2020 is a bittersweet year for Castle Freak (1995) and its fans. Just as the once direct-to-video classic was about to turn twenty-five, its director, Stuart Gordon, the purveyor of such other cult horror classics as Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), passed away in March. There’s still word of a remake on the horizon, though that seems fairly silly. There was always a special magic to Gordon’s collaborations with Jeffrey Combs, and it won’t be recaptured.
Castle Freak follows the misfortunes of the Reilly family, who move from the States to provincial Italy after the father, John, unexpectedly inherits a 12th-century castle. The family is reeling from a tragedy; a car accident in which John, drunk, crashed into a tree, causing the death of his son, JJ, and his daughter, Rebecca, to lose her sight. John’s relationship with his wife, Susan, has yet to recover and he naively thinks that this move to Italy may somehow be the catalyst for their healing. But as he soon finds out, it isn’t just the castle he’s inherited, but a horrific family legacy that lies within it.
The film blends the haunted house with the slasher. The castle is an ominous space, and not just because the friendly cook, Agnese, spells it out for John. From the first scene we know that something horrible has been taking place in this unbearably empty space. We see an old woman, whom we later learn is the duchess who is somehow related to John, torturing a man. We do not know the why or what otherwise, but it’s a bold thing to open up your movie with. I was initially skeptical of the decision because it seemed like too much information to give right away, but the end result is a fine sense of dread that never leaves the viewing. When the Reillies arrive shortly after, you already know they’ve found themselves in a death trap. The details, however, are yet to be revealed.
It’s infuriating that retrospective posters of Castle Freak prominently feature the face of Jonathan Fuller’s eponymous character. First of all, the concept is tacky and ugly but secondly, and more importantly, it ruins the most effective reveal of the film; Giorgio’s face. As we eventually learn, Giorgio is the name of none other than John’s own half-brother, who was locked and tortured for decades as a perverse form of revenge by his mother, the duchess, against his father for leaving her to elope with her sister to the States where he had John. An attentive viewer may pick up on clues throughout the movie, but it’s not revealed as fact until the last act.
The revelation of Giorgio’s face is intimately linked to the revelation of his identity, in their proximity, but also in the sense that both present a cruel irony that mimics the very cruelty he’s had to endure throughout his miserable life. We literally never really see him for most of the film and this deliberate facelessness on the part of the camera and the mise-en-scene dehumanizes him even further, making him less human, more of monstrous-force-of-nature inhabiting the castle. When he puts on the sheet, it evokes masked slasher killers as he becomes more unidentifiable, more removed from our conception of a person, and we fear him even more.
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But when he finally does reveal his face in the climactic final sequence, we don’t just see the man, we also see the most heinous and visceral marks of his torture. Yet the film does not take this as an opportunity to extend sympathy to a victim of extreme abuse and violence, rather the moment further emphasizes his otherness. The revelation that was supposed to make him more human ends up making him more “monstrous.”
Why do victims of abuse in horror so often end up becoming the monster? Castle Freak is by no means unique in this regard, but it is a remarkable demonstration of horror’s questionable tendency to make us fear the abused instead of the abusers. When Giorgio emerges from his cell and seems to have no instinct but to attack and attack and attack, we get it because it’s a bloody horror movie and his horrific backstory is a superficially compelling backstory for a movie monster. Still, one has to ask: why does the man who’s been abused his entire life become the villain while his abuser dies peacefully minutes into the movie?
In this regard, Castle Freak shares a frustrating page with Candyman (1992) in that both movies’ “monsters” are victims of horrific abuse who neither seek healing nor enact violence on those responsible for their abuse. In fact, Giorgio doesn’t seem to have any kind of goal in particular. He is, rather, a walking spirit of vengeance––but against what? His actions seem to be more rooted in an unspeakable hunger. When he eats the duchess’ cat, it doesn’t come across as a proxy vendetta, but a response to extreme starvation. When he attacks Sylvana, it’s not because she’s done anything in particular to him, but because he is overwhelmed with desperation. He is a monstrosity of unmitigated desire. But he is also a kind of man child having literally never been raised. He doesn’t seem to be able to speak for language, perhaps all human connection, has been robbed from him.
One might be tempted to dismiss these concerns based off the fact that the title of the movie is Castle Freak and as such doesn’t seem to invite much scrutiny for its narrative and thematic implications. But the title is, more than anything, deeply confusing for what the film ends up being; a flawed, yet nuanced, examination of a man’s battle with the traumatic legacy of his family. The title seems to present the film as a run-of-the-mill exploitation film, and in some ways the final product certainly is, but it is also a harrowing drama obsessed with the question of whether or not the son pays for the sins of the father. To be perfectly clear, none of this is to say that exploitation or cult films are inherently incapable of “sophisticated” narrative, or that Castle Freak, “transcends” its genre. But it is to say that you don’t usually expect a movie with “freak” in its title to shoot for this kind of scrutiny of a family’s dynamics and relationships.
To that end, the film does a solid job balancing our understanding of John and Susan’s perspectives. We are able to see and feel Jack’s guilt and pain without ever losing sight of the near impossibility that Susan could forgive him for harming their children. She is never a nag, nor does her loathing for him ever seem unreasonable. We eventually lose the already compromised empathy we might have had for John when, in response to Susan’s valid criticism, he falls off the wagon and brings Sylvana back to the castle to have sex with her, while his wife and daughter sleep a few stories above. When Susan slaps him the next day, we get it.
“It’s infuriating that retrospective posters of Castle Freak prominently feature the face of [the] eponymous character. […] it ruins the most effective reveal of the film; Giorgio’s face.“
And yet, when John dies saving them in the end from Giorgio, it works. His arc is less about redemption as it is about finding peace. Earlier, when Susan chastised him for laying all his problems, particularly his alcoholism, on his father she was right, but was also missing a truth. John is simultaneously irresponsible and haunted by the devastating actions of those that came before him. This drama is their whole life in the castle, which becomes the literal embodiment of his family’s crimes. It is the site where his father abandoned his half-brother, only for him to be locked up and tortured. You can feel it in the air.
You can sense Jack’s guilt in the penultimate scene when he confronts his brother. You can sense it especially when he calls him by his name, now knowing that the events that led to his birth are the same that led to his brother’s abuse. It’s thrilling drama. But again, it is dampened by the question: why does this all have to come at the cost of Giorgio? In the final scene of the film, we see Susan at John’s funeral, gazing up to see the child of one of Giorgio’s victims with his father, who had him out of wedlock with Sylvana. Just as we remember that John, too, was born out of wedlock, Susan makes eye contact with the father and they nod, acknowledging what they have both lost. It is a graceful and tender moment.
Why can’t Giorgio have that?