Written by: Clive Barker (short story), Mick Garris (teleplay)
Directed by: John McNaughton
Starring: Steve Bacic, Micki Maunsell and Gerard Plunkett
Reviewed by: Brett G.
A few Masters of Horror episodes have featured collaborations from several writers and directors, but Haeckelís Tale may feature the most interesting combination of talent yet. George Romero was originally tapped to direct, but he had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict, leaving John McNaughton to take the reigns (but only after Roger Corman had to decline due to health issues). Romeroís name is actually still attached via a ďproduced in association withĒ credit, so thereís an interesting clash of styles here, as Romeroís supernatural and comic book style chops are a bit at odds with the coarse grittiness we associate with McNaughtonís Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Complicating the mix even further is Clive Barker, who provided the original short story that riffs upon Frankenstein. So, for those keeping track at home, Haeckelís Tale is one part McNaughton and one part Barker, with a dash of Romero and Frankenstein tossed in for good measure, so this should be quite a tale indeed.
Itís actually told via a frame story, as a young guy (Steve Bacic) visits an elderly necromancer in the 19th century (Micki Maunsell) in the hopes of resurrecting his dead wife. The old lady agrees to do so under the condition that he listen to the strange tale of Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil), an ambitious young man who once dreamed of bringing the dead back to life through science. Driven by the impending death of his own father, he seeks to reanimate corpses at his medical school, and he eventually seeks out the black arts of a local necromancer named Montesquino (Jon Politio) before his travels lead him to a disturbing scene involving a strange husband and wife duo.
Haeckelís Tale feels very familiar, at least at first, when itís concerned with Ernstís attempt to follow in the footsteps of Frankenstein; in fact, it feels like such a transparent rip-off of Shelleyís novel that I was almost relieved when they actually reference that Haeckel is inspired by the actual Victor Frankenstein, whose exploits in Germany have already grown infamous. This was sort of a neat Easter egg; so many stories are content to merely reference Frankenstein the novel, but Haeckelís Tale is more of a parallel story that imagines that other people would have attempted to carry on the same sort of work, and the rhetoric here is all very similar: Haeckelís labeled a pariah and is warned against playing god, which seems like an especially good idea when his experiments fail in grand and grisly fashion.
Itís at that point that Haeckelís Tale takes off a bit, as it shifts gears to become less of a Frankenstein tale and more of a dark mystery thatís shrouded in mysticism. While Iím not familiar with how accurately it follows the original short story, it actually begins to feel like Clive Barker material once Haeckel meets Montesquino because the film just gets weirder and weirder from that point. You can especially feel Barkerís trademark mixture of the gothic and the macabre--there are resurrected dog corpses among other gruesome sights, and all of this is waiting for Haeckel at the end of his journey. Thereís a foreboding sense of horror because Cecilís Haeckel is so cocksure that you just know something bad is going to happen to him. When heís told not to visit a necropolis at night, thereís little doubt that he will, and heís greeted with quite a sight when he stumbles onto one of the sickest gangbangs youíll ever see. Whatever touch Romero had on this project is felt strongest here, as his fingerprints are all over a scene that features an undead horde devouring the living.
Oddly enough, you feel a lot more of Romero and Barker than you do McNaughton, who guides everything with a steady hand and gets a nice assist from the outstanding production design this series has had to offer. The period setting is brought to life with elaborate sets and costumes, with the necropolis being an especially creepy set-piece that works well. Like a lot of Masters of Horror episodes, Haeckelís Tale is full of cool little things and moments that work, but something about it doesnít quite stick; itís well-performed and shot, but itís just a short story that thrives more on visuals and horrific events, with its characters acting more as conduits than anything. Once Haeckel sets off to learn more about necromancy, I feel like the dynamic shifts a bit; rather than being a character study of one manís obsession, it turns into a series of gore gags and plot twists, right down to the final scene when we bounce back to the frame story.
Haeckelís Tale is a good mixture of a campfire story and a fairy tale; itís got a dark ďonce upon a timeĒ sensibility, and, visually speaking, it cuts to the core of what makes Barker so great. His imagination has been host to some twisted ideas, and Haeckelís Tale can be counted among them, and Masters of Horror is a good vehicle for it. As usual, you can check it out on Netflix Instant or pick up Anchor Bayís disc, which is a typically stellar effort, filled with the usual behind-the-scenes interviews, making-of fluff, a retrospective about McNaughtonís career, and the director also provides a commentary track to round out the extras. No matter which way you go about it, Haeckel's Tale isn't a bad little yarn to spin on a dark, rainy night. Rent it!
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