Remaking a cult classic is no mean feat, especially since audiences have been burned so many times before. So it’s easy to approach Tate Steinsiek‘s reimagining of Stuart Gordon’s 1995 Castle Freak with a bit of skepticism. Although, with the 1995 version’s Barbara Crampton on board as producer, this bold redo of a classic horror tale can stand alone as its own film and hold on to the charm of the original.
Produced by Fangoria, 2020’s Castle Freak is a new take on its source material. This may put off some hardcore fans wanting a remake of the original in crisp digital HD, but the changes made largely work to the film’s benefit. There are still familiar beats and tropes from 1995; a tragically blinded girl, gratuitous nudity, and the titular freak of the castle, but that is where the similarities end. 1995’s Castle Freak is the story of a married couple inheriting a castle after a car crash simultaneously blinds their teenage daughter Rebecca and kills their young son, with their alcoholic father (the scene-stealing Jeffrey Combs) behind the wheel. This new take, however, completely shifts the focus of the story. The father character is gone, and Rebecca (Clair Catherine) is now a full-grown adult with her own toxic life. She was still blinded in a car crash, however, it was her strung-out boyfriend John (Jake Horowitz) behind the wheel. It is also Rebecca who inherits the castle – not John – from her long-lost mother. Later, the couple’s partying friends arrive, and the freak living in the walls of the castle does what everyone expects it to do: mercilessly slaughter a castle full of drugged up millennials.
Whilst the original is a classic, this simple shift in character dynamics is a welcome change. Because of the focus on Combs and Crampton in the original, Rebecca is almost relegated to being a supporting character in her own story. The new film, on the other hand, brings her to the foreground, making the story about Rebecca’s recovery, and not just the people around her coming to terms with it on her behalf.
Unfortunately, some of the other changes hinder this progress. When Rebecca and John’s party friends turn up to soak in the castle, the film quickly goes from an engaging slow burn to a failed Cabin in the Woods experiment. The original isn’t exactly the most sophisticated entry in Gordon’s filmography, but the addition of a young ensemble cast being hunted down by the castle monster relies too heavily on tropes to bring anything new to the table. It removes the human aspect of a couple dealing with their shared trauma and replaces it with a run-of-the-mill teen slasher. This is not helped by the fact that, whilst they do not give weak performances, the supporting cast fail to leave a lasting impression. There are some incredibly memorable scenes, most of which involve a vibrant colour palette and intense levels of gore, but the actors’ efforts are unable to match up to the gloriously overblown action happening around them.
This removal of subtlety, particularly in the film’s closing act, is not always detrimental. Where the filmmakers have chosen to remove the family dynamic, they’ve replaced it with an enormous amount of Lovecraftian lore. Castle Freak has always been a Lovecraft adaption, and this reimagining really drives that point home. The set is dressed in tentacled statues, there’s a Necronomicon, and the Old Ones are not messing around. This makes Castle Freak a very different film to its predecessor, but it adds an element of fun and gravity that the original didn’t have. This version clearly has a much more substantial budget, and what was not spent on securing the gorgeous castle as a location seems to have gone into making every shot visually pop. Whether it’s showing you grizzly, tentacled practical effects or beautiful panning shots of the Albanian countryside, Castle Freak is a visual treat.
The use of juxtaposition in Castle Freak is, for the most part, very effective. Any shots featuring the interior or exterior of the castle are masterfully shot using mostly natural light, like a haunted travel documentary. When this is paired with the unsettling use of practical effects, it really catches you off guard and makes the grizzly sights onscreen even more effective. This use of practical effects is what makes Castle Freak feel like a true love letter to the work of Stuart Gordon. The quality easily matches the visceral effects we’ve seen from Gordon’s work in the past. The film also borrows Gordon’s love of gratuitous nudity and, in the context of the 1995 original, that is fine because you almost expect it in a low-budget, straight-to-video horror movie. However, when used in a film with such stunning cinematography, and played with long panning shots and intense, slow movement, it feels like more of a nod to The Room.
Castle Freak took a risk by carving its own identity and doubling down on the Lovecraftian elements of its source material, but for the most part, it pays off in spades. It is impossible to look at any remake and not compare it to its original, but by taking the story in a new, modern direction, it can earn judgement on its own merits. The film is a feast for the eyes, with some horrifying moments of gore that will take you straight back to the height of ’80s creature effects. The tone is a bit inconsistent, however, often jumping from emotional slow-burn scenes to balls-to-the-space-behind-the-walls riots. Sometimes it hits and sometimes it misses, but even though a lot of the tropes have been done before, it is still endlessly entertaining and a fitting tribute to a cult classic.