Color, 1995, 94m.
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Starring Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Jonathan Fuller, Jessica Dollarhide
88 Films (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/NTSC), Full Moon (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Full Moon (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Easily the most noteworthy filmmaker to emerge from Charles Band's dual film stables of Empire Pictures and Full Moon Pictures, Stuart Gordon managed to inject a surprising literary flair into his pulpy, gory classics like Re-Animator and From Beyond. Gordon made his Full Moon bow later by switching from H.P. Lovecraft to Edgar Allan Poe, more or less, with the flamboyant and wildly sadistic The Pit and the Pendulum in 1991, followed by an unexpected switch to an ambitious sci-fi actioner with Fortress one year later.
It took another three years before Gordon stepped behind the camera again, returning to Full Moon for Castle Freak, which returns to the warped and shocking violence of his previous horror films but largely avoids the twisted humor that had become his signature. Here we have a somber domestic drama crossed with a monstrous tale of captivity and savagery, very loosely inspired by the first-person narrative of Lovecraft's "The Outsider" but transformed into a gothic melodrama. Gordon regulars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton have two of their richest, most rewarding roles here as John and Susan Reilly, a deeply dysfunctional married couple who inherit an ancient Italian castle. They decide to move in along with their blind daughter, Rebecca (Dollarhide), but it doesn't seem to be much help in mending the troubled marriage, with the real reason for their daughter's blindness being the biggest obstacle. Even worse, as we see in the pre-credit sequence, there's something else living in the castle: a chained entity incapable of human speech, chained to a wall and held captive in a hidden cell. Of course, it isn't long before the secret resident is on the loose and spilling blood on the castle walls...
Boasting a terrific physical performance by Pit's Jonathan Fuller as the titular character, a jittery score by Richard Band, and a fine script by regular Gordon collaborator Dennis Paoli, Castle Freak is one of the best films in the Full Moon canon and certainly one of the most unusual. There aren't any gimmicky critters running around, and the sex and violence have a decidedly queasy, perverse tone that's as far removed from the Puppet Master series as you can get. Band's Italian castle, seen in so many of the company's other films, is utilized very well here and makes for an atmospheric setting, with much of the film taking place at night in shadowy corridors.
As with most Full Moon titles, this went straight to VHS and was never really seen in great condition anywhere. The tape was issued in both R and unrated versions, with the latter containing a much more shocking version of the prostitute's murder with the castle freak tearing into various portinos of her anatomy. Subsequent DVDs were taken from the unrated master tape but usually still listed with an R rating, which probably surprised some unsuspecting viewers. The first much-needed remastered transfer came courtesy of UK label 88 Films in 2011 with a much better standard def presentation, and it seemed like only a matter of time before the film was earmarked for a Blu-Ray release.
That came to pass in 2013 with two separate Blu-Rays, in fact, both of them region-free. The first came in the U.S. from Full Moon, complete with a new six-minute "Castle Speak" interview with Gordon (who remains very happy with the film despite the rushed production schedule and budget issues), the original VideoZone making-of featurette from the VHS release, the trailer, and a fun vintage TV interview with Gordon, Combs, and Crampton with William Shatner. The second Blu-Ray from 88 Films has the new Gordon interview, VideoZone, and trailer, ditching the Shatner piece in favor of a different, fantastic extra: The Evil Clergyman, the salvaged segment from the unreleased Pulse Pounders Empire horror anthology from 1987. Directed by Charles Band, it was discovered only in VHS form but was given a final edit complete with a Richard Band score. Both Crampton and Combs star here again, even sharing a unexpected love scene, and Re-Animator's David Gale also appears in a colorful, villainous turn that anticipates some aspects of Gordon's later adaptation of "Dreams in the Witch House" for the TV series Masters of Horror. It's a great little creepy miniature, also available on its own as a DVD directly from Full Moon, and also included is video coverage of its premiere screening with enthusiastic fans sharing their thoughts on the way out. Other extras include trailers for Trancers 1.5 and The PIt and the Pendulum and an excellent liner notes booklet by Calum Waddell incorporating comments from both Gordon and Charles Band.
So now to the big question: how do the transfers compare? It's no secret that Full Moon's track record on Blu-Ray has been very uneven, ranging from exceptional (the second and third Puppet Master films being at the top of the heap) to disastrous, with their severely squashed, murky release of The Pit and the Pendulum way at the bottom. Castle Freak falls somewhere in between; it's definitely on the dark side with some detail obviously obscured, but the framing looks correct and, thankfully, the film's gritty, grainy aesthetic has been left alone. The film was obviously shot on less than prime film stock, and that feeling carries through here with a somewhat dingy veneer that obviously improves leaps and bounds over the older DVDs. The 88 Films transfer looks markedly different; it's brighter with a significant amount of extra detail and texture visible throughout. Again there hasn't been much done in the way of digitally cleaning the image, so grain and normal photochemical anomalies are all still here in their original state. Interestingly, the 88 Films presentation is slightly zoomed on the edges, with the most significant trimming on the right side; it doesn't really have an adverse effect on the compositions, but one has to wonder why the two look so different. For a comparison, check out this frame grab from the U.S. Blu-Ray with this one from the U.K. disc. In terms of audio, the 88 Films one wins hands down with lossless DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, while the Full Moon has lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 options. Considering the different extras and very different a/v quality, the 88 Films disc wins overall, but the Full Moon release should have a space in fans' collections as well.
Reviewed on July 21, 2013.