The Shadows Over Dagon and The Deep Ones

I’ve been thinking a lot about Castle Freak and the origins of both the original and the remake, where Stuart Gordon and Tate Steinsiek along with Dennis Paoli and Kathy Charles respectively draw from and adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s stories to create their own cinematic narratives. In my own article on Gordon and Paoli’s Castle Freak, I considered what would happen if they — or someone else — had told the story of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and used that protagonist to replace Randolph Carter in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”: essentially stitching together another story to tell a whole other tale. In fact, I’ve engaged in similar speculation before when considering what might have happened if in their cinematic adaptation of From Beyond,  someone had incorporated elements of “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” alongside “From Beyond” to create a whole other kind of narrative.

All of this thought is derived from my experience watching Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space, which is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella of the same name: where Stanley takes the main story, which is meatier — if you will pardon the unintentional pun with the word meteor given the story premise — and made it feel like it was part of Lovecraft’s whole Cthulhu Mythos on screen through word-dropping names, institutions and geographical locations: with the potential to explore more through The Dunwich Horror. Stanley seems to want to continue through “The Dunwich Horror” while Steinsiek and Charles have already grafted it onto Gordon’s offspring derived from “The Outsider” and seem to want to go and make their own retroactive mutation of Re-Animator: though how much of it will be from Gordon, or from the serialized narrative of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” with their own twist is another matter entirely.

I find it interesting how when thinking about Castle Freak I wanted to go the entire ghouls and Dreamlands route, where there is a thin line between the waking world and dreams reaching into inhuman realities in a sort of terrible dark fantastic odyssey — definitely a part of the Cthulhu Mythos with “The Dream-Quest” and “Pickman’s Model” — while Steinsiek and Charles went into some good old Yog-Sothothery with “The Dunwich Horror” grafting.

But Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli also had to expand on the matter of another reanimated Mythos experiment much in the way Steinsiek and Charles did, and West might have done as a filmmaker utilizing the bodies of other stories as he did during his stint with his partner in one of the serials — or chapters — set in World War I.

I am thinking about Dagon. And by focusing on Dagon, I am looking at Lovecraft’s infamous novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and where else it leads. “Dagon” itself is the title to another Lovecraft short story about a former soldier who, after fleeing being captured by Imperial German forces, finds himself on a piece of land emerged from the ocean inhabited by non-human ruins, and what ultimately in later stories in the Mythos become the Deep Ones: aquatic humanoids that worship their own Great Old Ones. This unnamed protagonist is hospitalized after returning to civilization, and he attempts to kill himself when he can’t get anymore morphine to drown out the feelings of terror associated with his memories of dealing with the creatures, and the idols of their god Dagon, but there is this implication that at least one of them tracked him down to finish the job. This story is one of Lovecraft’s earliest to introduce the Cthulhu Mythos, and the rest of the elements of Dagon, and the Deep Ones are expanded in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

Gordon and Paoli themselves simply take the title of this first short story, or the name of the deity of Dagon, and simply adapt — or transplant — “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” into another clime entirely. Gordon and Paoli’s 2001 film Dagon takes place in Spain, in the town of Imboca: the equivalent to Innsmouth. The town itself is just as water-logged and rotten as the costal town in America. While Robert Olmstead in “The Shadow” is a student from Oberlin College fascinated with antiquarian studies and his own genealogy — a thing that never ends well in Lovecraft stories — Paul Marsh (played by Ezra Godden) had been a graduate of Miskatonic University, and is vacating on a yacht with his girlfriend and their older friends before a storm seems to appear out of nowhere and force at least the two of them to seek help in Imboca.

Paul does have some foreboding about the situation as he’s been having dreams about a mermaid or siren beckoning him and revealing her fangs. He is also filled with no only a sense of dread, but as he says to his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño), a lack of purpose as well. There are also some unexplained pink slashes on his ribs at the very beginning film, and he is always having medication for a stomach ailment presumably caused by stress.

There are differences between the two stories: “Shadows” taking place during Prohibition, and Dagon in the early aughts, and the main character of the former being alone, and the latter having his friends and a lover as well as a female entity interested in his existence. The horror in the novella is more subtle through Olmstead’s description of smells, and the strange “Innsmouth look” of its inhabitants — that uncanny valley of not quite human tinged with no small amount of xenophobia in the writing, while it becomes very clear to Paul Marsh and Barbara that most of the people in Imboca are not human at all, and even those that pass are definitely not normal: almost ridiculously so.

The film is blatant about it. The people of Imboca are pretty ineffectual mobs who don’t take too long in chasing Paul around, and losing him every time, whereas the citizens of Innsmouth slowly do subtle things such as manipulating the door locks at the inn that Olmstead is staying at, or conveniently making it clear the bus out of their town isn’t working so that they can grab him during the night. Olmstead is more worried about saving himself, while Paul wants to find his girlfriend who goes missing in Imboca: even after he is told that she’s dead.

Fascinatingly enough, :Robert Olmstead and Paul Marsh do see the gold that the Deep Ones are infamous for possessing, and the implements they make out of it. However, while Olmstead sees an example of an ornamental crown or tiara held at a museum, which the people of Innsmouth had been trying to get back for ages, Paul and Barbara simply see the priestly inhabitants — Imboca’s version of the Esoteric Order of Dagon that rules in Lovecraft’s Innsmouth — wearing them, and in particular their High Priestess.

The designs of the Deep Ones, and the Deep One-human hybrids of Imboca are fairly on par with their descriptions from Lovecraft. Apparently, Bernie Wrightson — an American artist famous for his illustrations of Frankenstein, and being the co-creator of Swamp Thing — created many designs for what was going to be a Shadow Over Innsmouth film in 1991: some of which made it into the Dagon adaptation instead. The rituals of the Deep Ones are made clearer in Imboca, with many of them wearing the flayed skin of the humans they have captured for sacrifice and, presumably, food given that some of the bodies are being held with animal meat in storage. It’s strange because I don’t think the Deep Ones of Innsmouth eat humans, and they don’t wear human skins: for disguise, ritual, or otherwise, but it is an interesting conceit for the creepiness in that film. Like I said in my other post before this one, “nameless and blasphemous rites” which, surprisingly this time around are not orgies.

The parallels between the short story and the film are fairly straightforward, though Dagon tends to be more graphic and illustrate exactly what happens. Both Lovecraft’s Obed Marsh and Orpheus Cambarro are sea captains that corrupt their desperate towns respectively with promises of sea bounty, and gold: save that while Innsmouth had a massive human uprising that needed to be put down by the Deep Ones with their shoggoth servitors and Elder Signs, and the survivors were forced to interbreed with them, Imboca mostly had compliance with a few dissenters that were useful as sacrifices and examples of what happens when one defies the god Dagon.

Ezequiel, the old man is played by Francisco Rabal, is pretty much Imboca’s equivalent of Old Man Zadok (Zadok Allen) who is one of the few humans left in Innsmouth. Yet while Zadok mostly just tells the story of the Deep Ones infiltration and control of Innsmouth, going as far as to say Marsh found them during his travels in the Pacific and the Caroline Islands interbreeding with peoples there — and then being disposed of “off screen” for saying too much to an outsider — Ezequiel also explains his past, albeit with a very thick accent that’s easy to miss every other word, and actually helps Paul Marsh out until he is pretty much skinned alive by the priest of the village.

It is made clear that the Deep Ones have mated with humans in Imboca over a a period of time, yet Dagon is different from “Shadow” as Dagon himself, this Great Old One from the sea, is more prevalent and puts on a physical appearance: going as far as to, of course, need human female sacrifices to … impregnate in the village’s rituals. This is what happens to one of their friends, and then eventually Barbara herself.

Robert Olmstead somehow manages to flee Innsmouth, perhaps even being let go, and informs the American government that — essentially — takes all of Innsmouth’s citizens into concentration camps, and even damages the underwater cities of the Deep Ones with their submarines. But Paul Marsh doesn’t run away, but attempts to set the church where the inhabitants conduct their rituals on fire … and fails. He fails to both rescue or kill Barbara, who is pregnant with Dagon’s brood, and to kill the rest of the villagers.

At the end, both Olmstead and Paul learn the terrifying truth of their origins. After Olmstead leaves Innsmouth and calls the authorities on them, he investigates his family tree and realizes that his grandmother Eliza Orne had been related to the Marsh family, and he begins to physically transform into a Deep One. This revelation: that he isn’t human, and he inadvertently committed genocide on his own people almost breaks Olmstead, bringing him almost to the brink of suicide by an automatic rifle. Instead, he dreams of his grandmother and ancestor Pth’thya-l’yi — who are still alive due to the immortal lifespans of the Deep Ones — and they order him back to them, to pay a penance for his actions but to nevertheless take his place among them. He ends up rescuing his cousin from a sanitorium who is more transformed than he is, and hopes to live out their lives in the underwater city of Y’ha-nthlei.

Paul Marsh meets the High Priestess Uxía Cambarro — the mermaid from his dreams — who almost seduces him, and it is only at the climax of the film that her father, who is mostly transforms, stops the villagers from killing Paul with the revelation that Paul is his son from a mother that fled Imboca, and the half-brother of Uxia. I didn’t know, when I first saw this film, that Paul’s last name was Marsh otherwise it would have been a dead giveaway as to who, or what, Paul truly is. Uxia and some of the other Imbocan villagers are strange in that they have octopus tentacles instead of amphibian features, seemingly another departure from Lovecraft’s depictions of Deep One physiology, though it may have been combined with aspects of Cthulhu. It is worth noting that I recall them reciting the chant “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä!” which refers to Cthulhu as opposed to Dagon, though Cthulhu is part of their pantheon, and is noted as such in “Shadows Over Innsmouth.”

Paul Marsh, realizing that he is a Deep One hybrid and having lost the woman he loves, and knowing his half-sister wants to be with him for all eternity with Dagon attempts to burn himself alive with kerosene (for some reason, the Deep Ones in Dagon possess a fear of fire), but Uxia stops him and throws the both of them into the grotto under the church, making the stripes on Paul’s ribs turn into gills and making his transformation complete. There is your usual horror cinema titillation with female nudity and sex scenes, especially in Stuart Gordon’s horror, though it is strange not to see Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs having any roles in this Lovecraft adaptation, considering they were in Re-Animator, From Beyond, and even Castle Freak. Dagon‘s production value feels a little wonky — especially in its special effects — but the ending is very Lovecraftian, and it fits well with its original source material.

Most of Lovecraft’s stories don’t have female characters in them, or relationships depicted, though sex here is illustrated as something grotesque and horrible much like Lovecraft would obliquely refer to it in his writing. And this becomes more prevalent in a film like Chad Ferrin’s 2020 film The Deep Ones.

The Deep Ones is a movie made almost two decades after Gordon and Paoli’s work, with a dedication to the memory of Gordon Stuart similar to that of the Castle Freak remake. Ferrin, the director and writer of this film, also does something with Innsmouth and Dagon. However, unlike Gordon and Paoli, he doesn’t take Innsmouth and attempt to transplant it into another geographical locale, but he attempts to reinvent it.

In this film, the characters do not find themselves in Innsmouth but a small, gated community off the Californian coast called Solar Beach. The cultists here, as the couple’s friend Deb comments, seem to be a tamer version of those who might attend the Burning Man Festival, but they resemble more the stereotype of swinger couples: of older men with younger wives that engage in communal rituals. Certainly, Russell Marsh — again, that old Marsh family — played by Robert Miano seems more like Hugh Hefner than the masked and deformed High Priest father from Dagon, or the shadowy and unseen Barnabas Marsh from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In fact, if anything Russell resembles more of a sea captain, at least in aesthetic: which would make him closer to an Obed Marsh of sorts. His wife, Ingrid Krauer, played by Silvia Spross has more of a Stepford Wife feel, as Kim Newman in his own review of the film notes about the entire situation.

The protagonists themselves are a couple named Alex and Petri (played by Gina La Piana and Johann Urb respectively) that are grieving over a miscarriage and attempting to heal and start over again at an Airbnb that is Russell and Ingrid’s home. The creepiness here isn’t so much the surroundings that look immaculate, even beautiful, but the incredible intrusiveness of the Marshes and their insular community. Literally, the entire house is secretly hooked up with surveillance cameras even as the Marshes invite themselves back into the Airbnb to “take care” of the younger couple, putting some unknown substance in their food, and having their doctor friend, who for some reason is played by the actor Timothy Muskatell in drag, take a urine sample from Alex to look at her fertility.

You can already see where this is going. Hell, even the gate outside of the Marsh residence made Airbnb has the same Esoteric Order of Dagon symbol as the one in the church in Gordon and Paoli’s Dagon. And the good doctor’s husband, who helps host their party at their own residence for the younger couple, has the first name Obed. The cultists themselves do not look mutated, or have that strange fish-like Innsmouth look. In fact, they just resemble affluent rich white American citizens but it is their blandness that makes them so disturbing, and their pervasive, reasonable explanations for strange things. This pervasiveness does become a little heavy-handed when Russell is able to hypnotize Petri with his gold cigarette case: making him “look into the light.”

As far as I know, Deep Ones and their followers in Lovecraft aren’t capable of hypnotism or even changing people without Deep One blood into something inhuman. It was smoother for me with Dagon because we find out Paul is a Hybrid like his half-sister Uxia and from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” we now they can communicate with each other in some kind of communal dream which, given the fact that they are related to — and even worship Cthulhu, especially given how they also make that iconic chant to him “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä!” (Hail! … Cthulhu Dreams!”) — makes a lot of sense. But the fact that Russell uses gold to mesmerize Petri does track with the fact that the Deep Ones possess this ore with abundance and use it to maintain power over humans. Innsmouth did have a gold refinery created by Obed Marsh after all, and Dagon did bring gold to Imboca in the film of his name.

Again, fascinatingly enough, the Marshes and their neighbours have access to a special wine, which they ply Petri with in their seduction of him, that they create in their own personal refinery amongst their locally grown food substances: those Marshes and their refineries. It is also interesting to consider that Alex explains to Deb that Petri might see the father-figure in Russell that he lost with the death of his own father, and then you realize that Dagon in the Cthulhu Mythos is referred to as Father Dagon.

I’d tempted to think of The Deep Ones as something of its own genetic splicing with the Mythos by Ferrin, except for one other element. It isn’t the Deep Ones that we do see, which are few and far between, though there is a young girl with webbed fingers and a fish-face here and there. Rather, it is the addition of a fascinating character named Ambrose Zadok. This is the female analogue to Zadok Allen from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” played by the excellent Kelli Maroney — and easily the best thing, aside from the villainousness of Robert Miano, about this film — who is looking for her lost daughter: a daughter that we realize isn’t missing, but was taken by the Solar Beach cult to their master Dagon. Ambrose is desperate, nearly deranged with grief and fear for her child, and her presence is explained away — gaslit — by the Sheriff who has never heard of Mayberry or Andy Griffith: I mean, seriously, these Deep Ones and their human converts are trying to infiltrate into human society, and they were doing so well. How couldn’t they know about the all-American Andy Griffith Show?

The cultists are indeed fairly good at seeming normal, but there is always something a little off, or a little zany about them. They are awkward, almost cringe-worthy in how they view the protagonists as potential converts … or sacrifices. Kim Newman mentions that their all-white upper-middle class background almost speaks volumes about privilege, and racism in Lovecraft and America. Just like in Dagon, we also see Dagon but the person playing him is smaller than the giant in Gordon and Paoli’s film, and like Paul Marsh and Barbara neither Alex nor Petri — like a dish where specimens are observed and experimented upon — escape, and they join the madness.

There are elements that put me off of The Deep Ones. The production value is different, almost made-for-television. The film’s over-reliance on the theremin’s sound effect for bizarre and creepiness becomes almost campy after a while, and I found that despite having Petri and Alex possessing their own little couple ritual based on how they first met, they were forgettable, and their friend Deb is irritating. In fact, I feel like they were lampoons of the normal white couple of privilege who have the resources to rent a high-end Airbnb, and can afford to ignore the bizarre nature of everything going on outside of their sphere, and the suffering of people like Ambrose Zadok until their final transformation into the Stepford cultists that they want to be. They start this entire film off wanting what the Solar Beach community wants: children and family, and they get exactly that. Granted, Alex does try to think of Ingrid — Marsh’s wife — when she and Deb realize she had been captive, as we’d seen at the beginning of the film, until seemingly brainwashed into becoming pregnant with Dagon’s child.

This is another aspect as well. It seems being pregnant with a child of Dagon is to have something of a symbiote that continues hypnosis by infiltrating the body: as we get with Ingrid’s womb-tentacle into Petri’s mouth after he’s first mesmerized. It’s similar to the tendril and eventual vaginal eye that comes out of Rebecca Whateley and her Freak sister in the Castle Freak remake as they are children of Yog-Sothoth. We also see in Dagon that Ingrid has the ability to psychically possess Petri after the death of her husband, and herself. Indeed, at the end of the film, both Alex and Petri are acting like Ingrid and Russell respectively when welcoming another couple into the Marsh home that now belongs to them. Aside from the symmetry of the film ending much like it begins, with a woman running and then succumbing to fear, and acceptance of the unknown, what seems to happen to Petri at least is reminiscent of the mind transfer ability seen in “The Thing on the Doorstep” with Asenath Waite, or Ephraim Waite, which is appropriate I suppose when you consider that these Lovecraft characters also came from Innsmouth, and perhaps learned that spell there.

When looking back at Chad Ferrin’s The Deep Ones, I can appreciate the Mythos elements and what he does with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but I feel like there is a missed opportunity with Kelli Maroney’s Ambrose Zadok character. The interactions between her and Russell Marsh in her car, which he can somehow just go right into — which makes me think he and Ingrid do have some powers of their own — stand out the most, especially when he confronts her about how “she knew what she wanted” and “she knew the price.” That is a story all in itself, and I feel like that while it is appropriate that Deb dies being distracted by that creepy little Deep One Hybrid girl reminiscent of the children she’s left with her sitter, it may have been even more effective if that’s how Ambrose dies — with the implication that she made her own compromise with her daughter’s life and had second thoughts far too late — instead of being lured out with her voice, and all but killed off-screen.

I like to compare these films and their source material together. It makes me think about what a big production or an adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu” might look like. Cthulhu, Father Dagon, and Mother Hydra represent a polytheistic idea of dreams and nightmares being one with reality, and how humankind is not that far removed from what they are. Water is another theme: a medium of magic that can call on, and summon things between worlds, or force us to see that they already exist among us: oddity hiding right in plain sight. I have always been interested in the Deep Ones, in the idea of people secretly having non-human ancestry that manifests and they become the beings that they are truly meant to be. I can even see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water playing with this idea: where the Amphibian Man can be seen as just as much of a Deep One as a Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Elisa Esposito is a Deep One-Hybrid abandoned by the side of a river: with slashes on her neck that become gills with the Amphibian Man. I’d love to compare “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and Dagon with The Shape of Water.

Suffice to say, that tropical literary embryonic tissue that Herbert West and his assistant experiment with keeps growing into different ligaments and directions, continues. I wonder what other mad scientists and filmmakers will make of it all next. Can we always see the same horror twice? Is it always going to be the same deep, dark, dream?

An Outsider’s View of Castle Freak

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.

Experiences From Beyond

I suppose we’ve been spoiled since Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space when it comes to Lovecraft film adaptations. I don’t think I really have to explain that Lovecraft stories are notoriously hard to turn into cinematic narratives due to the fact that their prose rely on the olfactory sense (smell), and strange, non-Euclidean descriptions combined with things that readers are not allowed to see in their entirety.

So, when I found out that From Beyond had been made into a film, I just had to check it out. From Beyond is a 1986 science-fiction horror film directed by Stuart Gordon, and written by Dennis Paoli one year after Gordon’s other main Mythos movie Re-Animator. It isn’t so much that I wanted to see how the 2019 Stanley film compares to the Gordon 1986 one, even though both are derived from Lovecraft’s science-fiction horror stories and his idea of cosmicism: of a reality where humanity is a small piece of a larger and more uncaring and malicious universe. It’s seeing how those ideas are explored in the 1980s under another director: specifically the one who made Re-Animator that really caught my fancy.

The challenges between the two couldn’t be more different. While “The Colour Out of Space” is a novella, “From Beyond” is a fairly focused and standalone short story about an unnamed narrator who visits his friend Dr. Crawford Tillinghast and not only sees how badly he has physically and mentally degenerated due to his obsession in exploring another dimension, but also encountering the horrors of it himself. So how do you make a film about a fifth or an extra reality around us filled with alien existences that we can’t perceive ordinarily?

Well, while other essays and articles created by genuine horror scholars have gone into it more I’m sure, I think the key here is sex.

In both the short story that is its inspiration, and the film, stimulation of the pineal gland: a gland that creates melatonin that modulates sleep patterns in the brain, and has been historically considered to be a centre of spiritual and metaphysical development. The idea is that in “From Beyond” an electronic device that creates resonance waves can stimulate that gland to allow humans to see different planes of existence of which their usual five senses are not capable. The function of the gland itself is only partially understood even now after all this time.

So Stuart Gordon takes this premise, and realizes that perceiving these other realities, along with the stimulation of a part of the brain in an unusual way, would probably create unusual sensations in those that are exposed to the device that he calls the Resonator.

He takes out the servants that Tillinghast exposes to the machine, placed into the other planes, and left to the auspices of the creatures summoned by it. And he goes further to remove the unnamed narrator, and make three characters take his place: including Tillinghast who is demoted to a protagonist assistant doctor, played by the excellent Jeffrey Combs, to the unstable and eccentric genius Dr. Edward Pretorius — whose name is a reference to the Doctor Pretorius that blackmails and enables Victor Frankenstein to continue his creature-making experiments in James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein — who is played by Ted Sorel, and is the true creator of the Resonator.

Dr. Pretorius is also a major BDSM practitioner in Gordon’s From Beyond: seeking to achieve the ultimate experience in physiological pleasure in creating the Resonator and activating his pineal gland to its nth degree: at least from my understanding. It’s this combination of hubris and addiction to stimuli that creates the Resonator, and its resulting consequences on the protagonists.

The premise isn’t bad. From Beyond is supposed to be all about scraping away the seeming of reality, of appearances, for the planes of experience that truly exist around us. The extra-dimensional creature special effects are all right for the time, and they are not the things that make this film more than a little awkward, and clunky.

The problem, for me, is the narrative itself. H.P. Lovecraft is all about “the fear of the unknown” and considering that there is a strange and unseen alien environment around and within us, should be an utterly terrifying prospect. What Stuart Gordon attempts to do, which he succeeded in with adapting “Herbert West – Reanimator” which had already been created a serialized pulp narrative, falls a little flat in places with “From Beyond.” Gordon’s efforts in adding “what you fear is what you desire” to “a fear of the unknown” and its consequences that lends itself to Re-Animator in the form of gore, black comedy, and spectacle itself, overshadows From Beyond as opposed to accentuating it.

There are gaps in logic and narrative progression. Why would the overly idealistic and obsessive Dr. Katherine McMichaels, played by the legendary Barbara Crampton be allowed to force Dr. Tillinghast into repairing the Resonator, and recreating the experiment that traumatized him? How would this prove his innocence to the authorities who believe he murdered his senior Dr. Pretorius?

Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with these characters. Even Katherine McMichaels, who is stated to have controversial psychological views, is seen as holding sheer curiosity and need to genuinely explore behind the thin veneer of a barely existent professionalism and white lab coat. She seems repulsed by the monitors held in Dr. Pretorius’ BDSM dungeon room with screaming women in leather being flogged, but you can see her intrigue, and her predisposition towards the exploration of that state of mind. Seeing her is reminiscient of a Harleen Quinzel before ever meeting the Joker: a highly controlled but curious mind needing only permission to set her own sensual nature free. And this iteration of Crawford Tillinghast, whom she has more than just an intellectual fascination towards — or something that forms from that intrigue — is both terrified and attracted to the power of the Resonator that brings out something within him that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

I think the film’s issue is that it tries to shame those flirtations with kinks and sexuality, which should be its strength to this regard. Bubba Browns, yes, Ken Foree’s character is called that is an officer assigned to Tillinghast and McMichaels who immediately grabs and shames her once she puts on the leather gear in Pretorius’ room, and berates her: asking her if this is what she wants to be.

Barbara Crampton as Dr. Katherine McMichaels in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond

But what if it is? What if Crampton’s character is now exploring that aspect of herself, away from clinical trappings, and there is actual progression from that point? Instead we have this poltergasmic apparition of Pretorius occasionally manifesting when the machine is turned on as such like of fleshy mutated amalgamation and Jeffrey Combs’ Tillinghast developing an antenna from his pineal gland that requires him to eat human grey matter (because he rarely, if ever plays a character that doesn’t become a monster or antagonist of some kind): including from a particularly dour doctor named Bloch: who is probably named after Lovecraft’s friend and long-time correspondent Robert Bloch who went on to write Psycho.

Do you see what I mean? My tangent aside, and despite the story ending in Lovecraftian horror and madness, the film kind of runs off the rails with the original source material and its theme.

But what if we did something different? Neil Gaiman’s age-old admonition of a story most likely needing rewriting if something is wrong with it, and everyone else pretty much being wrong about how to actually edit aside, let’s do something different. Let’s make another adaptation of From Beyond.

Let’s use Clive Barker as an example of what can be done. I’ve already referenced his “what you fear is what you desire” earlier on in this article. Ironically, he had published The Hellbound Heart, the novella that would become the basis of Hellraiser a year later, in 1986: the same year From Beyond was released. Sexuality, and its obsessive perversion had been applied to Re-Animator, so why not go even further with From Beyond?

Imagine Dr. Crawford Tillinghast is the antagonist as he had been in the short story. Perhaps the story takes place after he’s gone, and Doctors Bloch and … let’s say Katherine Waite, along with a team from the authorities in conjunction with Miskatonic University, are sent in to his building to find out what happened to him, and his research. We see that the house has different rooms within it, almost Jungian-themed, and each chamber has a theme. Tillinghast has left video or recorded journals of himself as he experiments with making the Resonator.

Bloch could have been that friend of Tillinghast’s who had seen his experiments and what they did to him over time. He could be there to help the police find all those missing personnel, including mutual friends of theirs. Waite, because I too love Lovecraftian references, is there to find his research and she has an attraction to this while pretending to be professional. These goals tend to clash with one another as they go on. We see evidence of a sound and idealistic Tillinghast becoming more extreme. There are videos of him in BDSM dynamics with women, or men, or both on video. Bloch sees this as issues with his deteriorating body and mind, while Waite sees it as evidence of an alternative exploration of sensation and experience. She is also highly turned on by this against, perhaps, her own better judgment.

I see Tillinghast as a combination of what Lovecraft intended him to be, though perhaps more of the standard symmetrical handsome man turned into something else, combined with him adopting some charismatic mannerisms not unlike Robert Suydam from “The Horror at Red Hook,” or basically the reverse of Suydam to that regard.

The degeneration, or perhaps better yet, the change and evolution of the characters as they discover and repair the Resonator should be gradual as they try to find the missing personnel in this other plane. They begin to transform as they go along. Some of them die. Some are consumed. But the worst are the creatures they encounter. Think of the Resonator as Barker’s Lamentation Configuration, and the extra-dimensional violet entities that bite and consume as Lovecraft’s night-gaunts that arouse every time they touch a human being. Consider these repellent creatures passing through human bodies and arousing them, and mutating them. Add to the sexual tone of the entire thing. Make it uncomfortable and arousing as you see these changes happening to these characters. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows do this, they play with Tillinghast’s creatures as erotic elements between characters in their limited-run Lovecraft Mythos comics series Providence.

Then you can have Bloch transform first as he has been exposed to the Resonator the longest. Perhaps there is mention of his physical and a tumour developing in his pineal gland. Maybe then he develops that antenna that doesn’t look like something from Sega Dreamcast’s Seaman.  Or maybe it does grow that way, and something sexually suggestive happens with it as this film changes from a scientific expedition trope into a surreal LSD horror. I like the idea of Bloch encountering a transformed Tillinghast who has reached the inevitable conclusion of his increasingly amoral and inhuman experiments in another plane, and being consumed by him. Maybe Waite has her encounter with Tillinghast and it goes … badly. So badly, like a terrible hallucinogenic trip that she escapes and just barely destroys the machine … but not before she is left stranded back in reality, partially transformed into something not unlike a Deep One, some retroactive evolution triggered, broken, screaming, and without aftercare: seeing something in reality and herself … beyond her understanding that ruthlessly destroys her, and yet keeps others fascinated in knowing more.

This feeds back not only into the story, but also into the Lovecraft Mythos with other nods and Easter-eggs. Consider this an alternative adaptation, a mutation of how I might have made this story with the right space-time and resources at my disposal. Gordon’s From Beyond has some fascinating ideas, taken from Lovecraft. I think, while the challenge is buttressing a very short tale into a cinematic narrative, there are enough elements there to make it all about the terror of that thin membrane of identity and knowing being torn apart to reveal something else entirely.

But as a false Doctor of Horror, this is just a creative observation and suggestion, not a prognosis