It's a horror film from Stuart Gordon, loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft's short story The Outsider. Unfortunately it's a straight-to-video production for Full Moon Pictures, but despite this it's quite good.
You might think you know where this is going. It even stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, who'd previously starred together in Re-Animator and From Beyond, which again are Lovecraft adaptations by Gordon. The difference though is that this isn't funny. Gordon has a gruesome sense of humour, but here he's keeping it well hidden. This is a low-budget (obviously) but serious-minded effort that if anything is erring on the miserable side.
The film starts with an old woman who keeps something chained up in a dungeon. She likes whipping it and not with a dainty horsewhip either. No, she keeps a cat o' nine tails. That's the pre-credits sequence. However the main story begins with Combs, his wife Crampton and their daughter Jessica Dollarhide inheriting a castle in Italy. Might this castle have a dungeon? Ooooh, you guessed!
The movie's main problem, to be honest, is that it came out in 1995. Horror was at such a low ebb then that even a well known name like Stuart Gordon was reduced to doing straight-to-video for Full Moon. It doesn't look egregiously cheap, since it's shot in a real Italian castle and the cast contains plenty of Italians. (The castle belongs to Charles Band, president of Full Moon. He owns a castle. Fair enough.) Gordon doesn't achieve the xenophobia and alienation that he did with a similar setting (but Spanish) in Dagon, but it's still classy enough to be comparable with a real movie. I think it's Elisabeth Kaza who does the most to sell it. She's a proper actress with a long movie career (born in Hungary, died in France) and every line of dialogue she delivers is rock-solid.
Instead it's the story that feels cheap. Confined setting, tiny cast, not many plot developments... it's mostly the characters' personal problems that keep things afloat. I also wouldn't have guessed this was based on Lovecraft if I hadn't already known. The similarities are thin and there's not much plot carried over from The Outsiders.
Ironically the one thing Gordon doesn't do is to make us sympathise with his eponymous freak, despite the fact that, in a possible echo of Frankenstein, the plot also includes a blind girl. We learn the freak's background, name and even family, but at the end of the day it's still a monster. Is it evil? No. Does it do things that speak of psychology and motivation? Yes. We can understand some things about it, but fundamentally it's hard to empathise with. It looks disgusting, with simple but shocking make-up that would have been impressive in any context. It can't talk. Its intelligence is somewhere between "small child" and "dog". It's capable of acts that are revolting even by horror movie standards and there's no point at which you're encouraged to feel sympathy towards it. Its sex drive is unpleasant (although stunted) and you're desperate to get the female characters as far away from it as possible.
I'm not criticising the film for not making us cry for the freak, mind you. It's not obligatory. However if that was an objective, Gordon failed at it. Furthermore there's also idiot plotting, questionable story logic and dangling plot threads.
1. Why is everyone so determined to disbelieve everyone? Crampton is a wholehearted, courageous lady who's meticulous about caring for her daughter and never says anything indefensible... but I wanted her dead, because he's a negative whining bitch who thinks everyone's lying or fantasising. Her daughter says there was someone in her room! "I think you're just projecting, because you want to have somebody else here." She dismisses everything Combs says with an analysis of his character flaws that's brutal and accurate, but also irrelevant. The nearest she comes to being helpful is: "Your father needs our prayers, so pray with me." Shame she didn't say anything when the police were dragging him away. She annoyed me, but even worse is the policeman who gets a bunch of people killed because he's sure that Combs is lying and won't listen when Combs keeps saying there's something dangerous in the castle.
2. Sound apparently carries in a castle... except for the screams of murder victims, people biting off their own thumbs, etc.
3. What was the story with that disappearing photo of the boy? It's as if a scene got cut.
4. That blind girl was perhaps a bit too good at running away from the monster, even up and down staircases.
These are handicaps. Fortunately though we also have some decent acting and twisted psychology. Combs got his son killed and his daughter blinded because he was drunk-driving. He's off the wagon now and he wants to get back together with Crampton, but she's... well, how would you feel? I was on Combs's side, believe it or not, but he makes this a whole lot harder when he goes off the rails halfway through and in addition starts being a cock to the police. Arguably the "sympathetic monster" I was speculating about isn't the freak at all, but instead Combs.
Combs is best-known to horror fans as Herbert West: Re-Animator and to SF fans as nine different Star Trek characters, at one point even managing to play two unrelated recurring roles in the same episode. He's good. He's correctly neither funny nor scary, although there was a bit at the end where I got Herbert West flashbacks, instead successfully inhabiting this rather unlikeable, pathetic figure and carrying the movie even when doing things that should have had us rejecting him outright.
Barbara Crampton isn't that great, to be honest. She's okay. She's mostly acceptable and she's treating the material with respect, but her range doesn't quite stretch to the top gear that Combs has available and that's the starting point for someone like Elisabeth Kaza. She's a scream queen, for what it's worth, whose most famous films are with Combs and Gordon and who did a Playboy shoot in 1986. She'd also starred with Combs in Trancers II, but that's not Gordon.
Jessica Dollarhide as their daughter had been a child actress and this would be her last role. She's fine, actually. She doesn't mess up her character's blindness, for a start.
The Italians are all far better than necessary, although Kaza is obviously the standout.
This film isn't much fun and couldn't be called outstandingly good either. Stuart Gordon's done better. However I respect its dour sincerity and the way it rises above its Full Moon limitations. It won't make you laugh, but you won't be laughing at it either. It stands comparison with Gordon's other movies, many of which are excellent, and fundamentally it works. It has nudity. It has an unlucky cat. It has Italians and some mildly interesting backstory. By 1995 straight-to-video standards, it's Citizen Kane.