in his prison, and subsequently turned this from a horror movie to a Hallmark Special about a family resettling to a castle in Italy and rekindling their love for each other.

Despite that one glaring plothole, "Castle Freak" is a film that's deserving of more attention than it gets, and it's a worthy addition to the library of anyone who appreciates well-made horror films.

Watch a preview of Castle Freak, courtesy of Full Moon Entertainment and YouTube...