Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Jonathan Fuller, Jessica Dollarhide, Massimo Sarchielli, Elisabeth Kaza, Luca Zingaretti, Helen Stirling, Alessandro Sebastian Satta, Raffaella Offidani, Marco Stefanelli, Tunny Piras, Rolando Cortegiani
Written by: Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence and gore, a scene of sexuality and some language
Running Time: 95
Date: 11/14/1995

Castle Freak (1995)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Dungeon and Gaggin'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Castle Freak is the third of Stuart Gordon's four feature-length H.P. Lovecraft adaptations to date; he made a fifth for the TV series Masters of Horror, and it's a pretty solid string of successes. Whereas many others might have tried to visually suggest Lovecraft's singular depictions of unknowable, nightmarish horror, Gordon merely gets around it by adding new, sometimes comedic elements. A hint of what Lovecraft injected into his stories is often enough.

Castle Freak is based on the story The Outsider, which is a first-person account of -- if you will -- a monstrous freak. In the movie, the idea has been kept, but Gordon never attempts to get into the monster's mindset (he does pay tribute to the story with a single shot of the monster catching its reflection in a mirror).

The focus here is on a family of Americans, John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs), his wife Susan (Barbara Crampton), and their teen daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide). They have a dark history: John drove drunk and caused an accident that killed a younger son and blinded Rebecca, and Susan has grown angry and frigid toward John. Nonetheless, the Reillys have inherited a huge castle in Italy, and have decided to move in while beginning the process of selling it and all the treasures inside.

Unfortunately, a former resident of the castle, a duchess, had chained up, tortured, and abandoned her son in the dungeon. Grown up, but hideously disfigured and no longer human, it escapes and begins a murderous rampage. When John seeks sexual solace in a local prostitute, the monster kills her. (This scene is particularly gruesome.) John is blamed for the murder, but he figures out what's going and must evade the police long enough to attempt to save his family.

With this film, Gordon moved away from the dark, slyly absurd humor of Re-Animator and From Beyond and more toward an honest-to-goodness scary movie. Gordon's unique choice of angles and framing, as well as a few interesting tracking shots, capture the terror of being stalked. Combs's frantic performance truthfully gets at the heart of a man with deep regrets, and deep desperation. And though Crampton has the harder job, being the "angry wife," she also roots it in realistic emotions, giving a strong performance.

The movie was shot in Italy, with a mostly Italian crew. The castle was owned by the Band family, makers of many "B" movies and the folks behind Full Moon Features. Father Charles Band and son Albert Band co-produced the movie, and son Richard Band composed the music score. Apparently, it was scheduled to have a theatrical release, but ended up released direct-to-video. I watched it on the streaming service Shudder in the old VHS-video 1:1.33 aspect ratio, and it works fine (no information seems to be lost). Next up for Gordon was Space Truckers, followed, a few years later, by his fourth Lovecraft film, Dagon.

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