John T. Griffith 5:14 p.m., May 22
Appreciation: Castle Freak
In praise of low-budget, lowbrow, minor collaborations
Nobody, I think, is going to argue that Castle Freak represents the finest execution of the the "H.P. Lovecraft to Stuart Gordon to Jeffery Combs" combination; that honor pretty clearly goes to Re-Animator. But a passing mention of Castle Freak in the AV Club's combox lambasting of Combs' latest, Would You Rather, got me curious. And I was not disappointed.
It's probably an age thing. You start to get older, you start to appreciate brisk efficiency and clean storylines. You want to be alive to see the end, so you don't have time for 14 subplots. The thing is, Castle Freak manages to cram an awful lot into its 90 minutes, but it does it by adding layers, not scenes. Spoilers follow, of course, but here are a couple of examples.
Our man Combs is responsible for the death of his son, thanks to a drunk-driving accident. He inherits a castle from a woman reputed to be responsible for the death of her son. Except she's not. She's actually responsible for turning her son into the deformed Freak locked in the basement. The connections between the two families grow ever more explicit - the sins of the fathers and all that - until finally, they become physically manifested at the climax. To stop the Freak from killing his wife and daughter, Combs literally chains himself to the Freak. Fantastic.
And the Freak? He's a character. I mean, he's bad, and he's got to be stopped. But he's bad because he's hurting. The most affecting scene in the film comes in the middle of his frenzied pursuit of the wife and daughter. The two have taken refuge in the wardrobe of the mean old woman. The Freak begins searching her room, and finds, under the bed, the iron-barbed whip that tore him to shreds. Enraged, he begins to swing the whip around the room, attacking everything in sight. Eventually, he goes after the wardrobe, not because he thinks the women are inside - he's not even thinking about them any more - but because the wood splinters under the whip. He's lashing out at Mom for all the bad things she did to him, and the viewer feels both terror for the women inside and sorrow for the Freak outside.
Even the gore is significant. On the one hand, having the Freak bite off the whore's nipple is shocking and awful, which is why you came, right? On the other hand, it makes sense: the Freak has been tormented his whole life by...his mother! Chained, isolated, starved, and beaten with a flesh-rending whip by the woman who was supposed to love and nurture him. And what is the most immediate symbol of mother-child nurturing? Breastfeeding. So yeah, when it comes time for the Freak to act out, he goes for the mother-spot.
Enough. But I thought it worth mentioning.