Terror Films 'The Castle' Is One Stop Through Horror's Backcountry Every Viewer Should Avoid

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In the old (and current, for that matter) Hollywood order, any path towards bringing a script to completion followed a very narrow and arduous trail through an inflexible system concerned not with creative expression but the All-Mighty Box Office Return. Simple, dumbed-down affairs that appeal to the lowest common denominator and widest possible audience is continually favored over individualistic celluloid statements meant to provoke genuine emotion or thought. How many times has the complaint arisen that major studios crank out soulless, CGI-bolstered popcorn blockbusters to the detriment of true artistic vision? Yet the world of independent cinema has its own pitfalls: limited time, money and resources coupled with a lack of name actors presents a marketing mountain that can prove daunting to effectively climb. A solid concept, therefore, provides the surest route to winning an audience's allegiance. Ensnaring viewers’ imaginations with a tale they'll never forget allows a filmmaker to hide a multitude of budgetary sins.

Terror Films/African Renaissance Movies/LX Seth Productions frustrating new horror effort, The Castle, is not one of those triumphant indie success stories. Aggravating on multiple levels, this South African import starts off on a decent, if familiar, note, as a quartet of twenty-somethings head to the remote bush for some much-needed booze and buffoonery only to be quickly dispatched by a masked madman. Jumping ahead, the narrative thereafter focuses on newlyweds Michael (writer/director/editor/film scorer Arish Sirkisson) and Catherine (Rio Notra), whose impromptu ceremony is a result of the bride's reservations about her beau's loyalty after he was caught kissing her sister. With Michael’s own relatives abroad, the pair embark on a new future together...until their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Alone, without cell phone service, they hike through the badlands until the strangely unlocked and unguarded titular manor looms on the horizon.

Despite its isolated locale and abandoned nature, the castle looks astoundingly well-kept, and when the couple decides to make themselves at home for the night, Catherine immediately sees shadowy figures, hears ghostly wails and experiences nightmares. Soon after, Michael is seemingly killed by the hooded murderer from the opening scene, initiating a tedious game of hide-and-seek that ends with Catherine in the clutches of a familial cult eager to shed innocent blood.

Like many a modern terror flick, The Castle boasts impressive superficial craftsmanship. The multi-tasking Sirkisson is obviously possessed of the bristling energy, enthusiasm and enviable skills to deliver a worthwhile filmic experience. With its above-average production values, superior cinematography and authentically enjoyable soundtrack (the rockin' retro-'80's electro-pop tune following Michael and Catherine's wedding may well be the high point of the entire endeavor), the movie’s glossy, attractive sheen easily lures an audience in...and then lets them down at every possible turn with shabby acting, a lifeless rent-a-plot and contrived, unbelievable story twists (Catherine, for instance, secrets a razor beneath her tongue following an early encounter with the manor's maniac, meanders the property, gets knocked unconscious, tied up and extensively tortured, only for it to be revealed she still has the blade hidden in her mouth--without losing it or injuring herself--that she then uses to slice through ropes to free herself. Forget the yoga instructing, honey. A Vegas magician's act would be infinitely more lucrative.). The film's climax, too, intended to be a show-stopper, feels bland; once unmasked, the killers (yes, plural) are butcher knife toting taunters of the Scream variety (complete with electronically distorted voices so indecipherable they nessecitated their own onscreen subtitles), inspiring yawns rather than scares with their rants about immortality, cannibalism and virgin sacrifice and incapable of withstanding even the corniest of Catherine's Nancy Drew-level escape attempts (Horror Movie Tip No. 666: the next time a cadre of costumed psychopaths capture you, simply don one of their discarded outfits and sneak right past them! By golly, who knew eluding evildoers was so easy?).

The saddest aspect of The Castle is that the unsavory shenanigans are all the more unpalatable due to the lack of irony or tongue-in-cheek humor that could've compensated for the script's structural strain. It's clear Sirkisson held earnest ambitions of frightening his audience, and while there exists a feeble attempt to build promote socially-relevant themes regarding race and class, the sober-faced seriousness actually works against the goal. While one wouldn't have expected (or really wanted) this to be a broad horror-comedy, a touch of over-the-top camp or homage to the sleazy slasher or Eurohorror gothic-gore set pieces that so obviously influenced it (Nightmare Castle, anyone?) would've gone a long way towards legitimizing the inherent ridiculousness of the movie as is.

Improbable, illogical and worst of all, dreadfully, despairingly dull, The Castle is one stop through horror's backcountry every viewer should do their best to avoid, and I sorrowfully bestow it a meager 1 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. I've wasted too many precious minutes of my life on this so you won't have to. Don't let my sacrifice be in vain.

1.0 / 5.0