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Masters of Horror - John McNaughton - Haeckel's Tale

Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // November 14, 2006
List Price: $16.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted December 21, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Originally slated for director George Romero, this adaptation of Clive Barker's short story, Haeckel's Tale, wound up on John McNaughton's plate instead. Considering McNaughton's involvement in the horror genre is limited to the excellent Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer and the goofy The Borrowers, he might seem an odd choice to wear the 'Masters Of Horror' hat, but the problem with this production turns out to be Mick Garris' script, and not McNaugton's surprisingly strong direction.

The story begins when a scientist named Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil) fails in his attempt to reanimate the dead. After hearing stories of a man who can raise the dead from a grave robber, Haeckel soon winds up meeting Montesquino (John Polito), a necromancer who claims he can successfully bring the dead back to life. Heackel doesn't believe that Montesquino's abilities are anything more than cheap parlor tricks which he uses to prey upon the guillable or those who want to believe. Soon, when Heackel learns that his father is on his death bed, he decides to make the trek back to his home town to spend a few last moments with him. Along the way, he grows tired and he decides to sleep next to a rundown old cemetery until a kind old farmer named Wolfram (Tom McBeath) takes him in for the night. Heackel soon meets, and falls for, Wolframs gorgeous (and much younger) wife, Elise (Leela Savasta), who Wolfram, during a drunken confession, says can never be satisfied by an old man such as he.

As the night goes on, Haeckel learns that there's something very odd afoot in this household, and when Montesquino shows up, it doesn't take him long to realize that his suspicions are correct. What he learns, however, is far more sinister than simply a con-artist duping a young woman desperate for the return of her deceased first husband. Heackel will soon learn the truth about Montesquino's abilities and about Elise's strange behavior.

Haeckel's Tale, as a narrative at least, is very unusual in its structure. The movie plays around with a few different side stories and doesn't really decide where it's going until about the half way point. That being said, the ending does have a decent pay off, so if getting there is a bit of a chore at least you know that it's a slow trip worth taking. The picture also benefits from really strong visuals. Setting the movie during Victorian times opens things up to criticism in terms of the look and the style that is captured here but thankfully the set design and the costumes all feel very authentic. Much of the movie looks like it could have been directed by Terance Fisher or Roy Ward Baker so comparing it to an old Hammer movie is completely appropriate as the picture is dripping with atmosphere.

The movie also really benefits from some very strong acting. While Polito comes dangerously close to camp in a few spots he doesn't go quite that far and he makes for a believable enough character contrasting nicely with Derek Cecil's very dry turn in the lead. Tom McBeath is sympathetic enough to work while Leela Savasta is not only gorgeous but she also succeeds in bringing a necessary air of sadness to her part.

Why then does Heackel's Tale not score higher? Quite simply, it's the script. While it's true that people talked differently years ago, much of the dialogue sounds quite forced. It should also be noted that a lot of the conflict between Heackel and Wolfram towards the end of the movie comes across as unnecessary and rather forced. There are also a few logic gaps in the plot that are to be expected to a certain extent (this is a movie about raising the dead after all) but which still hurt the final product a little bit. The opening and closing bookends that have been added to Barker's story by Mick Garris cheapen the picture substantially and they do feel like they're there for the sole purpose of padding out the running time. It's a shame that this is the case, as Haeckel's Tale does have enough going for it to make it worth a look – it's just that there was a fair bit of untapped potential here that wasn't exploited for as much as it was worth and one can't help but feel that this should have been better than it was.


The 1.77.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer presents the movie in its original aspect ratio and for the most part, as it's been for all of the discs in the series so far, the image looks very good. Black levels, which play a very important role in the look and the atmosphere of this piece, are strong and deep and there are no issues at all with print damage, dirt or debris on the picture. There's a very pleasing level of both foreground and background detail present throughout this episode even during the darker moments which take place out in the cemetery. Skin tones look lifelike and natural (save, of course, for the undead characters who look appropriately sickly) and the color pallette used for this project shines through quite nicely.


Anchor Bay presents Haeckel's Tale in your choice of a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track or a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track. Both mixes sound very good with some nice instances of channel separation. Bass response could have been stronger in some scenes but aside from that there's nothing to complain about here. Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. There are no alternate language tracks or subtitle options.


The supplements start off with a commentary track from director John McNaughton, who doesn't seem all that interested or enthused to be in front of the microphone. He comments on the cinematography and professes his admiration for the set design and some of the performances that the actors gave, but this track has a lot of dead air which almost always spells certain death as far as commentary tracks go. He does come across as a nice enough guy and he's very complimentary towards everyone that he mentions having worked with on the picture, but there isn't really enough meat here to dig into and to be blunt, the track gets pretty dull.

More interesting is the first half of the lengthy Breaking Taboos featurette which is essentially a biography of McNaughton explaining how he got into the movie business and why we should care. We learn about his humble beginnings in Chicago and how he worked as an advertising executive before he took the plunge into filmmaking with the notorious Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. The problem is that since Henry, McNaughton's career hasn't been anything to write home about. We learn about his more mainstream work and his television work but the stories he has about this later material aren't as enjoyable as when he's recounting his humble beginnings. Regardless, this is worth watching if only to get a better handle on who McNaughton is and how he approaches his art.

The requisite Working With A Master featurette is next, and this turns out to be the best of the supplements on this disc as it brings Michael Rooker and Tom Towles, the stars of Henry, into the mix. We hear in their words what it was like working with a young McNaughton before we hear from Derek Cecil and the lovely Leela Savasta. These two talk about their time on this project and praise McNaughton's technique and skill as a director. While they are no doubt sincere in their words, it is more interesting to hear from Rooker and Towles – let's face it, Henry is a lot more fascinating and influential than Haeckel's Tale, so it only goes to reason that this would be the case.

Cecil and Savasta get their own on camera interviews, as does Joe Polito. None of these are particularly deep but they do lend some insight into the experiences that these three actors had while working on Haeckel's Tale and for that reason they're worth sitting through as the rest of the supplements are fairly director-centric. All three seem to have had a good time working on the project and they come across as rather grateful for the chance to have been a part of this.

Rounding out the extra features on this release are the standard script to screen comparison (examining three separate scenes and how they were made) and a behind the scenes montage assembling a few minute of interesting but completely random on set footage. Look for trailers for the first batch of Masters Of Horror episodes and a few other Anchor Bay genre discs that are available now, a still gallery, a John McNaughton text biography, and in DVD-Rom format, the original. Another odd looking trading card featuring an illustrated picture of McNaughton's head is also included as is an insert with the chapter listing on it. It's unfortunate that none of the extras here really delve into Romero's early involvement with the project or explain why that never happened. While there's no need to take anything away from McNaughton, it would have been interesting to hear about the early origins of the project and why things ended up being changed along the way.

Final Thoughts:

Masters Of Horror: Haeckel's Tale comes really close to greatness a few times but the flaws in the script keep it from being as good as it could have (and should have) been. The movie looks great and it features some decent performances but without the story there to pull us in, it just doesn't resonate. Anchor Bay does their typically solid job on this release with strong audio and video and a plethora of supplements that vary in quality, making this a solid rental.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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