Masters of Horror: John McNaughton: Haeckle’s Tale (DVD)

Don’t heckle Haeckle.

Director John McNaughton has had a fairly varied career, with a lot of work done in television, but it’s the raw intensity of his early film Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer that earned him a “Master of Horror” designation, and an episode of Showtime’s anthology series of the same name. (Genre fans will note he also directed cheesy gorefest The Borrower.) McNaughton is one of four “masters” involved in this one, though. It was based on a short story by Clive Barker (Hellraiser), adapted for TV by Mick Garris (The Stand), and associate produced by George Romero (Dawn of the Dead), who was going to direct at one point, but couldn’t fit it into his schedule. It was Romero’s idea to enlist McNaughton for this episode, and Haeckel’s Tale was born.

Sometime in the past, Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil, Push, Nevada, The Beat) is a young scientist hoping to break new boundaries by reviving the dead. After destroying corpses instead of infusing them with new life, Haeckel tries a different approach by meeting a necromancer, Montesquino (John Polito, The Big Lebowski), who claims to bring back the dead with black magic. Haeckel’s quest takes a turn later, when he learns his father is ill. Traveling across the countryside to visit his dying dad, Haeckel spends the night with an elderly farmer (Tom McBeath, Regarding Sarah) and his stunningly beautiful young wife (Leela Savasta, Black Christmas (2006)). This unconventional couple has their own secret regarding the reanimation of the dead, and Haeckel will never be the same after he discovers it.

The story here takes a few twists and even meanders a little before the big payoff at the end. It begins with alternate take on Frankenstein story, asking what it might have been like if the good doctor had turned to black magic instead of science to achieve his ghoulish goals. When Haeckel meets Montesquino, it looks like the story is heading toward confrontation between the two of them. But then, Haeckel hits the road to see his father, and the rest of the story is played out in an isolated farmhouse and the adjacent cemetery, where Haeckel uncovers his hosts’ unholy secrets. Although this wandering narrative is off-putting at first, it eventually works in the story’s favor, so that you’re never quite sure just where the story is going next.

As a period piece, Haeckel’s Tale attempts to recreate the look of the old Hammer horror films. There are gorgeous costumes, foggy countrysides, and candlelit interiors. It also features a lot of formal, stilted dialogue. Instead of crying out, “Oh, my God!” when something gruesome happens, these characters might instead say something like, “I find this most egregious.” Aside from one or two attempts at jump scares, the actual “horror” of the story isn’t until the ending, when suddenly it’s all zombies and naked girls and slimy gore and cannibalism and skulls with glowing red eyes. I have to wonder—is McNaughton going for scares here, or he attempting something more, like a subtle spoof of horror conventions? This one riffs on Frankenstein, Hammer films, and Romero-style zombies, but there’s a slight detachment to it all—it’s less about frightening intensity and more a feeling of “Look how much fun we’re having making a horror movie.”

I’m surprised that Derek Cecil isn’t a bigger star than he is. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen him in, and he brings his usual professionalism and integrity to his performance here. As Haeckel’s view gradually changes from rational and scientific to being bewildered by the supernatural, his personality shifts from ambitious and self-centered to heroic and wanting to do the right thing. Cecil makes this transition seem natural enough so that viewers don’t question it. John Police and Tom McBeath chew the scenery appropriately in their roles, but it’s Leela Savasta who is the real discovery here. She combines kindness, mysteriousness, and sexiness all at once with her character in a fearless performance. Like Cecil, I can see her becoming a big star in the future.

Par for the course with these Masters of Horror releases, the video and audio are just fine, with few flaws, and there is the usual generous amount of extras. McNaughton is spotlighted in an interview and a “Working with a Master” featurette, both of which nicely cover his career and his thoughts on Haeckel’s Tale. McNaughton’s commentary, on the other hand, suffers from long gaps of silence and repeating information from the other extras. Where’s Anchor Bay’s Perry Martin when we need him? Cecil, Savasta, and Polito all have their own interview segments, in which they discuss both the production and acting in general. Two other featurettes show more footage from behind the scenes, in a “you are there” documentary style. As usual, we’ve also got trailers, still galleries, and the script and screensavers on DVD-ROM.

There are a lot of fun horror movie antics in Haeckel’s Tale, and yet it’s not quite for all tastes. It’s just different enough that, if you’re curious about it, I’d suggest making this one a rental before you buy.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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