'Castle Freak' and Its Meaningful Discussion on Disability and Family: A Look Back at Stuart Gordon's Cult Classic
My first encounter with Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak was through Shudder’s The Last Drive-In, and it blew my mind to pieces. As a perpetual champion not just for disabled representation, but also meaningful discussion and analysis of disability in horror, I’m always on the lookout for films that bring that, if not to the center, at least to the table...
...I didn’t know what to expect with Castle Freak—I didn’t know anything about it at all—but what I got made me sit up and take notice. Here was something with not just one disabled character off in the side who probably won’t make it to the end, but two who sat firmly at both ends of the representation-in-horror spectrum. Here was something that engaged with disability in ways both subtle and direct.
I don’t know how intentional, if at all, the dialogue about disability was for this movie. A bit of a strange beast itself, it’s a 1995 release that feels more like something from the ‘70s about a family who relocates to Italy after inheriting a mansion from a long-lost aunt. It’s not just the mansion that’s haunted by something dark and unseen, though. Nine months before the move, John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs) and his kids got into a car accident that ended in the blinding of his daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhyde), the death of his 5-year-old son JJ, and irresolvable tension between John and his wife Susan (Barbara Crampton). John, it turns out, has an alcohol problem and was drunk the night of the accident. Part creature feature, part family drama, Castle Freak is soaked in trauma and tension.
I’ve mentioned disappointments rooms in horror before, those rooms used to hide the shame of having a disabled or disfigured child, and Castle Freak positions it and everything that comes with it firmly on one end of its disability conversation. On the other end is Rebecca, the daughter struck blind by the accident. Giorgio (Jonathan Fuller), the titular Freak kept trapped in the castle’s catacombs for his entire life, is regularly abused with a whip, fed the bare minimum two scraps of meat and a crust of bread (after it had been given to the duchess’s beloved cat), and chained. Living a life of fear and neglect, completely unfamiliar with any other feelings but anger and pain, Giorgio haunts the castle with his cries to be noticed and released from his chains. The only person who knew he was there has died, and he has no idea. He only knows he’s been locked away and hidden in the depths. He only knows he wants out.
This is one of the things I think Castle Freak does well that no other film of its kind grabs onto as deeply. Giorgio isn’t a straightforward villain, after all. Pay close enough attention and you begin to realize he appears to act primarily in response to people’s treatment of him, or to mimic what he sees from afar. He is emaciated, disfigured, doesn’t seem to have ever been in the sun. Truly, through no fault of his own, a horrifying figure to behold. So, naturally, when John sees Giorgio for the first time he responds in fear. And, naturally, Giorgio also reacts in fear and anger. The only filter he’s had for understanding the world has been one of violence. He craves connection but doesn’t understand how to get it.
Even when he breaks out after the Reilly’s move into the castle, he may not be doing it with violence in mind. Rebecca had just stuck her head in the door, listening for the cat she had followed to the catacombs, and she didn’t shrink away from him even though—if she had been sighted—she would have seen him through the barred window in the door. The first person to see him, as far as he knows, and not shrink away or abuse him. He breaks out to pursue her and try to connect with her. But he also knows he’s a grotesque sight, and doesn’t know she can’t see him, so he sneaks around under cover of night. But Rebecca has been the only one to suspect someone else was in the castle with her family. She’s heard noises in the night, and no one else believes her. The first time he’s seen by anyone in the film, it’s the escort John brings home after a drunken night. Giorgio murders her, partly because he’s enraged by her fear, but also, I think, because he mimicked the things he watched John do with her. Really, the rape/cannibalization of the escort brings into sharp relief how similar sex and consumption are to each other from the outside. For someone unfamiliar with what’s happening, the foreplay sure looks like eating.
Giorgio is the strangely feral forgotten side of disabled representation, forced to such morbid extremes that he’s been chained up in his disappointments room with the coffin used to fake his funeral. Like Frankenstein’s Creature, Giorgio isn’t mindless and unaware of his situation—in fact he’s remarkably quick to adapt—he simply doesn’t know anything but violence. He embodies the trope of the monstrous disabled.
Rebecca, meanwhile, is surrounded by people who love her and want to protect her. She doesn’t even harbor any blame about what happened to her. All she wants is to embrace her circumstances as her new normal, move forward, and try to keep her family together in the process. Her father is guilt-stricken and doing his best to treat her as she wants to be treated but seems a little faltering on what all that entails. He takes her to explore the castle and look for hidden treasure but seems to forget he needs to describe how things look to her. Granted, she’s only been blind for the past nine months, but she doesn’t know anything about the castle or its rooms unless she’s told. That’s part of her new reality too.
Her mother, on the other hand, is fully aware of everything Rebecca needs, and justifiably concerned when she runs off on her own or with someone ill-equipped to watch out for her properly. Perhaps Susan’s only fault is not believing her daughter when she tries to explain what she’s hearing in the castle before she is accosted by Giorgio in her sleep. To a teenage girl, however, actions like Susan’s can come across as overprotective and catastrophizing. Where Susan wants to constantly keep a watchful eye, Rebecca wants a bit of exploratory freedom. Where Susan wants to cast blame and dip into how difficult dealing with her blindness is, Rebecca wants to move forward from the accident and deal with her newfound disability in stride. She wants trust, and belief, and above all else she wants her family to stay together.
One of my favorite moments in the film comes during a conversation between Rebecca and her mother about the castle and the situation after she has already wandered off following the cat and injured herself (as her mother worried she might have). While not the only moment of direct acknowledgement and engagement with her disability, it is the first and one of the most profound for Rebecca. While her mother fusses over her about her wandering off and about her father’s incompetence and how she shouldn’t be left unguarded, Rebecca bursts out, “This is my handicap, my challenge. I have to deal with it myself.”
It was this moment, on first watch, that struck me so deeply. Never before in a horror movie had I seen such a direct chiding of the disabled person to their caregiver. Hell, I didn’t even fully own my own disability until college, and here was this teenage girl fully possessing hers so her mother might lift some of the blame and anger about its cause from her father. Rebecca isn’t your average disabled horror trope. She is, instead, the kind of representation I hope to see: confident in her own ability to handle the world while embracing her disability rather than trying to spite it. And! She gets to live!
In a genre where it’s most common to see only one disabled character, and them either the villain or cast aside ensemble member destined to die, having two unique representations in the same film is always a bit of a pleasant shock. Even more than an examination of the evolution of how horror treats disabled characters, Castle Freak digs into the evolution of how society and disabled people themselves respond to disability. On the one hand—the earliest, easiest grab—the shunning, dismissive, and violent response. On the other, a protective, embracing response that allows for comfortable expression of strength, desires, and needs on the part of the disabled. Blame is still present in the mind of society, but shifted. Where those who occupy disappointments rooms like Giorgio were blamed for their own disability, those in Rebecca’s situation are found, rightly, to be blameless.
I don’t know that Stuart Gordon ever could have predicted how much audiences would get from his work. I only know that I will always be grateful to have found this strange, dark little gem of disability analysis and family.
By Katelyn Nelson
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