'Castle Freak' Remake Director Follows 'Dark Path' to Lovecraft and Gore

Tate Steinsiek, the special effects artist responsible for the killer puppets and astonishing gore in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, is trying to describe a feeling, something in horror that "used to be there, that's lacking these days." He can't quite put a name to it, mentioning retro horror and "absolute gore fests." But more than the stylistic signatures, Steinsiek is chasing the sensation of throwing popcorn at a screen, or watching the VHS of a movie your parents would never let you see. It's a sensation he's chasing into his next project, this time as director of a remake of 1995's gory, gothic, straight-to-VHS Castle Freak.

"That film twisted me as a youth. It was too much for my little brain to wrap around. It stuck with me forever," Steinsiek said. When Austin-based publisher and production company Cinestate offered him Castle Freak, Steinsiek had a quick response handy, texting them back a photo of an action figure looming above his computer: the Castle Freak himself.

Castle Freak begins with a shattered family inheriting a castle in Italy, unaware of the dark secret hidden in the dungeon below: a man turned feral by torture and imprisonment, made monstrous through suffering. To escape, the Castle Freak snaps off his own thumbs.

But even if we pity the Freak, with his oozing, ulcerating skin, mutilated face and hobbled walk, Castle Freak doesn't coddle our empathy. The Freak is a monster, with a sexually sadistic streak as long as the scar across his face. This is part of what's so disturbing about the original, especially compared to the typical output of director Stuart Gordon, whose best movies—Re-Animator, From Beyond, Fortress—rely on colorful weirdness, oddball characters and an absurd sense of humor.

Some of the Castle Freak's crimes rank among the most stomach-churning images in horror movie history, especially a scene with the Freak dismantling a screaming woman who wandered too far down the wrong tunnel—the garish lighting of the VHS era clashing with the gothic setting and extreme violence to queasy effect. Castle Freak is sleazy, from dungeon to rain-slicked rooftop, where the family makes their final stand against the Freak. But the expertly elevating scares and barebones story gives the movie a strange dignity, which only makes its sleaziness more uncomfortable.

CASTLE FREAK was based on H.P. Lovecraft's story THE OUTSIDER. We found some amazing behind the scenes photos from CASTLE FREAK in the vault featuring Jonathan Fuller and @barbaracrampton! pic.twitter.com/Tr0Iao59ob

— FANGORIA (@FANGORIA) August 20, 2018

"This is a dream title. Not only is it something that's sentimentally important to me, Castle Freak is the first film that I saw that stepped outside a moral boundary for me," Steinsiek said. "I grew up in the world where that kind of stuff was not allowed. My parents were good parents. I just snuck it anyway."

But while Steinsiek is a diehard fan of the original Castle Freak, his own version will be rebuilt from its foundation. Steinsiek has shown the scope of his imagination in his special effects work, but the opportunity to direct is opening his creative aperture wider than ever. "It just pulls the blinders off," Steinsiek says of directing. "Instead of creating the characters, I'm creating the world the characters live in."

For that, Steinsiek is turning back to the Castle Freak source material, an H.P. Lovecraft short story called "The Outsider." First published in 1926, "The Outsider" doesn't deal with eldritch horror or nightmare visions, but instead tells the story of a man escaping from a subterranean castlethe only life he has ever known. After disrupting a party, the narrator discovers the monster terrifying everyone: the "abhorrent travesty of the human shape" he sees looking back at him in the polished glass of a mirror.

"I'm going to reinstill that Lovecraft element into Castle Freak and turn the volume up to 11 on that," Steinsiek said. Though Steinsiek wouldn't speak further to how his Castle Freak will connect to Lovecraft, the more fantastical, "Masque of the Red Death"-esque short story might point to a more fairy tale approach, rather than the stubbornly earthly original, with its cops and car crashes.

And Steinsiek definitely won't be losing the gore. "I think Castle Freak was one of my most disturbing and they're going to take it ten times further down that dark path," Charles Band, executive producer of both the original and remake, told Newsweek.

Steinsiek also has the support of Castle Freak actor Barbara Crampton, a producer on the remake, who described the original as "ripe for reimagining."

"The main character of Castle Freak is the freak—this marginalized being that lives in the bowels of the castle and isn't allowed to come out or up," Crampton explained. "So we are going to use this movie to highlight more of the freak story and the journey of the freak."

Between Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich and Castle Freak, Cinestate co-founder and producer Dallas Sonnier's ambitious slate of movies, some to be released under the Fangoria label (Cinestate recently acquired the namesake legendary horror magazine, which will return to print in October), are starting to look less like individual horror releases and more like an intentional revamp of the 80s model. Similar to the loose network that defined a broad swath of 80s horror—Gordon, Crampton, Band, actor Jeffrey Combs, producer Brian Yuzna, screenwriter Dennis Paoli—Sonnier, Steinsiek and Crampton have the opportunity to build a new horror sensibility out of the material of the past.