Masters of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale

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When Edward Ralston goes to see a necromancer about his dead wife, the last thing he expected was a horrifying tale about the life of Ernst Haeckel. Part of the Masters of Horror anthology series by Mick Garris.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times, or at the very least like ten, do not mess with a necromancer. Just don’t. Stay as far away from them as you can. I know it can be a tempting prospect when you lose a loved one, but if you decide to use a necromancer’s service, at best, that loved one is coming back as a slave to the necromancer, worse yet, you’ll most likely be joining them in undead servitude. It’s not a pleasant prospect, trust me on that. Necromancers aren’t known for treating their zombie slaves particularly well. It’s bad enough all the physical abuse you can expect to receive, beatings, eviscerations, the odd decapitation for zombie dodgeball, but what really hurts are the insults. It’s like every necromancer gets a book full of the worst possible things to say to a zombie when they graduate necromancer school, or wherever the hell they learn their trade. Stay far, far, far away from those bastards. Oh, and please don’t tell them I said anything. I’m terrible for zombie dodgeball.

Edward Ralston recently lost his wife, a woman who meant everything to him and whose passing has left the man desperate, so he visits a woman fabled to have the power over life and death, a necromancer, whom he hopes will give him back his lost love. She tries to warn him of the danger, but upon his insistence she relents on the condition that he listen to the story of Ernst Haeckel. Should Edward still wish for his wife to be resurrected after hearing her tale, then she will bring the dead woman back to life. Haeckel was a late 19th century medical student and fan of the German doctor Victor Frankenstein (yes, that Frankenstein). He believes that he can recreate the good doctor’s work, but when his first experiment fails, Haeckel is called away before he can make a second attempt. His father, a prominent doctor himself, has fallen deathly ill and requires his son’s presence. During the trip, Haeckel stops to camp for the night, and it’s here that a traveler finds and warns him that Haeckel is camping right next to a large graveyard known as the necropolis. The traveler takes Haeckel to his nearby home where he’s introduced to the traveler’s nervous, impatient looking wife. It seems that the traveler and his wife are hiding a secret, a secret that involves the necropolis and a necromancer who might just have what Haeckel has been searching for.

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{Victor Frankenstein this man is not}

Haeckel’s Tale is based on a story of the same name by Clive Barker, one I’ve unfortunately not been able to read as of yet, but it seems to be fairly close to the tale that inspired it from the info I could glean (I won’t read free stories that haven’t been gifted by an author so I’ll have to wait until I can buy the collection that contains this tale), with only a few differences in characters and how it begins. It’s a story that pits medicine against mysticism, rational thinking against belief, and science against religion. Ernst Haeckel stands for one thing and one thing alone, science. He’s long given up on the belief in god or any other kind of mysticism, believing instead that everything has a rational explanation when it isn’t outright fraud, much to the consternation of those around him. He’s almost arrogant in his ideas, refusing to believe that there might be things in this world beyond explanation and looking down on anyone who doesn’t agree with him. On the other side of this equation is the trio of Wolfram (the traveler who picks Haeckel up), his wife Elise, and the necromancer Montesquino. Each brings their own trait to the table and adds to the episode’s overall theme of science vs magic. First off is Wolfram, where Haeckel is full of arrogance, dismissing anything with even a touch of magic to it as fraud or something misunderstood, Wolfram is very weak willed and cowardly. He’s given in to his belief in such a way that he’s become terrified of the world and devoid of passion. His wife isn’t much better, but she’s allowed her own belief to blind her to the dangers she’s putting herself in the middle of. She’s so blinded that she can’t even see how wrong what she’s doing is, right and wrong losing their meaning to her. Lastly, there’s Montesquino the necromancer, a man who straddles knowledge and belief and becomes a part of both worlds. His absolute knowledge of the unknown has led to his becoming both cynical and greedy, the wonders of his power giving way to apathy. All four of these characters, Haeckel, Wolfram, Elise, and Montesquino were all flawed in their outlooks, Haeckel’s arrogance about the unknown stopping him from keeping an open mind about nearly anything, Wolfram’s fear of the unknown cripples his ability to do what’s right, Elise’s belief blinds her to what she’s doing wrong, and Montesquino’s knowledge of the unknown has sapped him of any wonderment he might have otherwise had, almost as if knowing life’s mysteries had actually ruined life for him. They were all compelling parts of an overall commentary against letting either belief or science rule your life, that having a little bit of both isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but once you let either take control is where problems develop. I loved how well this was all weaved together, subtle at times, not so much at others, but never preachy.

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{These four are the heart of the episode}

Despite how much I enjoyed the story and commentary on belief vs science, Haeckel’s Tale isn’t without its problems. The first comes from actor Derek Cecil’s portrayal of Ernst Haeckel. He overdoes it with his character, making Haeckel less than believable. He was extremely overdramatic at times, forcing a performance that didn’t seem like it needed forcing, before nearly dropping his emotion in favor of a much more bland performance. There wasn’t much of a middle ground either, he was either over the top or bland, going back and forth at random times that didn’t make much sense. The others do an excellent job, Jon Polito in particular is on top of his game as the cynical necromancer Montesquino, but Cecil just didn’t seem capable of pulling it together. The other problem was the makeup for the zombies once they finally come out of hiding. It’s not that it looks bad, in fact it’s quite good, but it didn’t fit for a film with such a dark atmosphere. Many of them were more cheesy than horrifying, as if they would have fit better in an 80’s flick like Return of the Living Dead.

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{Not bad by a long shot, just out of place}

While it might have had its problems, Haeckel’s Tale was still an enjoyable but disturbing addition to Masters of Horror. It’s just sadly not one of their better installments.

 

The Undead Review

 

Directed By: John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Harvest)

Starring: Derek Cecil (House of Cards, The Killing Floor), Jon Polito (The Crow, The Rocketeer), Tom McBeath (Stargate: SG1, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem), and Leela Savasta (Black Christmas, Joy Ride 3)

Written By: Clive Barker (original short story) and Mick Garris (Critters 2, Hocus Pocus)

Released By: Showtime Networks, Anchor Bay Entertainment, IDT Entertainment, and Reunion Pictures

Release Year: 2006

Release Type: Television Release

Channel: Showtime

Rating: TV MA

Rotten Heads: Three Heads Out of Five

About The Undead Review

When I was alive I was an asshole and after I died remained pretty much the same, if not a little worse. You’d think becoming a member of the walking dead would mellow a person out, no more worrying about awkward small talk with people, no more having to be politically correct, and the entire world is your upright, bipedal buffet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun as hell to be a zombie, just somewhat irritating at times, especially those times you have to watch a lame movie or read a lame book. Thankfully, when I am forced to watch these films or read those books, I’ve got places like The Undead Review to bitch and moan to my heart’s content. {When he’s not devouring the living or sinking his teeth into a good film The Undead Review (Andy Taylor) spends his time writing his own stories or hunting down the paranormal. Oh, and did we mention his blind dog once saved the world?)
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