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“CASTLE FREAK” At Twenty-Five: Fractured Families and The Outsider’s Awakening

Saturday, November 14, 2020 | Deep Dives


“Then in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more…”
– The Outsider (H.P. Lovecraft)

Literary historians describe Howard Philips Lovecraft as an eccentric recluse, a reputation that prevails in most discussions of his life and work. There are conflicting accounts, however, as to the extent of his alleged antisocial lifestyle. In I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Love-craft, controversial biographer S.T. Joshi argues that the perception is heavily exaggerated, and though Lovecraft may not have relished socializing, he maintained relationships with peers (mostly through written correspondence), a brief marriage to author and publisher Sonia Greene, and regularly attended social gatherings. Joshi’s deep research indicates that Lovecraft may have experienced levels of alienation common in creative thinkers and described him as “an ‘outsider’ only in the sense that most writers and intellectuals find a gulf between themselves and the commonality of citizens.”

Despite the contradictory analysis of his social habits, most experts still agree that Lovecraft’s outsider reputation stemmed from a reserved nature and well-documented disdain for human behaviors he considered puerile. Lovecraft’s despairing disposition was informed by a racist worldview, puritanical predilection, and steadfast belief that the world was inherently an awful place, making it possible to imagine him isolating himself for sustained periods of time. Michel Houellebecq, who wrote extensively of Lovecraft’s life and work in his exemplary study, H.P. Lovecraft Against the World, Against Life, illustrated one example of the extreme depths the tormented writer descended to avoid society:

“In 1908, at the age of eighteen, he suffered what has been described as a “nervous breakdown” and plummeted into a lethargy that lasted about ten years. At the age when his old classmates were hurriedly turning their backs on childhood and diving into life as into some marvelous, un-censored adventure, he cloistered himself at home, speaking only to his mother, refusing to get up all day, wandering about in a dressing gown all night.”

“The Outsider” is a popular work in Lovecraft’s oeuvre, and debatably offers clues to Lovecraft’s deep-seated anxieties and tentative grasp of human connection. The story is a departure from the author’s grander displays of terror found within his “great texts” (as referred by Houellebecq) like “At the Mountains of Madness” or “The Call of Cthulhu,” and is more closely akin to the hallucinatory intimacy of “The Dreams in the Witch House.” The story involves a desolate soul confined deep within the catacombs of a dismal castle crypt, somehow subsisting among the rats, bats, spiders, and entombed corpses. Though he is tormented, his musings on his horrid habitat adopt an almost blissful acceptance of his condition. Even so, prevailing discontent urges him to ascend the castle tower to escape the utter darkness. Surfacing high above the castle’s substratum, the Outsider happens upon a group of festive people who subsequently rush off in fright. In his startled confusion, he stumbles, only to find his own horrifying countenance staring back in a mirror.

Even within its smaller scope and confined setting, “The Outsider” exhibits the hallmarks – a claustrophobic atmosphere and dread outlook – characteristic of Lovecraft’s best work. The story unfolds in first person, a point-of-view often adopted by Lovecraft’s protagonists. The story’s greatest strength is that it conveys – through ghastly components – a feeling of abject loneliness. The narrator’s origin is obscured by memory lapses and an inability to understand how he’s survived in this state, structured within a narrative that unfolds in a dream-like haze. By focusing so intimately inward, Lovecraft identifies sympathetically with his monstrous principal to an excruciating degree, which may unlock some understanding of his loner tendencies. Joshi again dismisses notions that the tale holds any autobiographical significance. He asks, “Is then, ‘The Outsider’ a symbol for Lovecraft’s own self-image, particularly the image of one who always thought himself ugly and whose mother told at least one individual about her son’s hideous’ face?” In challenging the validity of this theory, he continues, “I find this interpretation rather superficial, and it would have the effect of rendering the story maudlin and self-pitying.” One might argue, however, that even if Lovecraft’s writing here wasn’t meant to be confessional, the story still demonstrates his mastery for evoking abject loneliness using macabre imagery and a deeply melancholic tone akin to his favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1995, “The Outsider” was adapted for the screen as CASTLE FREAK by director Stuart Gordon and producer Charles Band. Much of Gordon’s filmography is composed of subversive re-imaginings of Lovecraft’s work in films like Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), Dagon (2001), and Dreams in the Witch House (2005). Like his other translations, Gordon takes liberties with the story’s premise, pushing its foundation beyond that which Lovecraft’s purist fans might find comfortable. Trademarks of Gordon’s work include a satirical approach encased in nudity, sex, and gore, qualities that Lovecraft would surely find revolting, but Stuart uses to enhance his themes. Of the work mentioned, CASTLE FREAK is curiously absent of Gordon’s darkly humorous touch, and ranks among the director’s bleakest work. It’s an effective response to detractors that Gordon is adept at replicating Lovecraft’s desolate environments, and even the most ardent critics may find it fuses core elements of “The Outsider” successfully into its expanded cinematic premise. That extends to the addition of new characters, a fractured family, the members of which exhibit the alienating qualities that factor so prominently in the film, and achieving the requisite level of Lovecraftian seclusion.

In the film’s reworking (with screenplay by frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli), Gordon stalwarts Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton play American couple John and Susan Reilly, who, along with their blind teenage daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide), travel the Italian country-side to reach an ancient castle John has inherited from a famous Duchess. In the taxi ride to the estate, these characters already exhibit the behaviors that will define their circumstances later on: Rebecca is the curious one, and despite her disability, eager to experience the world through her other senses; Susan is high strung, unable to curtail her overprotective tendencies, weary of the cab driver’s lead foot driving, and fearful to the extent that she thwarts Rebecca’s interest in her electric window, wary that Rebecca will “catch cold”; John appears to be downright giddy at the prospect of ameliorating their lives with a fresh new beginning, though his hopes will prove naive as the family is confronted by a ghastly presence lurking on their new property.

“Lovecraft didn’t have children […] so it’s difficult to imagine him crafting a story where parental themes are the driving narrative force.”

In the preamble, we witness the brutal beating of a disfigured and emaciated man called Giorgio (Jonathan Fuller), who is manacled in a decrepit dungeon and whipped with a chain by his mother, the Duchess D’Orsino (Helen Stirling). A short time later, the Duchess succumbs to heart failure, abandoning Giorgio forever in his bonds. Giorgio’s tragic existence remains hidden as the Reilly family settles in. The cracks in their relationships surface more prominently as we witness their dynamics. Susan dotes on Rebecca’s every move, suffocating the teen with her ever-watchful eye. Susan also requests a separate room for herself and her husband and brushes off his sexual advances as they settle in for the first night. She is unable to forgive him for a past transgression revealed almost immediately through a flashback: A drunken John was responsible for the car accident that blinded Rebecca and took the life of their five-year-old son JJ. To Susan, his actions are unforgivable, and his shrinking demeanor reflects his guilty conscience.

Lovecraft didn’t have children, and would never indulge in the mechanics of such banal drama, so it’s difficult to imagine him crafting a story where parental themes are the driving narrative force. Gordon, however, is totally committed to the development of these ideas, bolstering the story with allusions to ancient mythology. While exploring the castle with Rebecca, John happens upon a fresco painting depicting what appears to be the Roman god Saturn eating his children out of fear that a prophecy about his own offspring rising against him would come true. The mythic depiction sets the tone for the themes that will permeate throughout the film, underscoring John’s own failure as a parent, whose hubris created the reckless condition for his son’s demise. This extends also to the Duchess, who we discover banished Giorgio to the basement at the age of five, her wicked revenge for being scorned by an American lover, Giorgio’s father, who abandoned her. The Duchess herself became a recluse who never left the castle, another example of self-imposed isolation scattered across the film’s collection of despairing characters. It’s important to note that the film’s primary setting, the Castle of Jupiter/Il Castello di Giove in the region of Umbria is owned by Charles Band, and according to the castle’s website, the striking painting can be attributed to artists Domenico Zampieri, Paolo Caliari, or Orazio Alfani.

The setting of a remote, rustic castle, promotes dissolution among the characters, its vast, labyrinthine space exacerbates the growing distance between them. Rebecca is alienated because of her loss of sight, but wanders curiously about the manor despite Susan’s attempts at keeping her grounded. Cats on the castle grounds are Rebecca’s spirit animal, and her explorations place her in precarious predicaments – unaware of the danger lurking just out of reach. In keeping with the mythology motif, Susan is emblematic of Ops, the Roman fertility goddess (or Rhea in Greek myth), the sister-queen of Saturn who protected her son Zeus from being devoured by secretly ushering him off to Crete, swapping a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes which Saturn swallowed believing it was the baby. Similarly, Susan thrusts a wedge between herself and John to keep Rebecca safe from harm.

Giorgio, though bereft of Lovecraft’s primordial introspection, is the only direct link to the original story. In a fit of rage, he breaks his thumbs to free himself of his manacles and is now loose in the castle. The arrival of the Reillys is an awakening of sorts for this tormented, mutilated soul. He’s initially intrigued, but too frightened to engage, covering himself with a filthy sheet to hide his plentiful disfigurements. Giorgio, whose intellectual and emotional capacities were maliciously stunted, is particularly drawn to the teen Rebecca who occupies a room near Giorgio’s childhood playroom and views her with curious sexual attraction.

John is wholly to blame for the alienation from his family. His carelessness with his own children is unforgivable and he is absolutely haunted by remorse. Shattered and rebuked by his estranged wife, he finds solace in bottles of wine found in the cellar. Lonely, with an increased libido, he brings home a prostitute he’s met at a nearby tavern. After their sexual tryst in the cellar, the woman is slowly murdered in grisly fashion by Giorgio. John, now a suspected murderer, has widened the chasm between him and Susan, who threatens to leave with Rebecca.

There are many moments where Giorgio craves sexual attention. When frustrated, he lashes out with the only behavior he finds normal: resorting to the same brutally violent measures taken against him by those who were supposed to love him. The most reviled scene in the film depicts Giorgio cannibalizing the prostitute, biting off her nipple, and feasting on her in a cruel mockery of the oral sex he observes John performing on her. It is, indeed, a savage moment earning the scrutiny of a critical viewer’s eye. Gordon, however, is too attuned to his characters for the act to be hastily dismissed as simple exploitative sadism. Throughout Giorgio’s entire life on earth, he’s only been exposed to abject cruelty and responds in the only way he’s familiar. Giorgio himself has been castrated, his tongue has been torn out, and is unable to perform sexually. He responds with violence, perpetuating the same cycle of horrific abuse that has distorted him within and disfigured him outwardly. This does not justify his vile behavior, but does provide an alternate lens through which to examine his vicious actions.

Giorgio is a revolting presence, but Gordon imbues him with agonizing pathos. His anguished cries when beaten are palpable, as are his nightly wailings as he wanders hopelessly through-out the castle. As he reaches longingly toward Rebecca as she sleeps, his desire for connection is heartbreaking. In many ways, Giorgio’s banishment to the dungeon is worse than that of the narrator of “The Outsider”; in the written story, the narrator has access to books, and spends time daydreaming about life outside of the crypt. He is also able to wander the catacombs of his sub dwelling, whereas Giorgio is manacled to the wall on short chains, experiencing nothing but absolute misery. His only purpose is as the Duchess’ “whipping boy”, scapegoated for someone else’s sins. John is drawn to Giorgio’s cries, believing it’s the voice of JJ haunting him. The film’s third act concludes with an act of sacrifice by John to save his wife and daughter from Giorgio’s rage. During a rainstorm, the two struggle fiercely on the castle roof, plummeting to the soaked ground beneath. In his death throes, John and Susan reconcile their love, his redemption fulfilled in the final moment of his life. Giorgio’s sudden death is a merciful end to his irredeemable existence.

CASTLE FREAK’s Giorgio and the narrator in “The Outsider” liberate themselves from subterranean confines, yet neither can integrate into the alien world above. The freedoms offered by the outside world are cut off to them due to their monstrous appearances and behaviors determined by their hermetically-sealed worlds of misery. Lovecraft’s surfacing from his own bouts of seclusion concluded similarly, and he found himself retreating frequently back into the fantasy worlds of his devising. The experience of this trio of outsiders and their tentative grasp on the light can be summed up by this haunting passage from “The Outsider,” wherein Lovecraft writes, “For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.”

Chris Hallock
Chris Hallock is a writer and film programmer in Seattle. He has contributed to VideoScope Magazine, Cemetery Dance, Diabolique, Boston Globe, Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film & Television; Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film, and If I Only Had a Brain: Scarecrows in Film & Television. He also serves on the programming team for the Boston Underground Film Festival. He is currently writing a biography of prolific character actor Billy Drago entitled Hoodlums, Hitmen, and Hillbillies: The Professional Villainy of Billy Drago.