Masters of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale (DVD)

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

    3 ½ out of 5

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    Debi Moore

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