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07 June 2006

intro, 20 kb

Review of Masters of Horror, episode #1x12,
"Haeckel's Tale"

Directed by John McNaughton

by David Bjerre, April 2006

"I believe in an afterlife, but not in the re-animation of a human corpse," Dr. Hauser.
"Then what on earth do you celebrate every Easter Sunday?" Haeckle.


The credit sequence is a gruesome montage of otherworldly images promising everything to do with darkness, the unholy and unnatural death. One thing is certain: Showtime's much heralded return to the anthology format will pull no punches. The cable channel has allied with the best horror and thriller directors to resurrect the tried and true format of the standalone "mini-movie" series.

In the old days shows like "Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" held audiences captive with new stories and new characters every week, before this format gave way to serialised television. In recent years attempts to revive several of these ancient properties have met with limited success - it would seem that the viewers today by and large are in no need for such series. So how about targeting a specific undernourished audience? Those with an affinity for the gruesome. Those who have been forced to endure straight to video low-budget releases and goody-two-shoes PG-13 rated theatrical efforts. Perhaps they will tune in once a week for a good scare. The ploy worked, and the series was a hit.

Season One of "The Masters of Horror" consists of 13 episode, each a sixty minute movie unto itself, each directed by a different director, each with it's own agenda.

The quality varies - some episodes are just boring and trivial, others downright brilliant. The best part is that the series has provided a few old-time helmers with an opportunity to shine again. Joe Dante directs "Home Coming", a scorching attack on the Bush administration, where dead soldiers return to vote the president out of office, while John Carpenter directs "Cigarette Burns", the story of a man who must track down a lost film so evil that those who watch it kill themselves. These two entries rate among the best of the series, and represent the directors' best work for decades. Also lesser know directors like Lucky McKee and Don Coscarelli make their voices heard, with solid albeit less spectacular episodes.

However, John McNaughton, the man behind this current episode, is an odd choice of director. The only remotely qualifying work on his resume is "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer", a disturbing look into the psyche of a sociopathic killer, but even that is a stretch. Does he have what it takes to scare us half to death? You'll be the judge of that, but before you watch his tale of tarnation, follow these simple instructions: First, light a few candles and turn off all electric light, you're gonna want the mood to be just right. Make sure the door is properly locked (You wanna go out and check it now, don't you? Sorry). Unplug the phone, you don't want a heart attack in the middle of everything if it rings. And finally have a good solid pillow nearby, to bury your face in...

Heackel, 38 kb


John McNaughton directs "Haeckel's Tale". Story by Clive Barker, teleplay by Mick Garris.
Original airdate: 2006/01/27

'Tis a dark and stormy night. A lonesome traveller on horseback makes his way to an old wooden house on the countryside. He knocks on the door and immediately a shrill but strong voice commands him to enter.

Inside, snuggled up under a blanket in front of the fire sits an old woman, Miss Carnation. The man introduces himself. His name is Mr. Ralston. He has come to this house, under the cover of night, to ask for Miss Carnation's help in a matter of great urgency. He has heard that she can resurrect the dead, and he wants her to bring his wife to life again. He loves her unconditionally, and cannot bear to be parted from her any longer. He'll hear none of old Miss Carnation's protests, and so she finally gives in. She promises to help him, if he still wishes so, upon listening to the gruesome tale of Ernest Haeckel. Impatiently Mr. Ralston settles in an old chair in front of the warm fire to hear the old woman's story...

Youth. Such is the condition of those who have not yet grown wise from time, that they must question everything around them. Authority, the rules of society, even the very fabric of life. Ernest Haeckel is no different. As he and his fellow medical students stand in front of a dismantled corpse and listen to their teacher explain that only God can grant life, he feels compelled to object. Recent studies by a German doctor, he argues, show that man can in fact grant life to the lifeless as well. Though his first efforts at revitalising a corpse fail miserably, he stands his ground, convinced that one day he'll prove his theory.

Alas, Haeckel must abandon his experiments when he learns that his father has taken ill. He must embark on an arduous journey, by foot, to reach his father's homestead. This fateful journey will take him to a dark place indeed. He will make a stop along the way, accept a stranger's hand in friendship, and thus embrace the most unnatural destiny reserved only for those who fear nothing. Not even death.

Zombie doings, 35 kb


Thunder and lightning, old abandoned graveyards draped in moonlight, and of course sex with zombies! Yes, you have entered the theater of the macabre, proceed at your own peril.

The final broadcasted episode of "Masters of Horror's" inaugural season is, obviously, a period piece. It's a little odd that none of the other stories take place in the 18th century, because it's such a perfect backdrop for a scary story. "Haeckel's Tale" has a nice "Sleepy Hollow" kind of quality about it. Authentic Vincent Price horror mood, if you will, with a knowing wink to the modern horror audience.

The story itself is a spin on the old Frankenstein myth. The episode even mentions Frankenstein as he source of inspiration, when Haeckel professes that he's obtained the original notes by the unfortunate German doctor. At first it seems to be simply a rip-off, but slowly the story diverges, and soon it's on a new path. A path that would make Miss Shelly turn in her grave, pardon the expression. Part of the attraction is to discover just how perverted this tale is, so I'm not going to go into details here.

Along the way the episode also manages to tackle an interesting and current subject: Religion. Haeckle and his teacher get into a rather heated argument as to the existence of God, and whether man has the power to control life. This debate lends credence to the proceedings, as it infuses this somewhat cheesy story with a serious streak that anchors the supernatural element in reality.

Like most of the other entries, the trouble with "Haeckel's Tale" is that it's too long. Several scenes feels drawn out, as if the filmmakers struggled to meet the required running time, and had been forced to include material that would otherwise have been cut. Perhaps that's because the producers have chosen this odd sixty minute format (that's a full hour, not including commercials) which is not long enough to support a feature film story, and too long to carry short story. Almost all of the episodes would have benefited from a 40 minute running time, and "Haeckel's Tale" is no different.

Like I said earlier there's nothing in director's John McNaughton's past to indicate that he'd have a film like this in him, but with "Haeckel's Tale" he nonetheless serves up a delicious looking dish, with a distinct visual style and plenty of memorable moments.

Ralston disgusted, 29 kb


Steve Bacic stars as Edward Ralston
Bacic quote: "You are Miss Carnation? The Necromancer?"

Steve's appearance in this story is limited to the wraparound portion of the tale. He's only featured in two scenes - the first and the last - but he does a fine job. I feared that maybe he would stand out, because of his limited experience with period acting, but he slips quite comfortably into the skin of this distinguished desperate man, who's at his wits' end. He also manage a slight change of his dialect and a deeper voice, making his overall appearance quite believable.

Initially Steve plays Mr. Ralston as a calm and collected person, who - though he's shook up over his wife's death - is quite focused and insistent. This is, of course, in clear contrast to how poor Mr. Ralston looks after he's listened to Haeckel's tale. The look of utter disgust on his face when Miss Carnation finishes her story is priceless! Steve plays it perfectly! He looks genuinely ready to throw up his lunch, thus perfectly underlining the point of the story. "That's the most horrible tale ever told", he manages, after a big gulp of whiskey - his face distorted in disbelief.

I guess the best compliment I can give is: He looked just like I felt!

Zombie famliy, 40 kb


"Haeckel's Tale" is not the best of the Masters of Horror episodes, but it's still a damn fine piece of work. It's low on actual scares, but high on gruesome chuckles. Besides, any kind of horror story that can make you look away from the screen in disgust must have done something right!

As for the series as a whole, I'm equally positive. The stories are diverse. The director's are top of the line and the production value is high. I could stand to watch a second season - which coincidentally has already been greenlit.

Now, lets just get those producers to hire Steve for another segment. I suggest casting him as a cool vampire lord or something. The campaign for Steve's call-back starts here.

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