Episode 1.12 John McNaughton’s ‘Haeckel’s Tale’

Inside we added the review for the final episode of the first season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror (all reviews) anthology, which is John McNaughton’s Haeckel’s Tale. The real final episode, Takashi Miike’s 60-minute film, will debut on DVD because of some fetal content. All of the other films will find their way to DVD thanks to Anchor Bay in 2006. Read on for the DVD…
Masters of Horror 1.12
John McNaughton’s Haeckel’s Tale
Reviewed By: Tex Massacre
6/10 or 3 Skulls

Don’t lie, this is the episode you have been waiting for, a genre geeks wet dream, the horror in Masters of Horror. The pedigree is damn near flawless. Haeckel’s Tale was originally to be directed by Zombie legend George Romero. Unfortunately, time constraints forced Romero to step aside, though the episode is justifiably dedicated to him. Director John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) then stepped up and fell into some mighty hefty lead boots. Here was McNaughton, about to direct a Zombie film, that was to be the coup de grace of the first season of Masters of Horror, based on a short story by the dark prince of horror sleaze – Clive Barker, and adapted for the screen by the executive producer and creator of the show – Mike Garris. Strictly speaking of course, McNaughton also holds the marked distinction of being the only director working on the first season of Masters of Horror who has not technically made a horror film – “Henry” arguably being a psuedo-biopic. So, how does the film fare? Well, you’ve heard the old adage about too many cooks ‘eh?

The story is some gross amalgamation of classic 1950’s Vault of Horror mixed with the very best of the 1960 house of Hammer, a dash of 70’s intestine eating and some unmistakable Clive “Bizzaro” Barker sex scenes and what you have are clearly not the makings for a Chaucer homage. Haeckel’s Tale is neatly broken up into two acts. The first focuses on the title characters obsession with what we will call “The Frankenstein Syndrome” and the second upon the nightmare that befalls our tragic hero. But before we get into all of that we need to start at the beginning, and like all tales that must be told, they must be a reason for the relation.

Distraught over the recent loss of his wife, Ralston (Steve Bacic) visits the secluded cabin of a fabled Necromancer to beg for the resurrection of his wife’s corpse. After the Necromancer refuses, she offers Ralston a deal, “If you truly love your wife, I will tell you the tale of Mr. Haeckel and upon hearing the tale, if you still wish above anything to have her back, then I will return her to you”. And so, begins the tale of Mr. Haeckel. Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil) is an idealistic medical student who believes above all else that he can grant the power of life. Ignoring his instructors quips and discounts, Haeckel sets out to prove his power. After an epic failure, Haeckel gains word of a local Necromancer, who is reported to have risen the dead. Haeckel takes a visit to the man only to dismiss his powers as a fool’s chicanery. Soon after his return, Haeckel discovers that his father, who has long battled illness, has taken a turn for the worse and so, Haeckel is summoned to his side. At once Haeckel sets off on the journey to his fathers deathbed, but the road is long and he must rest as the fall of night and inclement weather have staid his travels for the day. Haeckel is soon offered shelter at a nearby cottage by a pleasantly strange old man and his young and beautiful wife. The old man warns Haeckel of spending his nights in the vicinity of the Necropolis and offers wine and soup to sate the traveler’s thrust. Soon after filling his gut, Haeckel makes his way to the bedroom for a night like no other. You see, this house, this man and this woman are not what they appear to be, and the gruesome and carnal aberration that will transpire before the morning light will set in motion a living nightmare of unholy circumstance that will drive Haeckel to an immortal madness from the likes of which he will never recover.

This episode should have worked like gangbusters, even with McNaughton’s less than stellar résumé. Barker’s storylines, unlike Stephen King’s often overcome even the most inept direction, including that of Barker himself. So I find it difficult to lay blame directly on Barker, Garris or McNaughton. It seems that once again, time was the ingredient that spoiled our chef’s banquet of blood. The first half of the film sets up Haeckel’s arrival at the cottage where the real meat and potatoes of the plot takes place. Unfortunately, with the set up of the lead characters motivation eating up 30 minutes of runtime before even meeting the catalysts for the films climax, the introduction of the man, his wife, their backstory, the tension, the execution, the climax and the aftermath is a tall order for the final 25 minutes of any film. So dear friends, as the season ends, we’ll chalk up one more episode of Masters of Horror into the “ what coulda been” category.

As the first season has drawn to a close, I would be remiss without expressing a thought or two. The largest hurdle to vault for the filmmakers of Masters of Horror was the constraints of episodic television. Since Showtime, Garris and IDT allowed the directors full reign over content the last great mountain to climb, was transferring that unfettered vision to the screen in a reasonable amount of time. A few potentially excellent episodes of Masters of Horror have suffered immeasurably through the limitations of the hour-long format. Since I cannot foresee any resolution to this problem I fear that Season Two will also suffer this same fate. As for the first of what I would hope to be many future seasons of Showtime’s epic new series, I can only say that it was uneven at best but the episodes that worked, worked beautifully and some of those episodes like John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns are the epitome of what great genre filmmaking should be. I know that I, as a genre fan, was eager to see thirteen masterpieces of modern horror as much as all of you. What we got may not have been the Grand Guignol of horrordom but it was a damn fine start and we can always hold out hope that Takashi Miike’s “lost:” episode -Imprint will blow our minds when it makes its DVD debut later this year.

Source: Tex Massacre