Masters of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale (Television)

Episode 12

Starrring Derek Cecil, Jon Polito

Directed by John McNaughton

Airdate: January 27th, 2006

I was a little more than slightly worried when I saw that this week’s installment was to be directed by John McNaughton, whose only claim to horror fame so far as I can find dates back to the 1986 release of Henry: Portrait of a Killer. And while that was, without a doubt, a great movie, it didn’t seem enough to classify him as a “master”. I was somewhat appeased to hear that his entry was based on a Clive Barker story and adapted by series creator Mick Garris.

As the episode begins, an attractive young man by the name of Mr. Ralston has come in the middle of the night to a shack. It’s apparent by his dress, and the fact that he’s tying a horse up at a sort of hitching post, that this is a period piece. We quickly learn that the elderly woman he’s come to visit is a Necromancer, and he’s come to ask her to raise his newly departed wife from the dead. She tells him she can’t help him, which causes him to plead, begging on the basis of his deep love for his wife.

The old woman begins to tell him the tale of Ernst Haeckel (Cecil) and says if Mr. Ralston still wants her to bring back his darling wife once she’s finished the story, she’ll be happy to oblige. Ernst is a highly intelligent, good-looking and entitled young medical student who believes there is no god and that life and death are the province of science and can be controlled. His beliefs are aided and abetted by the experiments of certain German scientists (some viewers might recognize the mentioned Dr. Frankenstein).

Haeckel is trying to follow in Victor’s footsteps and return the spark of life to people that have passed, perhaps to save the life of his ailing father. When he receives notice that his father’s condition has worsened, Ernst departs immediately on foot to reach his father’s side. It is during this journey, while resting one rainy night on the side of the road, that he meets the elderly Walter Wolfram and his beautiful young wife Elise. It becomes clear quite quickly that not only is young Haeckel very attracted to the stunning woman, but something very strange is going on in the Wolfram household, with the aid of Professor Montesquino (the wonderful Jon Polito), a man who claims to be a Necromancer, but whom Haeckel believes is a hack.

The story is definitely flavored with Clive Barker’s style, even filtered through Mick’s adaptation. Though I’ve never read the story on which it’s based, I imagine that the script remained pretty close to the original tale. McNaughton may not have serious horror chops, but he manages quite extremely in this instance. The acting is spot on, despite (or maybe because of) none of the characters being played by high wattage stars. And in true Clive style, the tale is full of disturbingly sexual overtones and some wonderfully gruesome bits, including a wonderful scene when young Haeckel stops to rest beneath a tree for a quick snack.

All in all, I would have to say this is one of my favorite installments of all. True grue and horror, sex and death. All the good stuff is here, and it’s a great way to end the first season of this landmark show.

5 out of 5

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