Like a lot of canonized genre directors, Stuart Gordon has enjoyed a rather, shall we say, uneven career.
Early on, Gordon seduced cult movie fans to his favor with his wild adaptations of stories from famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft with his films Re-Animator and From Beyond. The Lovecraft mythos is dense, one involving ancient unknowable evils and humanity’s utter lack of significance in the universe—and, in his best movies, Gordon channels Lovecraft’s bleak, dark universe and trashes it up to depraved extremes.
It’s how we get a decapitated head nearly performing cunnilingus on a hostage in Re-Animator, or a mongoloid that sucks out eyeballs in From Beyond—these are movies that are too trashy for their own good, but buoyed by smart scripts and a clever director.
The rest of Gordon’s career isn’t as storied.
He has other successes outside of his two popular Lovecraft adaptations–there’s the spooky Dolls, and the bonkers, but wildly enjoyable Robot Jox—but most of his other films never really live up to his early successes. He’s a classic example of a talented writer and director comfortably living in his own shadow.
Gordon’s 1996 film Castle Freak–this week’s VHS Vault pick–is a far cry from the director’s best work. It’s slow in the beginning and has one of those mid-90’s faux-orchestral synth scores that make you want to pull your hair out, but Castle Freak still has moments of inspired depravity. After he stops mulling about and gets to the meat of the film, Castle Freak is just as unhinged and tasteless as Gordon’s more famous pieces.
With Castle Freak, Gordon takes Lovecraft’s more grounded stories, “The Outsider,” and shapes it in the mold of a modern slasher film, one with violence that’s graphic, gross and overtly sexual. Rather than using the piteous creature from Lovecraft’s story, Gordon’s freak is a cat eating, nipple chewing monster—one clad in a white sheet sodden with blood and who knows what else. He stalks the halls of his castle, where he’s been raised in the dungeon on a steady diet of bread and torture,and torments its new occupants while lusting after their blind teenaged daughter. An extended scene involving the rape and torture of a prostitute is especially harrowing, where the freak violates her in an extraordinarily graphic manner.
Castle Freak is a film that evolves into something that isn’t what it seems at the beginning—the kind of movie that takes things farther than most viewers are prepared to go.