Haeckel's Tale (2006)
Director: John McNaughton
Screenplay: Mick Garris
Based on a short story by Clive Barker
Cast: Steve Bacic as John Ralston; Micki Maunsell as Miz Carnation; Gerard Plunkett as Dr. Hauser; Derek Cecil as Ernst Haeckel; Pablo Coffey as Chester; Jon Polito as Montesquino; Warren Kimmel as Faron; Jill Morrison as Rachel; Leela Savasta as Elise Wolfram
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #17
[Warning - This review contains major spoilers]
Ending my viewing of Masters of Horror Season 1, everything ends with necrophilia. Certainly a memorable way to end the series after thirteen episodes. Haeckel's Tale, based on a Clive Barker story, was also the other episode another director had to step in to replace one that couldn't join the production schedule in time. This one particularly raises a curious what-if in that it was originally the late George A. Romero who was meant to direct this. As a director known for his zombie films, this scenario here with a noticeably kinkier take on them would've raised questions in where he'd go with the subject matter even if following the same Mick Garris screenplay. Instead, when Romero had to step away, in his place came John McNaughton. Whilst there are a few other horror films in his filmography, his reputation in this genre is built upon Henry: A Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), as drastically different from Haeckel's Tale as you could get in tone. He does well though, knowing all this backstory, with this gristly period piece, a slice of 19th century morbidness in which a man is warned of the dangers of resurrecting the dead, in bookend segments, by the tale of Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil) a wannabe Victor Frankenstein whose failures in actually raising the dead lead him both to Montesquino (Jon Polito), a self proclaimed necromancer, and a couple with a significant age gap, the older Walter Wolfram (Tom McBeath) and his younger wife Elise (Leela Savasta), who rely on Montesquino's services for some very eyebrow raising reasons that prove love will even overcome rotting flesh.
The result's an obvious transgressive plot twist in the end, of love beyond the death of one's lover, but that doesn't stop this from being memorable. It seems pointless to elaborate on this plot as once the plot twist is fully revealed, it has no need for over elaborating on this point. Instead, in favour for Haeckel's Tale is its weirdly luscious tone that's appropriate for an adaptation of Clive Barker. Its behind Takashi Miike's Imprint (2006) in terms of production design, but being the only other period story of the series drastically helps it, as for period detail it inherently requires a clear aesthetic with some care for it rather than shooting in a modern day setting without concern for the environments chosen. The 19th century is perfect for cinema not just for adapting the stories written in the period but because it was an era crossing rationalism through scientific innovation with gothic aesthetic, leading to a decadence in the aesthetic (from the clothes to the locations) which works for horror cinema, from the resurrectionists to literature itself from the likes of Mary Shelley, That Haeckel's Tale is effectively taking a century old message from folklore, that one has to accept death and any attempt to change that is cause for later remorse, fits the era Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was written within. That Haeckel's Tale by way of Clive Barker twists this with a significant exceptional to the rule - if one loves another physically and romantically with flesh or not - not only stands out in the period setting but feels more sacrilegious and subversive as a period piece than set in the modern day.
Its far more so as the ending suggests a beautiful romance between lover and her decaying late husband that transcends the age of either of the couple and one that even becomes a polyamorous relationship with multiple husbands, appropriate from a story by the creator of Hellraiser. It also manages, bizarrely, to evoke Peter Jackson's Brain Dead (1992) with an undead baby, unintentionally hilarious but not distracting to a tone that already has a macabre sense of humour secretly within it already. Haeckel's Tale in general is a solid episode for the series because of this. Its only flaw is nothing to do with the quality of the episode itself, only that it has to bare the weight on its shoulders of other episodes which were less than stellar inclusions, forcing it to have to be picked at more severely in terms of whether it's great episode or just a good, solid one as it actually is. That doesn't however detract from what it does right.
Masters of Horror Season 1: Conclusion
After all thirteen episodes have been finished, Masters of Horror Season 1 shows itself an awkward experiment, one which was hindered by the title itself. With the weight of expectation that title presents, the irony was that having some of the most iconic directors of the genre helming episodes wasn't something the series was possible to lean on. Its production style, as episodic anthology television on a quick schedule, completely goes against hiring directors like the late Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter in that their trademarks have to be compromised for the shift deadlines. What was a tantalising prospect on paper was actually a poisoned chalice in execution especially as television, unless it has the budget for theatrical cinema level production, lives and dies on factors like performances and scripts rather than their directors.
The scripts were the biggest issue. Even if the series concentrated on presenting solid twist frights, from well used but still reliable tropes, it would've been enough to have made this series more rewarding. A lot of the episodes however didn't even structure the basics of traditional horror plots well, even ones I was fonder of like Takashi Miike's entry Imprint suffering from botched ending twists if not, with other examples, the entire structure being completely off. It was actually most of the critically acclaimed episodes as well which were the worst offenders for their scripts for the exact reasons they were once praised. John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns being pleased with its cursed film plot but wasting time continually expositing on this trope. Dario Argento's film Jenifer really feeling like a collection of gore scenes without the charm of the schlockier Italian hits, which sounds hypocritical from a die-hard Italian horror fan who knows how many of them of yore were notorious for nonsensical plots, but with the significant different here being an utter lack of mood they had and with a rich psychosexual level to the plot that it wasted. And Joe Dante's Homecoming, probably the most disappointing of them all, being an utterly one note political tale which may have been necessary back during the Iraq War in 2005 but feels so political malnourished in meaningful ideas.
The project ultimately wasn't strong for the most well known horror directors as a result. Some, like Stuart Gordon, left the project as being utterly reliable with their jobs whilst others led to immense disappointments that would unfavourably be compared to their theatrical hits, fed by the marketing of the series with their involvement. The question of who qualified as a "Master", whilst a greater issue for Season 2 in the future, did rear its head briefly too. Mick Garris, executive producer of the series, including himself in the director's chair would've rose an eyebrow from viewers but really it came more into question with William Malone, whose House on Haunted Hill remake I liked but sadly coming in flat with his episode Fair-Haired Child. If I'm going to rank at least the top three episodes, the best of the series came not only for one of two later replacements for the directors originally chosen who had to step away from the project, but was Sick Girl by Lucky McKee, at that point in 2005-6 new blood for the genre. As the young hot talent in a group of old veterans, he topped the whole series with an episode which felt exactly like his one sole known film beforehand (May (2001) in tone, putting together a story with emotional depth, fun and two memorable central performances.
The second best was Deer Woman by John Landis, from a director who has only directly two catagorisable horror films, one legendary, but has mainly done comedy and other genres for his whole career, undermining this project being where the best in horror cinema would actually produce the best episodes. The result here though was deeply underrated, openly presenting a farce with his son Max Landis' script in which they took a mythological creature and placed it in the modern day, letting the audience know from the beginning its existence whilst the police chasing it are the ones left baffled by what they learn. I will remember Brian Benben having to console a crying man about his dead monkey. I will remember that, secretly, what could be a one note tone actually has a poignant commentary about the appropriation of American Indian culture when one sees inside a ghastly Native American themed casino. I will remember the entire, extended punch line Benben imagining various bizarre dear related murder scenarios in bed and being as baffled by what he images. I will remember, for a series that could arguably have been a little juvenile in its lashings of gore and female nudity, especially as banning Miike's Imprint off US cable brings up a huge discrepancy with the lack of restrictions allowed, that you can't argue with Cinthia Moura with her literal doe-eyes being utterly gorgeous as she tempts men on to their doom. And importantly, I've now come around more to the confessional scene of culpability for the protagonist having connotations to Landis exorcising his guilt about what happened during Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), which has to be the one legitimately meaningful moment you take from the series entirely above everything else.
Finally for third? One of the veterans chosen helming a solid and fun spooky tale in Larry Cohen's Pick Me Up. Both a well made tale with a three act structure, a twist and Michael Moriarty stealing the entire season. Even with the weaker episodes, the real surprise wasn't the directors chosen but, for a medium that depends on performances especially, the actors onscreen. Regardless of my divisive opinion on Masters of Horror Season 1, I will gladly end this coverage of said series with praise for the various actors who stood out as they were the real highlights. The late Angus Scrimm, in Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, playing a mad old man so delighted with everything that his infectiousness could make anyone both happy and as insane as him if stuck with him for hours. Matt Frewer, a Mick Garris regular, in the later's episode Chocolate as the lovable, older friend and joker who can still head a rock band in full Mohawk punk regilia. Angela Bettis being as awesome as she was in May as Sick Girl's lead, a reversal of what was a male character originally allowing her to be a rare case of a geeky woman with verisimilitude to her and being utterly lovable, a greater boost in how her love interest for the story is softcore star Misty Mundae, under her real name Erin Brown, giving such a great performance too that I wish, as I did back when I first saw Sick Girl, that she entered into more known roles. Youki Kudoh, managing to go from being the seventeen year old actress in an iconic role in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989) to running rings around every other actor in Imprint, especially Billy Drago in what was arguably the worst performance of the whole series, so bad it actually added a feminist dynamic to the narrative which his excitied whinging. Brian Benben and Anthony Griffith as the central cops of Deer Woman, utterly sympathetic as the cops left scratching their heads at the joke only the viewers are in on with perfect comedic banter between them and the rest of the cast. And finally, Michael Moriarty in Pick Me Up. Because Michael Moriarty.