The Shadows of Tate Steinsiek’s Castle Freak

I so desperately wanted to call this “The Shadows Over Castle Freak,” but I would be mixing metaphors, and inaccurately too.

In my post “An Outsider’s View of Castle Freak,” which focuses on the original Stuart Gordon 1995 film and its tenuous foundation from H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Outsider,” I talked about a possible Cthulhu Mythos remake of the movie by bonding it with the cannibalistic lineage of a family like the last scion of it in “The Rats in the Walls” along with the ghouls of “Pickman’s Model,” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” But director Tate Steinsiek and writer Kathy Charles take another Mythos track entirely in their re-imagining of the film.

I had a few ideas for remaking Stuart Gordon’s film, a cinematic piece that I still think is good in its own right but as I was writing it all out for myself in an attempt to say something somewhat original about Castle Freak, I took a look at a preview of Steinsiek’s film and realized they actually made the central protagonist Rebecca Reilly.

When I first saw Castle Freak, I always thought the character of Rebecca was a wasted opportunity. Rebecca is a character who is made permanently blind by a car accident caused by her father John in the original film, and taken to her family’s ancestral Italian castle. More often than not, she was helpless and completely ignorant of what was going on all around her when she wasn’t wandering away, and endangering herself. In the 1995 film, Rebecca is very much her parents’ girl: used in a tug of war between both grieving adults to hurt each other, and threatened by the titular freak.

I remember, watching Gordon’s film that I would have liked to see Rebecca have more agency. She is blind, but she has other senses and she can still ask questions and assert her own personality. In addition, I wondered what her interactions with “the Freak” would have been like given that she can’t see. I considered that she would potentially perceive “the Freak” — her secret uncle Giorgio Orsino — differently, much in the way that the blind man did without prejudice with regards to Frankenstein’s creature. But Gordon decided to make part of the terror a character couldn’t see being victimized by a being she didn’t know, and to whom she was vulnerable. But I am glad to see that Steinsiek and the rest of the production made a different choice with the remake.

I think that while this is a film that can be seen on its own, I am more fascinated with how it can be properly appreciated in parallel to its 1995 predecessor, along with its own literary source material. In my last post, I talk about how several characters in the 1995 film are shadows of each other, especially John Reilly and Giorgio Orsino, and the late child J.J. and Giorgio. In this work, the characters are more shadows of Gordon’s work, and H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Dunwich Horror.”

The film begins in Albania as opposed to Italy, with a woman flagellating herself in the name of the Christian faith while abusing her deformed offspring in a dungeon chamber. What we found out is this woman, this recluse not unlike the older Duchess D’Orsino in Gordon’s film, is Lavinia Whateley (played by Kika Magalhães) who keeps her deformed daughter as a prisoner. For those readers who recognize that name and saw the story I reference, I think you might already begin to know where this is going.

Unlike Giorgio (played by Jonathan Fuller), who escapes the dungeon after a week of starvation and breaking a finger to release himself from his chains, the unnamed “Freak” (whose actor is strangely seems not to be credited) is released from her bonds (her female gender being something I only realized later into the film) to find her mother already killed. In some ways, it almost feels like a poetic justice for what the Duchess did to her son in the spiritual predecessor to this film: especially when you see “the Freak” both hold and whip her dead mother and tormentor’s body into so much pulp. However, like I said, if you know “The Dunwich Horror” you realize the story is already radically different.

Lavinia Whateley is a character that lived with her father in Dunwich, Massachusetts. Lavinia comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Dunwich Horror” is a girl used in her father’s — the Wizard “Old Whateley” — ritual from an incomplete version of The Necronomicon to summon the Great Old One Yog-Sothoth to impregnate her. Poor Lavinia has two twin children by Yog-Sothoth: the deformed but brilliant Wilbur Whateley who attempts to steal a complete edition of The Necronomicon from Miskatonic University to summon his alien father, and fails — and an invisible, giant monstrosity that consumes a lot of cattle and runs rampant and killing whatever is in its way when his brother dies before being stopped by Miskatonic University’s Professor Henry Armitage and his fellow faculty members. Lavinia herself is portrayed as being albino with some cognitive issues, and she disappears by the time the story truly begins: either having been killed by Wilbur, or consumed by her other invisible son.

Lavinia Whateley in Castle Freak is the exact opposite of her literary counterpart. She is darker skinned and haired, and while she is also terrified over what happened to her — made to bear those children of Yog-Sothoth by her father — she sends one of them away to another family for a better life, and keeps “the Freak” bound: all to make sure the twins never unite. Unlike the Duchess from Gordon’s work, she doesn’t do this completely out of grotesque vanity and a mad sense of petty spitefulness, but to make sure that the two sisters don’t summon their father into the world and endanger it. Of course, it’s not all altruism even then. Lavinia is the victim of rape from her father, who had summoned and been possessed by the entity — whose own father seems to resemble her deformed daughter, and is perhaps indicative of some “tainted bloodline” as one villager tells the protagonists later in the film (and reminiscent of the De la Poers from “The Rats in the Walls”) — and probably sees her daughter as everything she hates in her own bloodline, hence her own self-flagellation and her rapist.

Whereas we see the Duchess whipping Giorgio with her flail to punish his disloyal father, we see this version of Lavinia punishing her daughter for what her own father did to her and the daughter later using the same flail on her corpse after she is freed, on the people that try to kill her, and having it used on her again by the man she sleeps with later. There is a different trajectory of generational pain and horror here that seems to say something about female trauma and survival which varies from Gordon’s film, and is non-existent in “The Dunwich Horror.” A fascinating thing to note is Whateley being a vessel for Yog-Sothoth to impregnate his own daughter is similar to a plot point in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ comic series Providence: where the analogue to Old Man Whateley, Garland Wheatley also commits incestuous rape on his daughter Lavinia counterpart Leticia to create Wilbur and the invisible terror John Divine.

And then we get to the protagonists. Rebecca Reily — or Reilly (played by Clair Catharine) — is different from her counterpart in Gordon’s film. She is more independent, and assertive. She’s still young, but she’s already lived a life of independence and hard living. Rebecca later explains that she was adopted into the Reilys, a nice nod to the original film, but we hear nothing further about them. She is with her boyfriend who, also on alcohol and cocaine leaves a party with her and almost promptly crashes their car: blinding her permanently in the process.

This is where a fascinating dynamic begins. Rebecca’s boyfriend’s name is John, an obvious parallel to the original Rebecca’s father John Reilly from Gordon’s movie. There is no mother or father in this film, Rebecca’s own mother being dead and the entire reason the apparent representative of her birth family — the Whateleys — gets her to go back to her ancestral castle in Albania.

John (played by Jake Horowitz) is a hard-partyer, as Rebecca used to be. He also has issues with control. He flirts with other women to make Rebecca jealous, he is addicted to alcohol and drugs, and he likes to make decisions on Rebecca’s behalf: especially after their accident. Like John Reilly of the 1995 film played by Jeffrey Combs, he seems to have issues with personal responsibility, but unlike him he wants to dominate everything and doesn’t even bother listening to what Rebecca has to say. He, too, feels like Rebecca blames him for their car accident and — while admittedly she was also under the influence when she asked if she should drive instead — his vices seem more the result of superficial influences than anything else as opposed to John’s whose came from a broken home.

If anything, Rebecca’s former life of hard partying comes from a sense of loss that she didn’t understand at the time, having been separated from her birth mother and not particularly fitting in with the Reilys. She knows, already, that there is something different about herself: if even on an unconscious level. Much of the film is Rebecca attempting to find out more about her mother and the Castle she never knew her family had. Rebecca desires to know her roots, and why her mother gave her up so many years ago, sending her all the way to America. John keeps dissuading her of this, and attempt to expediate the process of selling her ancestral property, all the while downplaying the fact that she knows that someone else is in the Castle with them.

Whereas John Reilly’s temptations overcome him after his wife Susan, played by Barbara Crampton who also is the producer of Steinsiek’s Castle Horror, rejects him utterly due to their death of their young son in their accident, Steinsiek’s John doesn’t attempt to commit suicide or see a sex worker in the Castle but he does use the contacts of Marku — the apparent Whateley family lawyer — to get a drug dealer over, who ends up being stabbed to death with heroin needles by the Freak as opposed to being mauled horrifically like the sex worker did by Giorgio in the original film. He does, however, begin to have sex with his friend Shelly after a fight with Rebecca about seeking her family history — and lying to her — reaches a head.

That is another fascinating aspect about John and Rebecca’s dynamic: that Rebecca wants to trust John in literally telling her what is going on around them, and John either glosses over details such as finding her mother’s flail, or outright lies about the colour of her mother’s robe that she ends up wearing. Whereas Susan and John Reilly’s martial problems are the result of his impulsive actions and her inability to forgive him, Rebecca and John’s relationship problems are the result of trust issues: with Rebecca wanting to know more about who she is, especially now that her life has changed so much, and John wanting to go back to controlling her, and having a sense of dominance with the money he plans to get with her from the ancestral estate.

Rebecca herself adapts to her ancestral home relatively quickly. I love how the film shows that because she’s lost her sense of sight, her other senses have increased: such as her auditory senses that allow her to hear the being that is her sister clicking and clacking as she maneuvers herself through the walls. She can also trace her steps, presumably through tactile input, to move around the Castle unassisted and with an idea of where she’s going. It isn’t perfect. Rebecca does get lost, and even injures herself — almost fatally — before her hidden sister actually catches a statue from falling on her.

But there is also doubt as to whether or not Rebecca’s senses are just the result of a woman adapting to her loss of sight. For instance, she begins to have dreams of her mother’s last moments, and parts of her life. Sexuality, and shame also figure into it as well. There is some synchronicity that begins to happen as a result of sexuality: with a vision of her mother masturbating with her flail and Rebecca also climaxing during the dream. And the Freak herself is seen masturbating while watching Rebecca and John have sex through a hidden passageway — and then killing John’s friend Shelly during intercourse with him, after he’s blindfolded to essentially rape him. But Rebecca also sees her mother dealing with her grandfather, and a cult, and sometimes hears her talking to her: warning her.

Rebecca is a shadow of her mother, slowly beginning to realize what she went through in these walls, while also finding out about her sister. And, unlike John Reilly and Giorgio Orsino, she doesn’t reject her sister. Rather, she wants to find her, and understand what is going on. It is the Freak, still unnamed throughout this entire film, who avoids Rebecca for the most part. Rather, the Freak only kills a man who intrudes on her home, the man who killed their mother and robbed her of the chance of doing so — while also having threatened John, whom she had sex with — John’s friends that are hunting her, and then John after he tries to kill her, and Rebecca at the climax of the film.

What we find out is that Rebecca and the Freak have a visceral reaction to being played together, or even physically touching. Their reunion marks the passage of Yog-Sothoth — the Key and the Gate — into the world of humanity. Essentially, Rebecca Whateley and her sister are the equivalents of Wilbur and his invisible, hideous brother respectively, though obviously while Wilbur knew what he was and sought knowledge to bring about his father into the world, Rebecca just wanted to know who she was, and ultimately seems to succeed where Wilbur failed. The Freak herself is cannibalistic, possibly like Wilbur’s brother, though it seems she is only starving: even though much of her physiology seems to be the result of her father — or extra-dimensional parent — as opposed to Giorgio’s deformities being created out of torture. Rebecca definitely takes after their mother, as “The Dunwich Horror” to paraphrase the terrifying concluding sentence of that story.

So what does all of this mean? Well, Lavinia Whateley is more sympathetic in this film and you realize there is something of a reason as to why she performed these actions outside of petty cruelty. The Freak is the result of that torment but also of neglect and physical and sexual needs unmet: not unlike an archetype of the grotesque feminine. While one can argue that the Freak is the physical representation of abuse of women, and the resulting internalized self-hatred, Rebecca is also part of that legacy: who attempts to come to grips with it, and show empathy but in the end is not only almost made a victim of that misogyny by John — who equates her to her sister as a “freak” — but because of her own biology.

In the end, their parent — their “father” — does manifest, and it awakens a mutation in the both of them … and it is something that Rebecca definitely does not want. The cult that their grandfather led, even though he is long gone, still exists. The man that released the Freak and killed their mother, who attempted to curry favour and use the Freak for her bloodline with the Great Old One Yog-Sothoth, is dead, but one of Rebecca’s friends — a young man named The Professor — has the Whateley copy of The Necronomicon and helps Yog-Sothoth to come into the world whether the sisters want it or not. The cults also all appear to be men. And as for Yog-Sothoth — it is hard to ascribe a gender to this being as it seems to resemble a meshing of two beings, of male and female — which is mirrored by the Freak, and eventually Rebecca. They seem to be, at the end of the film, reaching maturity — a form of horrifying growth or transformation, a parody of puberty as far as human female Great One hybrids go. They lose their agency to the cult, and more than that, their own bodies.

I feel like there is so much to say about that in particular, about these gender relations and sexuality and doubles — specifically the synchronicity between mother and child, and twin sisters, and male exploitation of such, and the horror of realizing one’s life is not one’s own and that perhaps that feeling of being “The Outsider” — the story both films were arguably based from — or not fitting in, or feeling like you are different isn’t just a psychological one. Really, I think the body horror at the end might have mixed those metaphors.

It isn’t perfect, this experiment of grafting “The Outsider” and “The Dunwich Horror” into an Albanian setting. Whateley sounds more like a British surname as opposed to a Southeast European one, which took me a little out of immersion. I wish they could have made an Albanian equivalent to that surname. I also wonder why the cult was so hands off aside from one exception in securing the twins, and how one of them — just one of them — had been able to pose as the legal representative. They make such a big deal about the Great Old One cult having so many connections as well, and they do almost nothing until the end of the film: practically being all pantomime like the followers in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

But there are definitely some awesome Lovecraft Mythos moments, and respectful nods to the original Castle Freak film. For instance, one of the characters finds some vintage wine from Casa Orsino, dated 1926, while Dunwich itself appears on a town sign when John and Rebecca are driving. Also, the Whateley copy of The Necronomicon is far more fortunate than the one in “The Dunwich Horror” which is an incomplete copy inherited from Wilbur’s grandfather that forces him to attempt to steal a whole one from the Miskatonic Library. In Castle Freak, it seems the Whateleys were able to steal a whole Latin translation of the book from the Library back in the 1920s.

And the young Professor? Well, it turns out he has a name. In the mid-credits, he meets with an older man in an office, and another young man whose back is turned to the viewer. He is called “Armitage.” This is a completely different analogue to Henry Armitage, an older man who attempts to thwart Yog-Sothoth’s release and his children, whereas this version of him is a young scholar — enlightened by a tentacle grown from the Freak’s womb not unlike the mutated pineal gland from the head of Jeffrey Combs’ Crawford Tillinghast in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond — who wants the power and knowledge of the Great Old Ones. He also calls the other young man “West,” who has a vial of glowing bright green fluid, perhaps … some re-agent on the desk nearby.

Could this be a hint that there will be a Re-Animator remake? I will admit, I cackled at that scene. It also makes me think. Robert Stanley, who adapted “The Colour Out of Space” into Color Out of Space, is interested in also adapting “The Dunwich Horror” into film, which has some overlap with what Steinsiek does with Castle Freak. There is definitely room for different interpretations, and I would love to see them compared together should Stanley create his own take on it. After watching Color Out of Space, I’d hoped for a Lovecraft adaptation of similar quality. And Castle Freak is definitely a creation that fits that parametre in my mind, with more emphasis on sexuality in the squamous and horrifying manner that Lovecraft himself always hinted on in his “nameless and blasphemous rites” and Stuart Gordon all but plugged into his own work through titillation and spectacle. As such, it’s not only a love letter to Lovecraft, but to Gordon as well, and if this is an indication of a cinematic shared Cthulhu Mythos universe, I definitely want to see where this goes next.

After all, the thing about Yog-Sothoth being the Key and the Gate, aside from some sexual innuendo, is that it can be both the language that familiarizes audiences with that world, and the story that audiences also want to see: a gateway into some eldritch cinema.

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