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An American “CASTLE FREAK” in Albania, Part One

Thursday, January 14, 2021 | Exclusives, Guest Posts


Steinsiek, the makeup effects artist whose credits include PLAGUE TOWN, PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH and SCARE PACKAGE, recounts his odyssey as director of the remake of Stuart Gordon’s cult classic… (Photos by Aimee Kuge)

Morris, Oklahoma: 1995

It all started in the most unlikely of places. A town with more cattle than people, more people than jobs. A town not unlike something from the pages of an H.P. Lovecraft tale about a dread and isolated group that take their offspring into opulent temples of worship, yelling archaic words from an ancient manuscript and thrusting infants and children into ice-cold tubs of water, demanding their eternal allegiance–like it was ripped from the pages of THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH. Problem was, even as a young child I noticed “things.” I found myself wondering why a town of 1,300 needed a damn dozen churches. I watched as “good God- fearing folk” came in to beg their customized acquittal every Sunday, only to walk the same road of alcohol-fueled, bathtub-meth-mangled madness Monday through Saturday. Rinse, repeat.

I quickly discovered that irony. I also quickly discovered that if you take tidings envelopes, grasp them at their corners and yank, they open up into perfectly good 5-by-7-inch canvases. And they always had those tiny pencils with no erasers next to the stack. They used them to scrawl the name of anyone needing a good (but affordable) dose of grace purchased in their name that week. I used them to draw monsters. The preacher at the pulpit, waving his arms in the air and casting out demons; me, hiding in the back pews, hunched over and drawing them. I again noticed the irony.

But my hometown wasn’t complete alienation. There was one refuge: a tiny, one-room video store and its treasures that awaited me each week. This was my church. The owners knew the drill every time I walked in the door: I wanted “something my mom wouldn’t want me to see, the worst you got, and I want it in some innocuous case like THREE MEN AND A BABY Lastly, keep ’em coming; I’ll be back on Friday.” I think my mom actually believed that I watched ENCINO MAN for an entire summer, though I was cycling through fabled video-store bootlegs like RAWHEAD REX, the FACES OF DEATH series, DR. BUTCHER M.D.–you know, the classics. I even worked out a deal with the store, painting movie characters on their windows for free rentals. I had the horror hookup on lockdown in my sleepy little God-fearing town. And one day, a new title came in.​

I remember looking at the back of the box and seeing a masked figure with a maniac’s eye and mangled teeth pushing through. A woman being grabbed by a monster’s hand. Sold. And the title–how could I not love the title. The lady who ran the joint told me, “It’s banned in a lot of places, worse than CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, it’s like torture porn or something.” Did she say “torture porn”? I was already scared.

On that day, in the small Bible Belt community of Morris, Oklahoma, I fell in love with a movie called CASTLE FREAK.

Sure, I’d had a steady diet of “intense” horror films, or so I thought, right up until I met Giorgio Orsino. I was mesmerized. I watched as Giorgio watched, from behind his mask…afraid to show his true face. I felt as he felt, begging for love without benefit of a shared language. I ached as he ached at the mistreatment he endured, all in the name of God. “Wait, what is this? Am I relating to a monster?” I mean, I loved Freddy and Leatherface and all things bloodsoaked antihero, but this? This was an unfamiliar feeling in my young brain. At my age, outside of Tommy Jarvis or Atreyu, I had never really “related” to anyone in a movie, much less its villain. At this realization, I grinned. I knew whose team I was on: Humanity was the evil force, and we monsters needed to stick together. To tell our stories.

My loyalty remains unchanged.

This is where the true story begins. The parallels. The boy from Oklahoma watching a banned film. All the sex and violence and absolute depravity, showcased in the way only Full Moon could do it. But that was 1995. If we were going to do it again, we would have to push the envelope. Above all else, we had to shock and polarize. This was the purpose of the original, and before our story or concept, this was understood as our foundation. We wanted to create something that the young horror hellions of today could watch and be rendered slackjawed. “What the fuck did I just see?” Be it the atrocities or the eroticism or both, it had to leave a trace…a residue in their minds. CASTLE FREAK 1995 was a gateway drug to films like IRREVERSIBLE and MARTYRS, VISITOR Q and MERMAID IN A MANHOLE. Leaving behind the boyhood murderers like Freddy and Leatherface, and moving into a world populated with a simpler form of evil, pure and focused: The evil and sickness of man. This was truly terrible, and suddenly I was frightened in a new and fascinating way. This is what Stuart Gordon did for me, and this is what I wanted to do for the next generation. But 2019 was a different time, and we needed to create something different.

July 2019: “Holy shit, I’m directing a reboot of CASTLE FREAK!”

In the beginning, there were several discussions amongst the core team about concept. One mutual concept that kept arising was the concept of a female freak. Giorgio was, of course, famously castrated and more, but he always felt very androgynous to me. Taking it a step further was an intriguing concept, and I personally thought it gave us license to go in a ton of directions. After all, there is no better place to grow and create new and terrible things than inside a mother’s womb. Initially, I really wanted to tell the story in an ’80s setting, and make an authentic horror period piece. Budget (as it often does) forbade that approach, so we settled on keeping an ambiguity about the time of the story we were telling. No cell phones, or technology in general. Similarly when the professor yells at the film’s climax, “The two make one!”…let’s just say he’s not talking about Rebecca and the freak, but that’s a different article…

I originally wanted to write this reimagining, to be purely responsible for the shock audiences would experience. That’s a golden trifecta: overseeing story, visuals and effects. Alas, it quickly became vividly clear that coordinating the special makeup and directing would be more than enough for my single brain/body to accomplish on our timeline, so Kathy Charles wound up doing the honors. Regardless of ambition, the body needs rest; I mean, we had to find actors and a crew, build tons of prosthetics and props and, fuck, secure a castle. “How the hell do you find a castle?” This is where I discovered that, as they tend to do in horror, everything leads back to…Joe Bob Briggs.

During a taping of Shudder’s THE LAST DRIVE-IN, Joe Bob reviewed CASTLE FREAK 1995, and producers Justin Martell and Matt Manjourides discovered that the reimagining was in the works. Justin and Matt had produced films for Troma before, one of which was shot in Albania. While there, Justin and Matt made a few connections–“We have a castle where we can shoot that movie” kinds of connections. The team was born.

Justin works with a company called Pioneer Media that provides production services all over Eastern Europe and Asia. They fast-tracked the process, and before I knew it, the production was outlined. It was incomprehensible what they had to set up and how quickly they had to do it, but within days, e-mails were flying in showing off what the Albanian film community was capable of: original sculptures, a giant crucifix, building all the interiors from the ground up (little-known fact: castles don’t actually have bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, etc.). This is a testament to the level of artistry in Albania. They are a powerful bunch, proud, and why wouldn’t they be? Their rich history goes back as far as any on the planet. The fortress where we would be shooting was constructed in the 1100s, and I had dinner in restaurants older than my country. When you immerse yourself in a culture like this, one that has harbored a deep sense community for centuries and centuries, you truly feel it. It’s magic.

Soon Matt and Justin were off to Albania. I stayed behind in the U.S. to lead the effects build with the rest of that crew, break down the script, storyboard, start casting sessions, etc. I’m not sure I slept for six weeks. Additionally, one of the most challenging parts of directing a script written by someone else is the time it takes to get inside that story. It isn’t as fluid a process as directing something you yourself have written and nurtured, creating notebooks and notebooks of backstory that never see the page, just so you can understand your characters once they arrive at the page. There is a familiarity with that process, like old friends. Directing something you haven’t written is more like someone handing you a coloring book and a box of crayons. In many ways, I found this the hardest part of the early process–that is, until the effects schedule landed. Jesus.

Doubling my roles on CASTLE FREAK had me doing all things director by day, while by night I was back in my familiar role as the overworked, nocturnal effects artist. It was quite an eye-opening experience working on a small budget, creating effects for myself as the director, who expects nothing but the best from his makeup department. “I don’t care about your budget; make it perfect!” Effects artist Tate felt overworked, unappreciated. Director Tate didn’t want to hear it: “You know what you signed up for.” I needed help, both of us.

With less than two weeks’ notice, I called my friend Wayne Anderson, whose hands have literally helped create the Predator, IT’s Pennywise, JURASSIC dinosaurs and more. He’s top-shelf, and I had limited funds, but it was worth a shot. “Ever heard of a movie called CASTLE FREAK?” I led with. I began with all the smoke and mirrors I could muster, offered him this “chance of a lifetime” gig, etc. Wayne noted that this was “yet another ridiculous project/deadline,” and I agreed he wasn’t wrong. He laughed, called me a motherfucker and told me he was in. Wayne designed, sculpted, ran foam, seamed and painted an entire creature suit, multiple cowls, multiple faces, multiple hands and feet, in under two weeks. He got the box on the plane just in time to collapse and head to the hospital, the way he tells it. The glamorous world of filmmaking…