The story opens at the Castle D'Orsini (a beautiful, real life Italian location by the way) where an old woman (the Duchess D'Orsini) hacks off a couple slices of dry-cured meat (one likes to think it's soppressata) and a scrawny piece of bread which she brings to her son Giorgio: a deformed monstrosity chained naked in a dark dungeon cell. A nice touch occurs when the old woman places the plate on the floor in order to unlock the cell; a cat starts to nibble at the meager meal and the old woman makes no attempt to stop it. Not exactly concerned with her son's welfare, the old woman promptly whips him bloody with a cat o'nine tails before every meal. She then promptly staggers back to her bedroom and dies. Her body goes undiscovered for quite some time; and her chained son goes hungry all the while. Finally, real estate agents track down the old woman's last remaining relative: John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs), his wife Susan (RE-ANIMATOR's Barbara Crampton) and their blind daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) who take up residence in the 700 year old Italian castello. The family atmosphere is a little strained. They are all still recovering from the fact that John has killed his young son and blinded his daughter in a car accident caused by his own drunk driving. While exploring the old castle, Rebecca unknowingly unlocks the cell containing the deformed, chained Giorgio. Later, the starving Giorgio devours the cat and then bites off his own thumb in order to slip out of his wrist shackles. He then wraps himself in a sheet and prowls the castle; just keeping out of sight of all the inhabitants. At one point, Giorgio enters the sleeping Rebecca's room at night and finds his lifelong sexual yearnings welling up inside of him -- but he is interrupted before anything can happen. However, it is later discovered that Giorgio's mother has long ago castrated him as a sort of skewed punishment for his father -- who abandoned them and ran off with the Duchess's sister to America. Yes, John Reilly is really Giorgio's half brother. A series of gruesome murders committed by the unseen Giorgio convinces the local constabulary that John Reilly is the culprit. It all leads to a standoff between the ghoulish Giorgio and the haggard John atop the rainswept parapets of Castello D'Orsino.
CASTLE FREAK is remarkably restrained for a 1990s low budget horror flick put out by the b-movie company Full Moon. Stuart Gordon films Dennis Paoli's script with an plot-serving economy. Famously, there is only one instance of totally gratuitous and unnecessary gore: the notorious nipple-biting scene which the SPX folks at Optic Nerve bring off with sickening realism. Paoli insists that he didn't write in the blood and gore of that scene; gently implicating director Stuart Gordon. Jeffrey Combs also states that he "...hated that. It was very disturbing and mean." Does this scene ruin the whole movie. Well, no. It just seems to be totally unnecessary and, perhaps, was placed there because the rest of the movie was probably thought to be "too tame" for modern horror fans. Thus confusing once again the difference between real "horror fans" and fans of tedious and boring gore. But apart from this admittedly mean-spirited but thankfully brief scene, the rest of CASTLE FREAK is a quite interesting examination of the themes concerning the "dark" and "light" sides of every human being. In a way, the grotesque creature chained in the castle dungeon could be seen to represent the "darker nature" of John Reilly (his half brother) which causes his irresponsible alcoholism and, ultimately the death of his own son and the blinding of his daughter. The guilt inside John Reilly is chained away deep in some dark place as much as Giorgio is chained away in his cell. The only possible outcome of the film would have to be the ultimate confrontation between John and Giorgio.
Far from his portrayal of Herbert West, Jeffrey Combs plays John Reilly as a tortured and broken man; even at one point contemplating suicide over the terrible things he's done. The inherent weakness in the character is wrestled with thoughout most of the film's running time. Barbara Crampton is appropriately shut down emotionally and extremely cold toward her husband while, at the same time, fussily overprotective of her remaining child Rebecca. Interestingly, in the film's final act Crampton takes on the role of traditional horror heroines like Jamie Lee Curtis (in HALLOWEEN) or Sigourney Weaver (in ALIEN) as she tries to defend her daughter against the slavering ghoul while John is away locked up in prison. The rest of the cast is adequate in their lesser roles while Jonathan Fuller as Giorgio (in rather impressive ghoul makeup by Optic Nerve) cuts quite an imposing figure in the ranks of monsterdom; never merely a clunky creature but one which demonstrates emotional depth and confusion. And the filming on location in Italy (and particularly the castle itself) make the film look much better than the usual low-budget effort. CASTLE FREAK is not the best H. P. Lovecraft film "adaptation" by a long chalk but nor is it anything like the worst. Stuart Gordon has done a respectable job bringing one more HPL flick to the haunted screen.