It's still an engaging, sorta creepy haunted-castle kind of movie. It features a solid story, overall avoidance of the most tired horror cliches, and a memorable antagonist. I just wish it had dispensed with the bad taste.
Combs is the dad, a recovering alcoholic whose drunk driving killed his son and blinded his daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide). He inherits a huge Italian castle with a Dark History and naturally concludes the only thing to do is move the whole family in, evidently without consulting the wife (Barbara Crampton) who hates him and who's overprotective of Rebecca, and without realizing that none of them speak Italian.
I believe this is the fourth Combs/Gordon film I've seen, and it's the best Combs performance of them. He has plenty of opportunities to convey manic desperation, and he even gets an action sequence, yet he's also effective in the early part of the film as a generic, sad dad. (Well, as generic as Combs can be. He's more believable as a real dad than Jack Nicholson, let's put it that way.)
Combs is helped by a script that makes his character so unlikeable that we horror veterans are kept engaged wondering what might ultimately become of him—redemption? Grisly and/or ironic death? Conversion into some sort of next-gen castle-freak? Captivity in the neverending purgatory of the Italian criminal justice system? Narrow escape followed by an implausibly similar sequel (Castle Freak 2: Castle Freakier)?
The other actors do well with the material, treating it seriously enough that the proceedings feel more genuinely dark than is common in horror of this budgetary stratum. Of course, none of them are as fun to watch as Combs, with the possible exception of the freak (whose full visage the film wisely conceals until the end).
So all involved definitely have the chops for quality gothic horror. Sadly, a few preventable problems diminish the effect. For instance, the humor in Castle Freak is entirely unintentional. The pre-credits sequence practically invites riffing, being free of dialogue and quite weird. Later, one or two moments of attempted mood merely induce giggles, like when they actually use the stock owl-hooting sound. I don't even have to go "oot…oot…OOT-OOT-OOT-OOT" for you to hear it in your head. It was the Wilhelm scream of its generation. Also kind of amusing in a distracting way: the fact that the Re-Animator music is recycled (re-animated?) here, or at least it sounds so much like it that it may as well have been.
But the one overriding thing that keeps me from recommending Castle Freak as a Poe-level gothic thriller is the gruesome treatment of the prostitute character. It's as if someone on the production was fully on board with classing up the joint and going for a real old-fashioned mood…except that, c'mon, we gotta brutalize a woman, and we gotta SHOW it. And even putting aside the gut-wrenching gender politics displayed thereby? You really completely ruin the tension by showing everything. You KNOW this, movie; you did it well with the freak. Just have some torn-up limbs in the lower corner of the shot, blood everywhere, that's great—but that's plenty. Instead, Castle Freak goes too far, and in so doing sours the overall experience, no less than if "The Tell-Tale Heart" had actually featured a talking heart. ("Tom Stewart kiiiilled meeee! Lub-dub, lub-dub!")
Star Score: 2.5 out of 5