A Pair of 88s #2: Castle Freak

As we've recently lost Stuart Gordon, there's really been no question in my mind that the second 88 Films release we'd look at would be his underrated Castle Freak. While it's certain that Re-Animator was his quintessential masterpiece, Gordon was no one hit wonder, and he leaves behind a body of work with a lot of fascinating curiosities worth exploring, including this Full Moon direct-to-video frightener from 1995.  And like our last comparison, it's another film that was released on blu-ray in both the US and UK, but 88's import is, I daresay, objectively better.
Like From Beyond, Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli have again taken a very short HP Lovecraft ("The Outsider"), that managed to fill about two minutes of screentime, and fleshed out an entire feature around it.  This time it's a particularly pulpy one about a couple (Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, together again) and their blind teenage daughter who find out they've inherited a Romanian castle.  But nobody told them it comes with a tenant, one who's been chained up in the basement for over forty years.  And he's not ready to receive guests.

It's worth noting that there were both R (which trims some graphic sex and violence) and unrated versions (a.k.a. the director's cut) originally released on VHS.  But practically every version released on disc has been the unrated version, so I wouldn't worry about getting stuck with a censored cut no matter which edition you wind up going with.
On the one hand, this is a shorter schedule, lower budget film compared to Stuart's previous Lovecrafts, and it shows.  If you're expecting the third chapter, you're going to be disappointed.  The plot's simpler and more ham-fisted, although there are a few clever plot twists involving secondary characters in the later acts.  And Combs' jittery wrestling with guilt and alcoholism is fun here, but he doesn't deliver a performance on the level of his more famous roles.  On the other hand, compared to Full Moon's slate that year, none of their other projects were even playing in Gordon's league.  It doesn't hurt that one of the reasons this film got off the ground is because Charles Band bought a real castle, and that lends some impressively authentic production values you won't sure see in Full Moon's DTV competition.  The titular freak is a fantastic full-body make-up, especially for its time.  Even major studio horror fare didn't look as good as Castle Freak's.  And Richard Band's rich orchestrations have always been Full Moon's secret weapon.  So it might be a second tier flick, but it's one of the very best examples of the second tier.
Full Moon first pressed Castle Freak on DVD back in 1997; it was practically a new release that had just come out on VHS in 1995 and laserdisc in 1997.   They reissued it a few times, including an interesting little Stuart Gordon Box Set in 2006, but it's always been the same fullscreen disc.  At least until the HD era.  In 2012, 88 Films released a new, remastered widescreen edition on DVD.  And in 2013, that same transfer was used for a Full Moon blu in the US and an 88 Films blu in the UK, both with additional goodies.
1) 1997 US Full Moon DVD; 2) 2012 UK 88 DVD; 3) 2013 UK 88 BD.
Full Moon's full screen DVD is 1.31:1, while both 88 releases matte it down to 1.85:1.  Yes, it's a complete open/ closed matte situation, with the widescreen transfers gaining just slivers on the side.  You can tell by the matching film damage that the two 88 discs were taken from the same film source, unlike the Full Moon DVD, which is free of that damage.  It's also a much softer, flatter image, though, and it's a bit green; so you'd be mad to choose it over one of the newer transfers.  Well, unless you prefer the fullscreen aspect ratio.  As a direct-to-video in the mid 90s, this film was originally released that way and is very arguably the true OAR.  On the other hand, the film was shot on 35mm and apparently played in a handful of foreign festivals back at the time of its release, so it's probable it was shot with both ARs in mind, and quite possibly with with 1.85:1 as the director's preference.  Certainly, the fullscreen looks boxier and less attractive to my eye.

Anyway, looking closer at the two 88's, while they're in the same AR and taken from the same source, it's not just a case of the same transfer slapped on SD and HD discs.  The DVD is zoomed in a little tighter, meaning the blu-ray reveals more around the edges.  In terms of color timing, contrast, etc, it's all the same though.  Of course, the blu is sharper and clearer, being in HD and all.  Edges and film grain that are smoothed over on the DVD are crisp on the blu, although that's not to say that the film grain is perfectly captured.  It's sporadic and has a pixelated feel.  The film could definitely benefit from a fresher 4k scan.  But we have isn't bad, and easily preferable to the DVDs.

In terms of audio, both DVDs offer a clean stereo mix with no subtitles.  The blu-ray doesn't have any subs either, but it bumps the track up to LPCM and also adds a new 5.1 mix in DTS-HD.  This is one area where 88 becomes the clear choice over the Full Moon blu-ray, because while it also has both tracks (and no subs either), both of its audio mixes are lossy.
In terms of extras, both DVDs are essentially the same.  They include the trailer and the original "Videozone" featurette, which was a making of promo that used to be included at the end of every Full Moon VHS release.  As I recall, the original they used to consist of a lot of ads and promos, but the DVDs have cut it down to just the nine minute behind-the-scenes 'making of' portion.  At under ten minutes, it's not the deep documentary dive we'd all like, but it's a nice little featurette and very welcome.  Besides that, both DVDs include a heap of promo trailers and commercials.

The blu-rays add a little more.  Both include a brief but rewarding interview with Stuart Gordon himself.  They seem to have cornered him in a hotel for a festival or something, so he doesn't get as expansive as we'd like, but it's a very welcome addition.  Now the Full Moon blu does have one exclusive in addition to this: an interview with Gordon, Crampton and Combs by none other than William Shatner.  But I've seen it on youtube, and it's fairly short and very superfluous, with Shatner more concerned with whether the trio believe in ghosts than any of the ideas behind their film.  Meanwhile, 88 has a whole other film as an exclusive on their disc.
The Evil Clergyman is a 1988 short (roughly half hour) HP Lovecraft film starring Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Re-Animator's David Gale and David Warner.  It's written by Dennis Paoli and directed by Charles Band.  It was originally intended to be part of an anthology feature film called Pulse Pounders, which was shot but never released, and the original film elements were apparently lost.  But around 2012, Band found a workprint VHS tape, missing a final audio mix.  So he restored it from the tape, adding new sound effects and a fresh (and slightly overblown, I'd guess in an attempt to wash over the poor sound quality of the tape) score by Richard Band.  As you can imagine, the tape-based transfer isn't close to how this film was meant to be seen, but it's all we've got.  And after decades of only knowing of it as a legendary lost film, it's pretty great.  Especially since the story itself is pretty wild and terrific.  Yeah, Band's direction is flat - imagine if Gordon had been at the helm - but if you liked Castle Freak, you're sure to get a kick out of Clergyman.  Full Moon released it as a stand-alone DVD [left] here in the states.  But in the UK, it was a bonus on 88's Castle Freak BD (for the record, it's not on their 2012 DVD).
1) 2012 US Full Moon DVD; 2) 2013 UK 88 BD.
As this was taken from a VHS tape, and a low-quality one at that, you can imagine that getting this in HD on the blu isn't a huge advantage.  But it kind of is, because the US DVD botched it a little.  They released it as a non-anamorphic, horizontally stretched 1.57:1 transfer.  88 Gives it a fuller, and un-squashed 1.41:1 transfer that's at least somewhat less ugly.  Otherwise, it's the same master.  Even though it's taken from a videotape, there's also plenty of film damage that made it to the tape, but honestly it's not at all distracting considering the far greater flaws of the tape source.  The audio is lossy on both discs.  Just keep reminding yourself: we're lucky to be looking at what we've got, at least until Band discovers the original negatives in a box a few years from now.

The Evil Clergyman had a very brief featurette interviewing the Combs, Crampton and the Bands at a film festival.  It's not much, but it's better than nothing.  They also include a short look at another segment from Pulse Pounders (a mini-sequel to the film Trancers), which was later released in the same style as The Evil Clergyman.  Happily, 88's blu-ray includes these extras from the Clergyman DVD, too.  They also throw on a trailer for Gordon's other Full Moon film, The Pit and The Pendulum.  And their release includes reversible artwork.
So yeah, Castle Freak is a cool little movie, and the lossless audio already makes this the preferred presentation.  But the inclusion of the surprisingly entertaining Evil Clergyman and its extras to boot?  Now it's a real must-have.  Even if you've already got the US blu, I'd say it's worth the trouble to replace it.

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