I’d been curious about Castle Freak for a little while.
Part of the reason I’ve had interest in the film is because I am still catching up on the first official season of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In series, and then I heard that Barbara Crampton is involved with its remake. It’s strange, for me, being a Lovecraft fanatic that I never made the connection that, aside from being given a poster of concept art from which to work, director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli had been inspired — at least roughly — to make the 1995 film Castle Freak by H.P. Lovecraft’s extremely short story “The Outsider.”
I didn’t know what to expect from Castle Freak, beyond knowing it takes place in an old Italian Castle and expecting there to be a ton of gore and brutality: possibly by a group of monsters on an unsuspecting American family. At the time, I didn’t even know that Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton were even in the film, never mind its central stars: though knowing Crampton was being interviewed on The Last Drive-In episode of Castle Freak became another impetus in me having a look at it.
I’ll admit that watching Joe Bob Briggs’ segments did spoil aspects of the movie for me, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. I’ve heard that many fans of Gordon’s work don’t think as highly of Castle Freak as they might Re-Animator, and even From Beyond. A lot of it, from my understanding, is that while the latter two films — created in the 1980s — have heavily goofy and “camp” overtones, drawing close to comedy in horror, Castle Freak itself is played out seriously, and without laughs. Unlike the science-fictional and paranormal elements of the former two films, Castle Freak is a mystery horror film with obvious Gothic influence: complete with tropes such as family secrets, hereditary sins, a long lost, deformed and/or insane family member, and a scene of crumbling beauty and the price of pride turned into madness revisited on unsuspecting descendants.
Another element I can also argue is that while Re-Animator, and to some extent From Beyond — which I have written about and attempted to experiment on in this mad laboratory that is my Blog — are very clearly based from Lovecraft’s works, Castle Freak uses “The Outsider” as just a stepping stone, or a foundation to create an entirely different work. Re-Animator still follows the resurrection of the dead and the hubris of Herbert West, and From Beyond does illustrate what happens when you attempt to view and interact with dimensions beyond human perception, but Castle Freak? It isn’t like “The Outsider” in that the “creature” involved isn’t the protagonist or some possibly undead monstrosity that was once a human being realizing what he is, and fleeing from that knowledge.
Giorgio Orsino — the titular “Freak” of this film played by Jonathan Fuller — is a tormented man whose death was faked by his mother the Italian Duchess D’Orsino and, blamed for the sins of his American father in leaving her, spent the rest of his life chaining him in a dungeon and flaying him with a barbed whip. He is five years old when his death is falsified and forty-two years pass before his mother dies from a heart-attack after beating him one last time. He is practically a feral being by the time he manages to escape his bonds, though he seems to have a grasp of some rudimentary Italian when he does occasionally speak. However, unlike the protagonist of “The Outsider” who seems to be quite intelligent and has “many antique books” Giorgio is not only driven by a sense of loneliness — more visceral than existential — but hunger and fury over his torment and neglect. If anything, his skittering manner of moving through the corridors of the Castle, is reminiscent more of Lovecraft’s :”The Rats in the Walls” than anything else, and for more reasons than one when you realize just how famished he is. Giorgio is a living being that wants what he thinks is owed to him, and he literally wants his pound of flesh.
Lovecraft, of course, is no stranger to Gothic themes and tropes, especially considering how “The Outsider” and its narrative style is influenced by the prose of Edgar Allan Poe. The story of Castle Freak, however, follows not just Giorgio who is the monster — and I would argue one of the true victims of this entire film — but also the American Reilly family and in particular its patriarch John Reilly.
John Reilly, played by Jeffrey Combs, is an alcoholic and an unemployed professor. His father abused him during his early life, and it the echoes of it affect him all the way until the end of Castle Freak. He inherits the Orsino Castle after the Duchess, his aunt, dies and he takes his family there to claim and potentially sell the property. John’s wife, Susan (played by Barbara Crampton), despises him. There is really no other word for it. Due to his alcoholism he lost his employment, and because his five year old son J.J. dropped his video game in the car and tried to reach for it, the boy loses his life in a car accident when John tries to stop his son and simultaneously keep his eyes on the road: failing at both. This same accident blinds his daughter Rebecca, played by actress Jessica Dollarhide, and it leaves his wife to blame him for everything that’s happened to their family.
I think one element of this film that needs to be discussed is its use of connections, and how they all pay off. And when I mention connections, what I am really talking about are relationships. From the police officer who has a relationship with the sex worker that John takes him when his wife spurns him again, to the child they’ve had together, to the amoral Italian Orsino lawyer being the sibling of the housekeeper that warns the Reillys of the Castle and what her death causes, and John’s own tormented relation with Susan, the memory of J.J., and his attempts to protect Rebecca, Susan’s own resentful bond with John, and her over-protective and even obsessive relationship with Rebecca, and the Duchess’ own malicious and petty need to torture Giorgio, and Giorgio wanting to belong to this new family that he can somehow sense as his kin … it all fits together in a patchwork like the scars on Giorgio’s body, and the worn stones of the Castle that is their heritage.
This unity, or this twisted rhyme, can be seen in the form of J.J. J.J. is the child that shouldn’t have died. Giorgio, whom everyone believed dead, once looked the spitting image of J.J. Two dead children that are blood-related, and practically doubles or doppelgängers of each other: the former’s death indicative of an emotionally absent father whose alcoholism led, in part, to the car crash that took his life, and the latter whose father’s physical abandonment led him to having his very identity destroyed in all the ways the matter are central to this film. Families and children, unhealthy dynamics between spouses, siblings, and parents and children are what make Castle Freak.
And then, there is the matter of karma. We find out, and it becomes clear especially after Joe Bob’s talk with Barbara Crampton, that Giorgio and John both have the same American WWII soldier: the former being the Duchess’ son, and the latter being the bastard child of her sister that ran off with him, unmarried, to the United States. The Duchess dies before any justice or vengeance can be carried out on her from the boy whose life she ruined out of a sense of pride and, presumably, the American soldier is also long dead and gone.
Giorgio is John’s Shadow, another popular literary trope. He has abusive and neglectful parents like John, except taken to the nth degree. He was flagellated by a mother for his perceived sins, and tormented for things that were — unlike John — literally beyond his control. Even John’s sexual frustration as punishment by his wife and her anger, and inability to connect with those of his blood, or a disconnect from the sexual relations he has to have with the sex worker are mirrored horrifically in that Giorgio seems to be castrated, but his mother left him his testicles and the frustration of loneliness and an animal fury he can’t express in any other way: as we see with what he does to the poor sex worker. But mostly, there is a grief there. While John grieves, and is guilt-stricken by J.J.’s death, Giorgio mourns even the death of his tormenter and that fury needs somewhere to go.
And Giorgio, after killing the sex worker and the housekeeper sister of the man who could have saved John from being blamed for their murders, finds this outlet: in the form of the scourge that his mother used on him his entire life. It is this whip he uses on John who, in a way, represents the reason Giorgio had been rendered into a tortured being. To Giorgio, if he can think that far, John is the brother that his father left him for, and abandoned him to the cruelty of his insane mother. In a way, John’s existence is the reason his life is so ruined, and that madness is taken out on his hide.
Giorgio, his mother’s whipping boy, makes John his own. And Giorgio, who John once saw as resembling his dead son — the child dead by his own negligence — is something of a gross magnification of his own guilt flagellating himself. And yet, something happens with John that Giorgio is incapable of understanding, or undertaking. For all of John’s selfishness and self-absorption, he still loves his family. Perhaps, at this point in the film, after contemplating suicide, drinking, and undertaking actions that further hurt his family, John doesn’t want Giorgio — both a psychopathic monstrosity of his aunt’s torment, and a symbol of his own guilty conscience — to damage his family anymore. And with a noble moment of self-sacrifice, John tackles Giorgio and the two fall to their deaths: united in death in a way they could never have been in life.
At the end, Susan Reilly sees this — him having saved her and their daughter — and seems to forgive him, perhaps even seeing her own part in the torment that led to all of John’s own actions as they exchange their last words with each other. The Reillys live on, with perhaps the cycle of abuse and pain and recrimination broken by John and Giorgio’s deaths, and the understanding of what led to where they are now: and perhaps after mourning they can find a way forward.
The sins of the family, in this case, are not a blood related curse or a result of eugenics as Lovecraft’s stories and those of his Victorian predecessors often go, but of generational abuse and trauma. But there is one thing that bothers me in this otherwise relatively immaculate film.
Where is Giorgio’s coffin?
At the end of the film, we see John’s coffin being taken to his funeral, or his funeral endings, but we never see what they do with the boy who was supposed to have died decades ago. John is a sufferer of terrible familiar trauma, consciously or otherwise, but Giorgio himself is an even more obvious victim. What happened to his body at the end of the film? Did he even get the dignity of a burial? A real burial?
It gives me inspiration: to try something else.
I always try to say something in this Blog that is more than just a rehashing of something already said and done. So, in light of the upcoming remake by Tate Steinsiek and its more overt and cultish Cthulhu Mythos influences of which I’m curious to see unfold, I started to think to myself — and this was the only reason this article even happened — what if we went back to the roots of “The Outsider?”
There are obvious issues. “The Outsider” is a short story that functions well from a first-person limited perspective. The readers are limited by what he knows and perceives. It is hard to translate that into a film narrative, even with voice over narratives: though it would make for perhaps a good experimental short film, or animation. And I am sure it’s been done already.
So, let’s Frankenstein this fucker, my solution to almost everything in this mad lab. Think of it as following looking at the lives of two children traveling different paths through Castle Freak. First, let’s take Giorgio Orsino from Stuart Gordon’s film. Let’s say that he isn’t the only freak in the Castle, that Giorgio was used by his mother and her family to seal the rest of them away: namely, the ghouls from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dreamlands Cycle respectively. Imagine John and Susan Reilly as being completely unsympathetic or clueless and it is Rebecca who focuses on finding her way into understanding how the Castle works: on discovering that it is a weak place between reality and the Dreamlands. Consider that John was supposed to be the original sacrifice, but his father and mother left with him: perhaps even unknowing, and it was up to Giorgio to be offered as a perpetual whipping boy, his blood sealing the other creatures below the Castle into the Underworld.
But then the Duchess dies and Giorgio is freed. A lot of the events of the film continue, but Rebecca is more proactive and bitter about not only being blind, but having her mother constantly attempting to control her. I also like the idea that something comes of her learning some Italian, as she attempts to do in the film, and begins to understand Giorgio: even sympathize with him after she realizes how damaged he is. It may even be that there is something in his hoarse voice that reminds her of her lost brother J.J. I’d also be fascinating if we saw the film from Giorgio’s perspective, and there is a part of him that still thinks he is that golden-haired five year old child until he looks at a mirror, or he does something particularly feral and vicious: almost making him like two different characters and making the audience wonder who that strange child is who also resembles J.J. until the end.
I would have it that it looks like John is attempting to save his family, but he fails. Perhaps he and Susan kill each other, or the other beasts get them instead. Rebecca goes insane or perhaps begins to think that there is another way. It is Giorgio who after his killings of the housekeeper and the sex worker that actually opens the Gate and unleashes the beasts fully: taking Rebecca with him. It’s with Giorgio pledging himself to them that we realize the Reillys and the Orsinos they came from, have ghoul blood. And Giorgio and Rebecca become ghouls, slowly changing, mutating: with Giorgio eating the corpse of his mother who tried to consume his life and keep him in a stillborn stone womb of a prison, shedding the illusion of the child he used to be and wished he still was and the mutilated husk of a broken human to become something more. And Rebecca ends up devouring her own parents: those who controlled hers and emancipating herself to a whole new existence. They then leave with the ghouls — the last of their line here — to live in the depths of the Dreamlands and feast on the dead forever.
So, in this way I am marrying together “The Outsider” with “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” thereby adding a supernatural or low-key Cthulhu Mythos element into it — though not to the apparent extent of Tate Steinsiek’s work with something of a gross and twisted “happy-ending.” Instead of John’s redemption and reaffirmation of family and society, it could be a story about Giorgio, and even Rebecca’s dark salvation from the ruining influence of a mortal world, and the freedom of a bloody, supernatural one beyond human morality.
Conversely, there is the other “child” of my Mythos thought. We make a cinematic story with “The Outsider” traveling through his grave, to his ancestral castle and shying away from the truth of his undead nature, with only snippets of memory and perhaps he — and the audience — see him as a whole being like the youth of “The Quest of Iranon” as he travels through places like “Under the Pyramids” and even through a “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” to finally realize what he is, and to come to peace with it as he joins the ghouls and night-gaunts in their revels. This would have more of a dark epic fantasy cinematic horror feel to it: a saga that expands out to a glorious Lovecraftian cosmic ending: romantic in the sense of it being sublime in unearthly Nature.
Even though I like the 1995 Castle Freak, and my original intent was to not attempt to alter films that I feel work in their own way, I also love the idea of an Outsider, of a supposed monster or a disabled female character — who is actually the central character in the upcoming Steinsiek remake — being the protagonist of their story and challenging a world view in being so. There are opportunities there, perhaps being taken in the remake to an extent. We will just have to see.