Barbara Crampton has been a mainstay in the horror community for more than thirty years, but she’d rather not be called a “Scream Queen.” In a recent essay, Crampton explained that for her, the term is reductive and dismisses the nuances and hard work that go into her roles. I can understand if she wants her legacy to carry more complexity than a catchy nickname, especially considering the wide range of roles that Crampton has contributed to the horror genre. In the past, she played a medical student hounded by reanimated corpses in Re-Animator, and more recently, she portrayed a grieving mother haunted by her past (as well as actual ghosts) in We Are Still Here, as well as the sinister host of a VHS board game in Beyond the Gates.
Crampton broke out in the 1980s with frequent collaborators Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs to adapt H.P. Lovecraft stories with Re-Animator and From Beyond. Today, though, we take a look at a reunion for the trio that took place in 1995, when they took a crack at another Lovecraft story (“The Outsider”) with the movie Castle Freak.
Our story focuses on Susan Reilly (Crampton), wife of John (Combs) and mother to Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide). All is not well for the Reillys, as a few months prior John killed their son in a drunk driving accident that also left Rebecca blind. Relations are strained all around in the Reilly family, as Susan resents John for inadvertently killing her son and maiming her daughter, while Rebecca has to deal with their constant fighting as well as their overprotective behavior now that she’s their only child. As if all this weren’t bad enough, it turns out that the castle John inherited from a relative in Italy comes with more than drafty hallways and antique furniture. It also has a wildly deformed, psychotic resident living in the dungeon, who just managed to escape.
While Castle Freak got the old band of Crampton, Gordon, and Combs back together, they also reunited with Charles Band under his new (at the time) indie shingle Full Moon Features. Those familiar with Full Moon probably know them for B-movie franchises such as Puppet Master, Subspecies, and Demonic Toys (they even did a crossover event pitting the Puppet Master against the Demonic Toys). Their modus operandi is to make low-budget movies that still somehow manage to feel like grander, high-budget affairs, and Castle Freak does appear to reach beyond its means.
In fact, Castle Freak represents a very distinct style of filmmaking that dominated direct-to-video horror movies in the 1990s. Since it pre-dates digital video, the movie was shot on film, so visually, there is a sense that this is a bona fide motion picture. It was also shot in an actual castle, which really comes through on-screen. Unlike some B-movie fare, there are no flimsy sets with key grips inadvertently walking into the shot from behind cardboard walls. Rather, the dungeon is an actual dungeon, the stairwells are ominous and unforgiving stone, and our climactic finale on top of a stormy tower takes place on an honest-to-goodness tower.
However, because it is a low-budget movie, the cost for its visual veracity had to come from somewhere, seemingly at the expense of the soundtrack. This was often the case in the 1990s, because even though low-budget movies from the ’80s featured some really creative synthesizer work, B-movies from the ’90s sounded like they were recorded on someone’s old Casio keyboard. Castle Freak is no exception, and while that used to get on my nerves as a kid, now I can appreciate the silliness of it all. Yes, in a sense this movie is taking itself seriously and wants to play to an adult audience, but it’s still a movie about a deformed madman running amok in a castle.
The performances also play into this balance between nuance and camp, as Crampton portrays Susan’s resentment of John and protectiveness of Rebecca in sweeping and bombastic fashion, tiptoeing right up to the line of overacting without ever crossing it. An amped-up portrayal is called for here, as we see her grapple with a desire to keep her family together despite the fact that she can barely stand to look at the man who took her child away from her. Plus, the focus on her overprotective side gets a payoff in the final showdown with the freak, as she fends him off in a manner that allows her to be strong.
As John, Combs careens wildly between remorseful torment and pompousness, particularly when he plays drunk in a fashion similar to a Looney Tunes character. But he also gets a solid redemption story without getting off the hook for his past sins.
Even our titular freak gets at least a couple of character layers. After all, our introduction for this pitiful fellow is what appears to be his daily beating with a cat o’ nine tails, so we start off with a sense of sympathy for him. This sympathy quickly transforms to horror, however, as we see what he is capable of when released from his cell.
My only real issue with this movie is a scene that dives a bit too far after the freak observes John with a prostitute named Sylvana (played by Raffaella Offidani). When the creature captures her and attempts to emulate what he saw, the results are excessively brutal, and I say this as someone who loves all manner of splatter. Give me ripped-off heads, spilled intestines, and buckets of blood until the cows come home. But there is something about the mixture of sexuality and violence in Castle Freak that crosses the line from horrific to just plain mean-spirited.
That aside, Castle Freak is a peculiar little flick that gives us a thoughtful story about how the choices we make ripple out to have long-lasting impacts on the people in our lives, packaging its cautionary tale into a creature feature with all manner of gore and mayhem. If you’re a fan of subtlety, I recommend you look elsewhere. But if you are up for a movie as crazy as its namesake—and if you have a strong stomach—then you may want to pay this castle a visit.