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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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    Desolation Review: Campers + Lunatic = Simplicity, But Not Always a Better Product

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    DesolationStarring Jaimi Page, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols

    Directed by Sam Patton


    I’m usually all in when it comes to a psycho in the woods flick, but there was just something about Sam Patton’s Desolation that seemed a bit distant for me…distance…desolation – I’m sure there’s a connection in there somewhere. Either that or I’m suffering from a minor case of sleep-deprivation. Either way, make sure you’ve got your backpack stuffed, cause we’re hitting the timber-lands for this one.

    The film focuses on mother and son tandem Abby and Sam, and the tragic notion that Abby’s love and father to her son, has passed away. The absence has been a crippling one, and Abby’s idea of closure is to take her adolescent offspring to the woods where her husband used to love to run and scatter his ashes as a memorial tribute. Abby invites her best friend Jenn along as emotional support, and together all three are planning on making this trip a fitting and dedicatory experience…until the mystery man shows up. Looking like a member of the Ted Kaczynski clan (The Unabomber himself), this creepy fellow seems content to simply watch the threesome, and when he ultimately decides to close the distance, it’ll be a jaunt in the forest that this close-knit group will never forget.

    So there you have it – doesn’t beg a long, descriptive, bled-out dissertation – Patton tosses all of his cards on the table in plain view for the audience to scan at their leisure. While the tension is palpable at times, it’s the equivalent of watching someone stumble towards the edge of a cliff, and NEVER tumble over…for a long time – you literally watch them do the drunken two-step near the lip for what seems like an eternity. What I’m getting at is that the movie has the bells and whistles to give white-knucklers something to get amped about, yet it never all seems to come into complete focus, or allow itself to spread out in such a way that you can feel satisfied after the credits roll. If I may harp on the performance-aspect for a few, it basically broke down this way for me: both Abby and Jenn’s characters were well-displayed, making you feel as if you really were watching long-time besties at play. Sam’s character was a bit tough to swallow, as he was the sadder-than-sad kid due to his father’s absence, but JEEZ this kid was a friggin malcontented little jerk – all I can say is “role well-played, young man.”

    As we get to our leading transient, kook, outsider – whatever you want to call him: he simply shaved down into a hum-drum personality – no sizzle here, folks. Truly a disappointment for someone who was hoping for an enigmatic nutbag to terrorize our not-so-merry band of backpackers – oh well, Santa isn’t always listening, I guess. Simplicity has its place and time when displaying the picture-perfect lunatic, and before everyone gets a wild hair across their ass because of what I’m saying, all this is was the wish to have THIS PARTICULAR psycho be a bit more colorful – I can still appreciate face-biters like Hannibal Lecter and those of the restrained lunacy set. Overall, Desolation is one of those films that had all the pieces meticulously set in place, like a house of cards…until that drunk friend stumbled into the table, sending everything crumbling down. A one-timer if you can’t find anything else readily available to watch.

    • Film
    2.5

    Summary

    Looking for a little direction way out in the woods? Look elsewhere, because this guide doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.

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    User Rating 2.87 (15 votes)
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    Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political

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    Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside

    Directed by Eitan Gafny

    Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


    Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.

    Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.

    Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.

    The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.

    The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Aki Avni as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.

    So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.

    Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.

    The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.

    Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.

    • Children of the Fall
    2.5

    Summary

    While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.

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    User Rating 3.25 (20 votes)
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    Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama

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    Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein

    Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker

    Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


    One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.

    The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.

    Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.

    The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.

    While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.

    All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.

    • Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club
    3.5

    Summary

    Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.

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    User Rating 3.58 (19 votes)
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