Of the five films Stuart Gordon made from stories by H. P. Lovecraft, Castle Freak (1995) is the one that completely misses the mark. Lovecraft, famously, is very hard to film in any kind of faithful adaptation. Gordon's best films take all kinds of liberties with the material--ranging very far afield from the source texts in most cases--but still manage to capture some ineffable essence of Lovecraft while also bearing the stamp of their director's own personality. Castle Freak, by contrast, spectacularly misunderstands "The Outsider," the story on which it is nominally based. Rather than turning the tables on monstrosity and finding its horror in a cosmic loneliness--as the story does--it's a stock "nuclear family in peril" film in which the horror elements act as marriage counseling for a couple who are on the rocks. It's disappointing.
The story follows the fortunes of the Reillys, John and Susan, who are mourning the death of their son in a car accident. John Reilly feels a huge measure of guilt for the accident, because he was at the wheel. Susan blames him for the accident, believing him to have been drunk at the time (he probably was). The Reillys have inherited a castle in Italy. John, being unemployed because of his alcoholism, wants to sell the place and all its possessions, so the family takes up residence in the place planning to inventory their windfall. Along with them is their daughter, Rebecca, who was blinded in the same accident that killed their son. It's their daughter, wandering after a cat she finds unexpectedly in the castle, who discovers that they are not alone. Somewhere in the castle's dungeon lives Giovani, John Reilly's monstrous half-brother. Giovani is consumed with hatred and jealousy for the "normal" human beings he finds upon escaping from his dungeon cell, though he seems fascinated by Rebecca, who cannot see him. She alone cannot repudiate him for what he is and what he looks like. Meanwhile, Susan and John argue over the reality of Rebecca's claims that there's someone else in the castle. John winds up at a local bar, getting very drunk. He picks up a woman there and brings her back to the castle to sample the wine cellar there, but sobers up enough to realize that this will wreck his marriage. The woman never makes it out of the castle, though. Giovani intercepts her and drags her to the dungeons to have his way with her. Her disappearance attracts the local police, who like John for a suspect and take him in. Susan, for her part, has had enough and decides to leave with Rebecca. The police prevent her--she's a material witness--and she's confined to the castle where her police minders start to disappear one by one...
This must have looked good on paper: Stuart Gordon directing a story based on Lovecraft, screenplay by Dennis Paoli, and starring Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. This is the film equivalent of getting the band back together after a few years apart. Indeed, whatever chemistry made Re-Animator and From Beyond the oddball classics that they are isn't entirely absent here. Combs and Crampton are better actors than 90s direct to video horror movies generally got, and are better than this film deserves. Their scenes together have dramatic weight. The scenes of grue have the same kind of impact, too. Gordon knows how to make his gore effects hurt. But beyond all that, this is a film with nothing beneath the surface. The couple on the rocks because of the death of a child is a cliched relationship we've seen in a hundred other horror movies (and movies in general). The plot is disappointingly linear, too. There's a rug here waiting to be pulled out from under the audience, and the filmmakers never touch it.
What this film really lacks is Giovanni's point of view. There are a few scenes where the filmmakers obviously sense the potential of such a point of view--when Giovanni realizes that Rebecca cannot see him, for instance--but most of these scenes are wasted. Rebecca is a terrific example of Chekhov's Gun: she's a character obviously intended to relate to Giovanni with sympathy because she cannot see him. This gun is never fired. Rebecca is as terrified by Giovanni as the sighted characters in spite of her disability. The point of "The Outsider" is to turn monstrosity on its head. Its protagonist doesn't know he's a monster until the very end of the story. Lovecraft uses a neat narrative trick in this story, in which the first person narrative prevents a description of the story's monster throughout until the big reveal. There is NOTHING in Castle Freak that equates to this. Instead, Giovanni is an inarticulate brute, whose depravity is sympathetic only because we see him tortured in the early part of the film. There is no character there, though, and his role in the film devolves into a monster chasing after a "normal" family. The narrative as a whole provides said family with an external threat that reunites them. Feh.
Castle Freak is the only one of Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft films that completely misses not only the letter of the text--something Gordon is okay with--but also the spirit of the text. The result is depressingly mundane.
For all that, Gordon was the best filmmaker to work for Charles Band's Empire/Full Moon Pictures. It's instructive to look at the films made by other hands from the same kinds of materials. The Lurking Fear (1994, directed by C. Courtney Joiner) looks for all the world like a forgery of Gordon's films: Jeffery Combs is on hand and the source text is by Lovecraft, natch. The filmmakers even import Ashley Laurence from the Hellraiser films to add some horror cred to the proceedings. But, man, the filmmakers don't have any idea of what to do with this largess.
The story finds the black sheep Jan Martense, an ex con who served time for a crime he didn't commit, returning to his family's home town to dig up a fortune in stolen loot buried in a grave by his father. In pursuit are his father's associates, who are intent on reclaiming what is theirs. Unfortunately, the town and the graveyard are besieged by ghouls, and when Martense arrives in town, he discovers a cadre of fearless monster hunters holed up in the church. They're in the middle of a plan to destroy the ghouls, but all of that comes apart when Martense's pursuers arrive intent on forcing him to show him the loot's final resting place. They aren't expecting the ghouls. Things go pear-shaped in a hurry.
Although this directs some nods toward Lovecraft by way of place and character names, the true source of this film is probably Key Largo by way of Assault on Precinct 13. As such, it doesn't provide the creeping dread promised by the title, but rather favors the crime movie's version of suspense. Will the crooks get their comeuppance when the ghouls attack? Will they take up arms with our heroes? Will the badass Sarah Connor wannabe among our heroes turn the tables? These are not exactly horror movie questions and they don't carry with them any kind of existential dread.
The film also has a tendency to put the ghouls into the frame during scenes where they probably shouldn't be visible. The filmmakers want to get the most out of their ghoul designs and they rob them of their mystery by shooting them in too-visible circumstances where the seams of the prosthetics are sometimes discernible. While the monsters aren't awful, the director does his make-up crew no favors.
The performances, such as they are, are mainly functional. The best performance in the film is delivered by veteran Jon Finch, playing the Johnny Rocco/Edward G. Robinson part. He's a real actor as opposed to a genre actor and he gives his character more than he needs to. Alas, the rest of the cast isn't so good. Jeffery Combs's doctor is this film's version of Claire Trevor's lush and he's good enough. Ashley Laurence gets the badass girl looking to avenge her sister, which doesn't work quite so well. Vincent Schiavelli chews the scenery in his scenes as a corrupt mortician. It doesn't help the film, given that he's an inconsequential character drawing attention away from the plot. Watching this film in close proximity to Castle Freak really makes me appreciate Stuart Gordon, because even on an off day, he's so much better than one should expect. The same, alas, cannot be said of The Lurking Fear.
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