Castle Freak (1995) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

The latest episode of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw looks back at the 1995 Stuart Gordon / Full Moon film Castle Freak

Last Updated on May 31, 2024

The Castle Freak episode of Best Horror Movie You Never Saw was Written by Cody Hamman, Narrated by Jason Hewlett, Edited by Paul Bookstaber, Produced by John Fallon and Tyler Nichols, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

Stuart Gordon directed some of the best, most popular H.P. Lovecraft adaptations ever made, starting with the 1985 classic Re-Animator. A decade after making that movie, he returned to Lovecraft to tell a much darker, even nastier story. The story of a hideous man who has lived an awful life of confinement and torture. And when he escapes, a bloodbath ensues. It’s the story of a man known as the Castle Freak – and it’s The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw.

Stuart Gordon and producer Charles Band established their working relationship during the filming of Re-Animator. The project benefited from the production facilities of Band’s company Empire Pictures, and Empire was the distributor. There are some who argue that Band didn’t have any impact on how the film turned out. He was just responsible for releasing it. But Re-Animator wouldn’t have been exactly what it was if not for his influence. One week into filming, he had the cinematographer fired and replaced by one of his frequent collaborators. Band also picked the artists that provided the memorable special effects. His brother Richard provided the film with its Psycho-esque score. And it has been said that their father Albert made notes on the editing process as an hour of subplots were whittled out of the running time. If it weren’t for the Bands, Re-Animator would have looked and sounded very different.

Re-Animator was a success for Empire, and Gordon was clearly appreciative of Charles Band’s contributions. They kept working together. At Empire, they made From Beyond – which was another Lovecraft movie – Dolls, and Robot Jox. When Band started another company, Full Moon, Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum was among their earliest productions. Band often comes up with titles and has poster art made to match that title. Then he tasks writers and directors with making a movie to go along with it. While visiting Band’s office one day, Gordon noticed a poster with the title Castle Freak on it. The artwork showed a woman whipping a deformed man who was chained to a wall. Gordon asked Band what the story behind that poster was and Band simply replied, “Well, there’s a castle and there’s a freak.” There wasn’t a writer attached to the project yet, so if Gordon was interested, he could make Castle Freak himself. (And you can watch it HERE.) He could tell whatever story he wanted to, just as long as it had a castle and a freak in it. Gordon jumped at the opportunity.

Castle Freak Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

To craft a story to go with the title Castle Freak, Gordon teamed up with Dennis Paoli. Who had written Re-Animator, From Beyond, and The Pit and the Pendulum. They decided to turn to Lovecraft source material again, drawing inspiration from a story called The Outsider. That one is very short and simple, told from the perspective of a man who has been trapped in a castle for as long as he can remember. Finally escaping, he comes across a party… and the people there flee from him in terror. He realizes why when he spots his own monstrous appearance in a mirror. So that gives the set-up of a hideous man escaping from imprisonment in a castle. People being frightened of him when they see him. And a scene where he sees himself in a mirror. Everything else in the script came from the minds of Gordon and Paoli. And, according to Fangoria magazine, some of the story was also based on a real incident that took place in Europe.

The film centers on an American family, the Reillys. John, his wife Susan, and their teenage daughter Rebecca. John unexpectedly inherits a castle in Italy from a Duchess he didn’t know he was related to. So he takes his wife and daughter to check the place out while making plans to sell it. Soon they come to suspect that there’s someone in the castle with them, other than the housekeeper. The viewer knows for sure that there is, because we saw the Duchess whipping a man she has chained up in a cell in the castle. Far from the other living spaces. She dropped dead from the exertion of this particular whipping session. That man, the Castle Freak, has been locked in his cell without food since she died. He’s hungry… and he’s lonely.

We’ll eventually come to find out that the Castle Freak is the Duchess’s son Giorgio. Her husband abandoned the family when Giorgio was a child, going off to America with the Duchess’s sister. The Duchess told the world that Giorgio died soon after. But she actually locked him in a cell. Whipping, mutilating, and torturing him for the heartbreak and humiliation his father had caused her. Giorgio has been chained up in that cell for over forty years. But when the Reillys move in, he escapes from his shackles by breaking and gnawing off his thumb. His life would have been a lot better if he had thought to do that forty years ago. But hindsight is twenty-twenty. Emerging from his cell, he takes an obsessive interest in Rebecca. Of course, she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. Which is a very good thing, since the Castle Freak happens to be her uncle. Yes, John is the son of the Duchess’s sister and her ex-husband. He was completely unaware of his parents’ sordid history. And definitely didn’t know he had a half-brother chained up in a castle in Italy.

Giorgio brings plenty of horror with him when he escapes from his cell. He does some terrible things. But the scenes of the Reillys interacting aren’t very pleasant either. That’s because John is a recovering alcoholic. Not long ago, he was driving under the influence with his children in the car: Rebecca and her younger brother J.J. And when the car crashed, Rebecca was blinded and J.J. was killed. Susan can’t forgive John for what happened. She clearly can’t stand being around him anymore… but she also hasn’t taken the step of leaving him. And Rebecca doesn’t want her to. She knows her father is struggling. He needs their help. But all John and Susan seem to do is have intense arguments.

It’s a story that allows for strong dramatic scenes and repulsive scenes of gore. The makings of a solid horror movie. Gordon cast his Re-Animator and From Beyond stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton as John and Susan. Relative newcomer Jessica Dollarhide was cast as Rebecca. Her biggest role – and to date, the last screen acting role she has ever had. Helen Stirling makes a brief appearance as the Duchess. Elisabeth Kaza is the housekeeper who knows the family history. Massimo Sarchielli is her lawyer brother. Luca Zingaretti plays a local police officer. Raffaella Offidani plays a prostitute who has a disturbing run-in with Giorgio. And as the Castle Freak himself, Gordon cast Jonathan Fuller, who he had known since his theater days, before he started directing films.

Castle Freak Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

To play Giorgio, Fuller had to spend six hours in the makeup chair for every day he filmed. John Vulich and his Optic Nerve effects team put full body appliances on Fuller to turn him into his tortured character… And while he had to endure that, he wasn’t the only cast member who had an uncomfortable time. Castle Freak has a very different tone and style than Gordon’s previous Lovecraft adaptations. It’s darker, nastier. That difference was definitely felt by Combs and Crampton. They had said that “More Is Not Enough” was Gordon’s motto on the earlier films. He always wanted more blood and more slime, for things to go further over-the-top. But for this one, he wanted it to be more down-to-earth. There was sort of a documentary feel to his approach. He wanted realistic performances and relationships.

As Crampton told Fangoria magazine, “Castle Freak preys on human weaknesses in a crude, realistic way.” During the Video Zone making of documentary, Combs said, “Sometimes when there is humor to be had in scripts, Stuart has a way of keeping the set kind of light. Joking, laying back and making everybody feel real comfortable. That wasn’t really the case on this film. It was much more serious.” Combs seemed to be especially tormented by the mindset of the character he was playing. He couldn’t settle down and have a good time on set. He told Fangoria, “I can never really release myself from the terrible things my character feels guilty about.”

Shot on a budget of five hundred thousand dollars, Castle Freak was filmed in Italy during the summer of 1994. At a castle that Charles Band actually owned at the time. A castle that served as a filming location for several of his productions, including Gordon’s own The Pit and the Pendulum. Despite Castle Freak’s discomforting subject matter, filming went rather smoothly. Even though the last day was a twenty-two hour scramble to vacate the castle before a large group of Band’s family and friends moved in for a visit. The real trouble arose in post-production, as that’s when Full Moon’s distribution deal with Paramount Pictures fell apart.

Paramount was deeply involved with the workings of Full Moon during the years of their deal, which started in 1989. Ten to twenty people had a say in every decision. Band had to meet with marketing, PR, and distribution people multiple times a month. But he had gone into production on Castle Freak without telling Paramount about it. He had promised Gordon final cut and that the movie could be unrated like Re-Animator. Gordon was hoping for a theatrical run… although even Combs doubted that the movie would be accepted by many, if any, theatres. But the road to get Castle Freak into the world was bumpier than even Band expected. Viacom had merged with Blockbuster and purchased Paramount for ten billion dollars. The executives Band worked with were replaced. And the new regime at Paramount wasn’t interested in Full Moon. The company was behind on film deliveries, there were money problems, and what the hell was Castle Freak? Band and Paramount parted ways, with Band getting to keep the Full Moon name and Castle Freak. Which still needed to complete post-production. Since Full Moon was running into financial issues, the American actors hadn’t been paid the over-time they were due. Fuller revealed in the pages of Fangoria that those actors refused to come in and do additional dialogue recording unless they received their back pay. Months went by with the actors and Full Moon at a standoff. Then the dialogue recording was finally done when Gordon got the actors to agree to a payment plan. Fuller also heard that another producer on the film still owed the Italian cast members between fifty and seventy-five percent of their pay. Hopefully that money was handed out once Castle Freak was released straight-to-video in November of 1995. Gordon did get his unrated cut, and there’s an R-rated cut that’s about 54 seconds shorter.

Castle Freak wasn’t as well-received as Re-Animator and From Beyond were… But it was never going to be. A movie this gross and troubling couldn’t be embraced by a wide audience. It did gather the cult following that it strongly deserved. And when movie host Joe Bob Briggs got a new show on Shudder in 2018, Castle Freak was among the first movies shown on The Last Drive-In. With special guest Barbara Crampton stopping by to talk about it.

Before going into production on Castle Freak, Gordon showed the cast and crew the 1963 film The Haunting. An example of the sort of dark, creepy atmosphere he wanted to capture for their movie. They were successful at that – and there are times when Castle Freak plays like a haunted house movie. Locals believe the castle is haunted by the spirit of Giorgio, who they were told died when he was five. John connects with that idea… and when he sees a picture of young Giorgio, he breaks down. Because he looks just like the son he lost, J.J. That plays into the strongest element of the film: the performances of the cast members and the dramatic story Gordon and Paoli wrote for the characters. This film has more emotional depth than you would ever expect from something called Castle Freak, and the actors did an incredible job of bringing their high-strung characters to life.

Castle Freak Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

The twist to this haunted house movie is, of course, that Giorgio is still alive. Roaming the castle. And he’s very dangerous. As the characters walk around the castle’s dark rooms and hallways, we’re not afraid something supernatural is going to happen. We’re worried the Freak is going to come lunging out of the shadows and brutalize them. And yet we also feel sympathy for the Freak, because it’s not his fault that he’s this way. The real monster in this situation is the Duchess.

Giorgio’s mother even went so far as to castrate him during his decades of torture. Which is an important thing to keep in mind when we see him get his mangled hands on a female. After watching John get frisky with a prostitute he brought back to the castle, the Freak captures the woman. He tries to copy what he saw John do with her. But he can’t have sex, and he doesn’t understand that you’re not supposed to actually bite someone’s nipple off. There’s a famous moment when we see the Freak with his face buried between the prostitute’s legs… And if you don’t understand what he’s doing there, Joe Bob explained it well on the Castle Freak episode of The Last Drive-In.

Castle Freak is a movie that disturbs and disgusts in equal measure. It’s not a movie to put on when you’re looking for feel-good entertainment. But if you don’t mind wading through depression and gore for 90 minutes, it’s well worth checking out. It’s one of the strongest films on Gordon’s impressive résumé… and it’s a great showcase for the skills of its cast.

Gordon thought he had lucked into a franchise with this one. He thought there could be Castle Freak sequels, that Giorgio could join Freddy and Jason as a genre icon. That wasn’t to be. While Gordon would go on to tell more Lovecraft stories – Dagon and Dreams in the Witch-House – he never did make a Castle Freak 2. But the Freak did eventually come back, in a way. In 2020, Crampton returned to the concept to produce a remake of Castle Freak. Or, as she described it, a reimagining, as that film took a very different approach to the material and dug deeper into Lovecraftian mythology. Given that she chose to go back to Castle Freak after so many years, it’s clear that the story really stuck with her. And if you watch it, it will get under your skin and stick with you, too.

Here’s the official synopsis from Full Moon: John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs – Re-Animator), Susan (Barbara Crampton – Young & The Restless) and their daughter come face to face with terror when they travel to Italy to move into a castle they have inherited. They soon discover it is haunted by a relentless blood-thirsty creature. When mutilated bodies start turning up, John must uncover the Reilly family’s dark secret to save his wife and child from the sadistic being.

A couple previous episodes of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.