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The hype machine has worked overtime. From Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment comes CASTLE FREAK, possibly the most anticipated horror movie since Clive Barker’s LORD OF ILLUSIONS. Does it deliver? In a word, no. While director Stuart Gordon, of RE-ANIMATOR fame, has crafted a solid, well-made piece, it’s still light years away from the standards set by Gordon's earlier (and later) efforts.

The Package
     CASTLE FREAK, like many low budget horror films over the years, appears to have started life as a poster (think back to Roger Corman's 1961 THE WASP WOMAN--the poster pictured a giant, surrealistic wasp creature which the film reduced this monstrosity to a woman wearing a mask and mittens).  Said poster depicts a pair of ripped-open manacles dangling at the end of a rusty chain; under the picture is the irresistible slogan, “Hideous. Hungry. And Loose…”  Note the credit, “Based On An Original Idea By Charles Band.”  Band is the head of Full Moon Entertainment, the distributors of CASTLE FREAK.
     It was Band’s former company Empire Pictures that back in 1985 distributed RE-ANIMATOR, which went on to become one of the key horror films of the past decade.  With CASTLE FREAK the creative team behind RE-ANIMATOR (as well as the less successful FROM BEYOND) was reinstated: director Stuart Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli, and stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton.  Even better, Gordon would be allowed to make the film unrated with all the gore he wanted.
     It’s here that the hype machine set in. While the money spent by Full Moon on CASTLE FREAK’s promotion would hardly equal that of, say, JURASSIC PARK, it nevertheless appears to have been substantial. Gordon made appearances at Fangoria conventions, asking horror fans, “when was the last time a movie really scared you?” CASTLE FREAK, he claimed, would do just that and then some. Noisy layouts were planted in such genre-minded publications as The Phantom of The Movies’ Videoscope. This flick, it seemed, would dwarf every other genre release out there.  It didn't.

The Story
     A young American couple (Combs and Crampton) visit a castle in Rome, their young daughter (Jessica Dollarhide) in tow.  Years earlier Combs’ character killed his young son and blinded his daughter in a drunk driving accident, a crime neither he nor wife Crampton have been able to forgive.  A series of creaks, crashes, and far-off panting noises alert the family that they are not alone.  The title character, Comb’s own cousin (Jonathan Fuller, under full body make-up), is alive and chained inside a room somewhere in the castle--but not for long!  (The room is located, naturally, at the end of a series of dark, twisting tunnels, the better for characters to stupidly wander into…)  Cue the inevitable women in jeopardy scenes, ending with Combs finally getting his comeuppance.  

The Direction
     Stuart Gordon, much like his contemporary Wes Craven, has had a decidedly uneven career.  RE-ANIMATOR was his first film and remains a classic.  He followed it with FROM BEYOND not a classic but a conditional success in its own right.  Gordon then directed a succession of unsatisfactory productions but bounced back with THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991) and FORTRESS (1993), both stylish, offbeat efforts.  With CASTLE FREAK Gordon was clearly aiming for a more restrained, classical style than evidenced in his previous films, a fact accentuated by the lack of gore on display, even in the unrated edition.
     Not nearly as stylish as THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and FORTRESS, nor as over-the-top as RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, CASTLE FREAK inhabits a subdued middle ground. It most resembles DOLLS, Gordon's 1987 Empire production, a reasonably well made though unexceptional horror flick.  CASTLE FREAK is better, though it too is unexceptional.  While there are some surprises, the whole thing is quite routine and borrows a few too many elements from other films (most notably THE SHINING).  It also commits a sin seen in few of Gordon’s other films: it’s often quite dull.  But CASTLE FREAK’s biggest crime is that, contrary to Gordon’s early promises, it’s just not very scary.

Vital Statistics

Full Moon Entertainment

Director: Stuart Gordon
Producer: Maurizio Maggi
Executive Producer: Charles Band
Screenplay: Dennis Paoli (Based on an original idea by Charles Band)
Cinematographer: Mario Vulpiani
Editor: Bert Glatstein
Cast: Jeffrey Combs,Barbara Crampton, Jonathan Fuller, Jessica Dollarhide

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