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Masters of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale (DVD)

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Haeckel's Tale DVD (click for larger image)Starring Derek Cecil, Tom McBeath, Leela Savasta, Jon Polito, Steve Bacic

Directed by John McNaughton

Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment


With Showtime’s second season of Masters of Horror in full swing, it’s a bit strange to be revisiting Season One concurrently with new installments being aired for the first time, but with the release of the series’ final two DVD’s this month and next (“Fair Haired Child” finally makes its home video bow December 12th), we reviewers don’t have much choice. But that’s okay with this woman as I missed “Haeckel’s Tale,” the last episode of the first season, during its initial run and have been curious to see if I’d concur with the numerous positive reviews I’ve seen for it. The short answer is “nope,” but the long answer is a lot more complex.

“Haeckel’s Tale,” based on a Clive Barker short story, was scripted by MOH‘s creator and executive producer Mick Garris and directed by John McNaughton, who was tapped for the job after George Romero bowed out (Romero does still receive an “In Association With…” credit at the beginning of the episode). Although he is, of course, best known for directing and co-writing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, my fondest memories of McNaughton revolve around the episodes of the acclaimed TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street” that he directed, which coincidentally often co-starred Jon Polito. Adding to the incestuous nature of “Haeckel’s Tale” is the fact that Derek Cecil worked with both McNaughton and Polito on the short-lived series “Push, Nevada.” These previous collaborations are discussed in some depth in the various featurettes found on the disc, and the men’s mutual admiration of and affection for each other is apparent — and well warranted as all three are quite gifted.

But let’s begin at the beginning. “Haeckel’s” is a tale within a tale. Set in the mid 1800’s, it begins with widower John Ralston (Bacic) visiting his local necromancer, Miz Carnation, with a plea that she revive the deceased wife whose funeral he has just attended. Miz Carnation hems and haws and claims to be unable to help him, using the excuse that she’s “all used up” in that regard, but he persists. Finally, in an effort to silence the young man, she begins recounting the saga of Ernst Haeckel. If, at the end of the telling, Ralston is still desirous of her services, then she promises to oblige. It should be noted that this intro (and its corresponding outro) are add-ons written solely by Garris, not a part of Barker’s original story.

Haeckel's Tale DVD (click for larger image)Interestingly, Ernst Haeckel was an actual person — an eminent German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor, and artist. The Ernst Haeckel in this story is a medical student who has studied the work of one Dr. Victor Frankenstein, embraced atheism, and become obsessed with the notion of re-animating corpses. His first attempt, on a young woman, results in her body being burned beyond recognition. The fire we see consume her is, in fact, real. The same innovative fire-making gel (and the same girl) used in the MOH episode “Dance of the Dead” was employed here as well. Undeterred, Haeckel vows to continue his work, but he’s sidetracked when Chester, the individual from whom he buys bodies for his experiments, informs him of the presence of the necromancer Montesquino (Polito) on the outskirts of town. The scientist in Haeckel cannot believe the “magic” Montesquino performs and wants to see things for himself. Montesquino revives a dead dog and then kills him again right before Haeckel’s eyes. A grieving couple beseeches him to restore their dead child to them. Of course, says Montesquino — for a price. Disgusted, but also intrigued, Haeckel returns to his quarters to contemplate what he’s seen, but his reverie is interrupted when he is informed that his father has fallen ill. He heads off into the woods on a journey to visit his father, first encountering a hanged pederast in a rather pointless, yet stomach-turning scene and then meeting a strange old man named Wolfram, who offers Haeckel shelter from the raging thunderstorm that has impeded his progress. Wolfram takes Haeckel home and introduces him to his beautiful but noticeably troubled wife, Elise.

And here is where “Haeckel’s Tale” loses its steam. Yes, there’s enough gore, nudity, and necrophilia to satisfy even the most hardened fan among us, but it all felt rather flat to me. By the time Haeckel’s tale was resolved and we returned to Miz Carnation and Mr. Ralston, I was restless and checking my watch — not a good sign for an hour-long program. But damn if I could figure out exactly why. All the elements for a truly great episode are there:

  • An outstanding cast. Cecil, Polito, and Savasta especially shine. It couldn’t have been an easy task for Savasta to do her climactic graveyard scene in the nude with so many people around (the shoot took two days), but after learning of her prior experience as a figure model, her naturalness and grace under such pressure make sense. Cecil and Polito’s previous instances of working together aside, they share an onscreen chemistry most actors would kill for. Even the extras are all perfectly matched to the period. So obviously the actors aren’t the problem. And considering the performances he managed to evoke, I’ll go out on a limb and say that McNaughton is definitely much more of a plus than a minus too.
  • Innovative camera work. McNaughton balances this episode between two extremes — overhead crane work and zoom — and the audience is rewarded with some breathtaking shots. We move effortlessly from being observers on high to seeing the characters’ reactions as close up as possible. McNaughton mentions being influenced by Hammer films and artist Hieronymus Bosch, and both are evident in the final product.

    Haeckel's Tale DVD (click for larger image)

  • Drop-dead gorgeous lighting and cinematography by Attila Szalay. “Haeckel’s Tale” is unquestionably one of the best looking entries in Season One of Masters of Horror. From the exteriors to the scenes filmed on-set, Szalay did a fabulous job of evoking the piece’s time and place, and McNaughton was dead on with his lavish praise of the man in his commentary. I’m glad to see Szalay’s name associated with several upcoming episodes in Season Two as well and look forward to enjoying even more of his talent and finesse over the coming weeks.
  • Set and costume design. Period pieces are never easy, and the time constraints of a MOH shoot (7 days to prep, 10 days to film) undoubtedly added to the stress. Factor in the Vancouver location, making suitable wardrobe and setpieces that much more difficult to find, and you’ve got a disaster waiting to happen. Somehow, though, the parties involved in “Haeckel’s Tale” more than rose to the occasion. In every featurette on the disc kudos are thrown out left and right to the production crew and seamstresses — quite common I know but clearly well deserved in this case. Those clothes were handmade for god’s sake! In less than a week! And if I hadn’t been told the graveyard was actually an indoor set rather than an outside location, I never would have suspected a thing it looked so real. Even after 120 straight days of shooting, the MOH team is nothing if not dedicated to their craft.
  • Makeup and effects. These were provided by KNB; need more be said? They are as stellar as always, especially that crazy-looking Giger-inspired zombie baby! Seeing how far Greg and Howard have come since working with McNaughton on The Borrower 15 years ago is a side benefit of the “Breaking Taboos” interview found in the special features.
  • Mention must also be made of the music by Nicholas Pike. His usage of various sound effects and instruments evokes the perfect type of melancholia a piece such as “Haeckel’s Tale” needs to convey. Again, I’m left scratching my head at what “Haeckel’s” shortcoming could be.
  • Haeckel's Tale DVD (click for larger image) Well, there is one thing I haven’t brought up, and that’s the script. I know Mick Garris isn’t the most popular writer out there in horror-land, but I’ve never had much of a problem with him myself … until now. By process of elimination it’s plainly the weak link here. Characters say and do things that aren’t in keeping with their motivations. Yes, I understand that Haeckel becomes enamored of Elise and wants to “save” her from herself, but c’mon. The guy’s father is off dying somewhere, and he is that easily distracted by a complete stranger’s situation? The damsel in distress angle is way overused in my book anyway, and with all the long, smoldering looks that pass between Haeckel and Elise, the whole thing winds up seeming more like a sexified Lifetime movie-of-the-week set in a necropolis than a down and dirty Masters of Horror episode. Haeckel isn’t heroic; he’s simply irritating in his efforts to rob poor Elise of the only fun she knows. If her husband doesn’t mind her fucking corpses, why should he? I’m not exactly sure what could have saved the story, but eliminating the father on his death bed factor would at least be a start.

    So that’s it for the feature itself, leaving us with the extras to consider. “Haeckel’s” falls in the category of DVD where I found the featurettes and commentary a good deal more interesting and entertaining than what I’m supposed to be paying my money to see. I certainly wouldn’t want the majority of my collection to be comprised of DVD’s like that, but once in a while it’s fine. I gained a lot of appreciation for McNaughton after viewing his “Breaking Taboos” interview. Both there and in his commentary he comes across as very likable and conversational. You can tell from his personality — and his bio — that he’s one of the good guys who sticks to his guns and only works on horror projects that avoid the clichés and veer toward the dark and subversive. My sole gripe is that his commentary ends so abruptly — no sign-off or thanks, just dead air. But he obviously has a lot of respect for the genre and us fans so by virtue of that alone I’m happy to see him included with all the other Masters.

    Next up are three brief interviews with Leela Savasta, Derek Cecil, and Jon Polito. Like McNaughton, all seem to sincerely appreciate the opportunity to work on MOH. It was Cecil’s first outing in the genre, but now that he’s been bitten by the bug, I suspect it won’t be his last. As many of us did, Polito grew up on the classics and honed his love of horror (and beautiful women with large breasts) via the Hammer films. His interview is notable for his reminiscences of working with Tobe Hooper and John Landis. The “Working With a Master” segment is about two thirds Michael Rooker and Tom Towles discussing Henry. Good stuff! Definitely worth a rental at least if you’re not sure about buying the DVD.

    Along with trailers and still and storyboard galleries that are de rigueur for all Masters of Horror releases, we’re given the obligatory narrative-free making-of, but this one manages to be more engaging than usual. Rounding out the disc is “Script to Screen,” an extra I’ve not seen before. Three different scenes (two from the intro/outro and one from Haeckel’s tale itself) are shown in stages: First up are pages from the script with voiceovers reading the lines; next is the filming process itself; and lastly is the finished scene. Watching this progression is fairly engrossing the first time out but grows much less so by the third. Still, it’s a neat little insider’s look at the filmmaking process that we don’t often get to see.

    Not long ago on our forums a few readers complained that our rating system for DVD’s is misleading and should incorporate two separate sets of knives: one for the film/feature and another for the extras. The rebuttal is that most people accept that DVD reviews incorporate the full “package” and the rating represents an average. In the case of “Haeckel’s Tale” my review definitely is weighted in favor of the supplemental materials. The story itself contains almost all the parts needed to make it terrific, but such a weak script cannot be overlooked. Conversely, the appealing nature of the individuals involved with all the extras merits a great deal of looking at, thus raising what otherwise would have been a 2 to 2-1/2 rating up to a solid 3-1/2. But it’s really about a lot more than just a number — or just a film. The thing that makes the Masters of Horror series so worthwhile is its wide-ranging attention to detail and desire to provide horror fans with a plethora of information and enjoyment. No other set that I’ve seen goes that extra mile, and for that they will receive my ringing endorsement just about every time. I only wish they hadn’t changed the box art mid-stream. The new look without the director’s picture honestly couldn’t be more hideous!

    Special Features:
    Commentary by director John McNaughton
    “Working With a Master: John McNaughton”
    “Breaking Taboos: An Interview with John McNaughton”
    “Behind the Scenes: The Making of Haeckel’s Tale”
    “On Set: An Interview with Leela Savasta”
    “On Set: An Interview with Derek Cecil”
    “On Set: An Interview with Joe Polito”
    “Script to Screen: Haeckel’s Tale”
    John McNaughton bio
    Still gallery
    Storyboard gallery
    DVD-ROM: Original screenplay and screen saver
    Trailers

    3 ½ out of 5

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    LIQUID SKY Blu-ray Review – You Don’t Need Acid For This Mind Melting Trip

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    Starring Anne Carlisle, Paula E. Sheppard, Susan Doukas, Otto von Wernherr

    Directed by Slava Tsukerman

    Distributed by Vinegar Syndrome


    Succinctly summing up a slice-of-life avant-garde feature film can be difficult when the picture relies heavily on the audio-visual experience and not necessarily the story. Liquid Sky (1982) is an acid-fueled trip through the emerging New Wave movement, viewed through the vapid lens of the fashion world, where drugs and sex are a commodity to be frequently bartered. The film juxtaposes the grimy and gritty streets of New York City with liberal use of bright, flashy neon, creating an aesthetic that both revels in the post-punk subculture and looks forward to the eye-popping pastels that would come to define the ‘80s. Within this kaleidoscope is a story about androgyny, rampant drug use, pleasures of the flesh, sexual abuse, and tiny invisible aliens that subsist on the endorphins released when people either get high or get down. As director Slava Tsukerman states in the extras, the idea was to craft a unique visual palette, the likes of which cinemagoers maybe hadn’t seen before; in that respect, Tsukerman capably succeeded. This is true subversive cinema, not for the mainstream.

    Margaret (Anne Carlisle) is an androgynous NYC fashion model, looking to get her big break into certifiable stardom. Her nightclub fashion shows bring out all the fringe of the city – drug users, sexual deviants, flamboyant personalities, and her rival, Jimmy (also Carlisle), who is a fiend for cocaine. Margaret’s girlfriend, Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), is a coke dealer whom Jimmy constantly harasses for a quick high, despite the fact he never has any money. Sex is his usual currency, consensual and otherwise. For reasons unknown, though easy to glean, a tiny UFO has landed on top of the apartment building in which Margaret lives, the visitors here to feast on endorphins released by the brain during drug use… or explosive, orgasmic sex.

    Jimmy has lunch with his mother, Sylvia (Susan Doukas), a television producer who he sees as little more than a blank check. Sylvia also happens to live across the street from Margaret’s building, making it the perfect vantage point for scientist Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) to observe the till-now undiscovered, minute aliens and their spacecraft. Margaret, meanwhile, finds herself in one compromising sexual position after the next, often against her will, though these (let’s be honest here and call them) rapes tend to end with her perpetrators dead, a thin crystalline sliver embedded within their skulls; brain removed. Margaret doesn’t quite understand why, but the frequent cause and effect makes her imagine she has unbridled power, able to kill anyone that has sex with her. Eventually, Margaret comes to use this “power” to destroy anyone who crosses or uses her, which as the film will show is a significant number of people. Little does she know, all this time her saviors have been invisible to the naked eye and living atop her building.

    The above plot synopsis barely scratches the surface of the weird and insane places this film travels. The biggest takeaway here should be the ground Tsukerman was breaking, which feels very much in the vein of something Andy Warhol might have been behind. The cast is comprised of societal outcasts; populated by homosexuals, ambiguous individuals, gender-fluidity, heroin users, club cronies, kink, vulgarity… all things that in no way conform to societal standards of normality. Carlisle pulls double duty playing two characters – one reprehensible, the other vaguely sympathetic – yet both fall under the rubric of blurred lines; they embody qualities of both masculinity and femininity. Tsukerman embraces the abstract and absurd, delivering a film that is fiercely independent and wholly incapable of direct categorization.

    Driving this tour de force is a cutting edge synth score that is constantly active and consistently weird. A trio made up of Tsukerman, Clive Smith, and Brenda I. Hutchinson composed the soundtrack, and it sounds alien and otherworldly while also capturing the essence of the New Wave. The electronic cues and deep bass beats are energetic and repetitive, often making use of bizarre time signatures. Large portions of it reminded me of John Massari’s stellar synth score to Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), as the synthesizer sounds are nearly identical in some passages. The grooves are infectious and wonderfully lo-fi, adding an audible assault to complement the visual feast.

    Still, Liquid Sky is something of a challenging watch, especially a first-time viewing when expectations are impossible to calibrate. Because Tsukerman purposely made his film so esoteric and obtuse, it can be tough to settle into a comfortable viewing mindset because so much of the film is uncomfortable and unconventional. The acting quality is passable enough that viewers may find themselves watching the film less as a veritable feature and more a staged, lengthy piece of performance art, which it is in certain respects. Liquid Sky doesn’t lampoon the period or people associated with it, though it does offer an exaggeration of current trends. One thing is for sure, this is bespoke filmmaking at its core and a shining example of the marriage between emerging trends and psychedelic euphoria. Mind blowing stuff.

    Vinegar Syndrome is consistently lauded for their A/V work and, boy, did they ever knock this one out of the atmosphere. The 1.85:1 1080p picture is pristine, making it almost impossible to believe this is a low-budget indie from ’82. The original 35mm negative has been given new life via a 4K scan, with the resulting image looking nearly flawless. Aside from literally two or three white flecks the picture is immaculate. Film grain has been smoothed out and minimized without the use of waxy DNR. Fine detail is exquisite, adding a sense of true life to these shiny and squalid environments. Colors are richly saturated and pop off the screen, just as eye-catching neon might do in real life. Color filters are used frequently, bathing the image in hues of blue or green or whatever color fits the intended mood. Skin tones are spot-on and accurate. There is nothing worth complaining about making this one of the finest images Blu-ray is capable of producing.

    Although the audio is a single-channel English DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono track you’d never know it from the sonic quality. The synthesized score is catchy and constant, causing the film’s soundfield to be brimming with life at every moment. The aggressive mix and high levels cause a mild sensation of discomfort and unease for viewers, ensuring the picture is never viewed too comfortably. Dialogue is understandable and totally clean, with no indication of hissing or pops at any point. Subtitles are available in English.

    An introduction is available before the feature begins, with director Slava Tsukerman giving viewers a brief greeting along with praise for Vinegar Syndrome’s new home video edition.

    An audio commentary is available, featuring director Slava Tsukerman.

    The disc also contains an isolated soundtrack, highlighting that groundbreaking score.

    Interview with Slava Tsukerman is a recent chat with the Russian director, who touches upon his career, influences, and the legacy of his most endearing creation.

    Interview with Anne Carlisle is a similarly themed chat, with the leading lady discussing topics ranging from her early beginnings to where her career has taken her now.

    Liquid Sky Revisited is a nearly-hour long documentary covering all aspects of the film’s production, with Tsukerman delving into every bit of minutia behind the production, genesis, inspirations, etc.

    Q&A from 2017 Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers Screening, featuring Tsukerman, Carlisle, and co-composer Clive Smith.

    A lengthy reel of outtakes, alternate opening sequence, rehearsal footage, multiple trailers, and a still gallery complete the wealth of bonus features found here.

    Additionally, the cover artwork is reversible allowing for display of the original key art or newly commissioned artwork.

    Special Features:

    • BRAND NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM from the 35mm original negative
    • Brand new commentary track with: Slava Tsukerman (director)
    • Video interview with Slava Tsukerman
    • Video interview with Anne Carlisle (actress)
    • Director’s introduction
    • “Liquid Sky Revisited” (2017) – 50 minute making-of documentary
    • Q&A from a 2017 Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers screening with: Slava Tsukerman, Anne Carlisle and Clive Smith (music)
    • Isolated soundtrack
    • Never before seen outtakes
    • Alternate opening sequence
    • Behind the scenes rehearsal footage
    • Multiple theatrical trailers
    • Still gallery
    • Artwork designed by Derek Gabryszak
    • Reversible cover artwork
    • English SDH subtitles
    • REGION-FREE
    • Liquid Sky
    • Special Features
    3.5

    Summary

    Supremely psychedelic and infinitely eccentric, Liquid Sky was 1983’s most successful independent film and for good reason: it is impossible to categorize and there are few films that color outside the lines so vividly and uniquely. You can’t explain it or understand it; you just have to see it. Vinegar Syndrome have raised the bar with their impeccable a/v quality and wonderful selection of extras.

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    Zena’s Period Blood: Dying for a DEAD END

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    It can be difficult finding horror films of quality, so allow me to welcome you to your salvation from frustration. “Zena’s Period Blood” is here to guide you to the horror films that will make you say, “This is a good horror. Point blank. PERIOD.”

    “Zena’s Period Blood” focuses on under-appreciated and hidden horror films.

    How do you turn $900,000 into $77,000,000? Offer directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa the initial amount and give them the freedom to let their minds wander. In 2003, both directors accomplished this unimaginable feat with Dead End. Under the clouds of a small budget, typical poster and insubstantial trailer, most viewers forecasted one long stretch of boredom. However, 15 minutes in and I was as hooked as a pervert in a strip club with his tax refund money. In 83 minutes, the movie unravels and exposes intelligent craftsmanship with story, acting and location, introducing us to the Harrington family and their demise.

    After 20 years following the same route, Frank Harrington (Ray Wise) decides to take his family down a shortcut to his in-laws home during Christmas Eve. Wife Laura (Lin Shaye) sings in the passenger seat, serving as the optimistic family unifier who is often ignored by her husband and children. Behind Frank is their oldest child Marion (Alexandra Holden), unnervingly sheltered under the arm of her soon-to-be fiancé, Brad. And forever mom’s favorite boy is Richard (Mick Cain), who rocks out to Marilyn Manson blaring in his headphones. After this brief introduction to the characters and their distinct personalities, we witness everyone fall asleep, including Frank, who refuses to let anyone else drive.

    Several seconds pass before the Jeep Wagoneer veers into the opposite lane. Gradually, a honk pleads from an approaching car, startling the Harrington family and forcing Frank to fight with the wheel until he brings the Jeep to a stop. Wide-awake, the family begins to move forward, now entrapped on a new, never-ending road.

    I could elaborate on so many scary details in the movie, but the never-ending road stands out the most. What makes it worse is that there are signs for a town called Marcott, with an arrow indicating the town is straight ahead. But the Harringtons never reach the town. This scares me because I believe that every human being has a mental list of things they are scared of or things they should keep an eye out for in certain situations. Unfortunately, this movie exists to expand that list. What sucks for me is that my husband likes taking back roads. Because I strive to have a happy marriage and a peaceful death, I usually fall asleep to avoid an argument and the grim reaper, both of which usually exist on these particular roads. However, I never imagined that a back road could become a never-ending road. Man that would suck!

    Speaking of never-ending, the directors became devils of discomfort by never really showing the deceased’s mutilated body, leaving your brain struggling to piece together the unseen image long after the movie ends. Throughout the movie, the family and Brad are picked off one by one. We mainly suffer these devatations through the reactions of the family members that are still alive, sometimes witnessing them lift a severed ear or caress a charred hand. This movie taught me that I can still taste bile at the back of my throat when a mutilation is suggested rather than shown.

    Directors Andrea and Canepa accomplished greatness in Dead End with little time and little money. It is a testament that imagination coupled with skill is the true combination to capturing a big budget feel. I hope that all the individuals behind this movie have a long, never-ending road ahead of them because they have delivered brilliance to the world. This is a good horror. Point blank. Period.


    In addition to contributing to Dread Central, Zena Dixon has been writing about all things creepy and horrific for over six years at RealQueenofHorror.com. She has always loved horror films and will soon be known directing her own feature-length horror. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @LovelyZena.

     


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    Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 164 – THE CLEANSE

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    The Master Cleanse

    Wait no longer, boils and ghouls! Today is the day you’ve been waiting for; today is the day we sink our teeth into 2018’s The Cleanse! What’s that? You’ve never heard of The Cleanse?! Well, neither had we, but horror releases are slim pickings right now, so we take what we can get. At least we can all agree that we’ve been dying to see Johnny Galecki in something other than Big Bang Theory, right? No? Well, fuck. Here’s an episode about his new movie anyway. What are we even doing?

    It was crazy of me to think I could help the police, but I’m going to keep researching, keep writing, there are stories that need to be told, so… here’s the Who Goes There Podcast episode 164!

    If you enjoy the show, please consider joining our Patreon subscribers. For less than the cost of a beer, you get bonus content, exclusive merchandise, special giveaways, and you get to help us continue doing what we love.

    The Who Goes There Podcast is available to subscribe to on iTunes right here. Not an iTunes user? You can listen on our Dread Central page. Can’t get enough? We also do that social media shit. You’ll find us on FacebookTwitterInstagramTwitch, and YouTube.

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