Thursday, February 26, 2009

McNaughton's Tale

The Masters of Horror series was, like the HBO Creature Features and those Stephen King miniseries films on USA: pretty much a waste. Joe Dante's Homecoming, while enjoyable, had nowhere near the production values needed to make it convincing. The rest of them were hemmed in by the same problems and only a few of them had plots worth watching through once you get past the look and feel of a made-for-tv horror film. Don Coscarelli and Stuart Gordon, both professionals with pretty solid resumes, made very effective use of the nothing they were given. John Landis, Mick Garris, Tom Holland, and William Malone made the same kind of thing they always do, but on half the budget. I've yet to see Peter Medak's, but I'm expecting it be somewhere between his Species II and The Ruling Class. Anyway, the series followed a pretty strict formula despite its disparate directors. They come mostly from short stories or high concepts and they rely on special effects for most of their shocks. Mick Garris and his ilk - the Stephen King made-for-Sci-Fi crowd - are used to working with no budget and so its no surprise their films come out like they do. Haeckel's Tale is just a little different.

Haeckel's Tale
by John McNaughton
A man called Ralston comes to an old witch looking to bring his wife back from the dead. He misses her terribly and because this looks to be the 18th century, these people don't understand how stupid an idea it is to tamper in the realm of the undead. The witch can't deter Ralston's conviction, so she sits him down for a story about Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel was a medical student who believed he could, through scientific means, resurrect the dead. His professor was incredulous and Haeckel's demonstration a little later does nothing to convince him - even though we see the dead girl's eyes open before she bursts into flames on the operating table.

With his Frankensteinian dreams dashed on the rocks, Haeckel is a little distraught and weak. This is probably why he heeds the advice of his crackpot bodysnatcher who tells him there's a magician who can raise the dead without science. Haeckel decides to travel deep into the woods to look for this man, Montesquino. He finds Montesquino performing tricks out of a wagon like a roadside hoax and so continues Haeckel's incredulity, that is until Montesquino brings a dog back from the dead in front of his eyes. A dialogue with the magician later yields little results - Haeckel just wants the old man to admit he's a phony so he can learn his secret. Montesquino leaves him in the woods in the middle of the night, which he soon discovers is unsafe - when he sees a man hanging from a tree with a sign reading "pederast" around his chest! Haeckel finds a cabin just in time for nightfall where a man named Wolfram and his beautiful young wife Elise reside.

There's something seriously sideways about these two. First of all, Wolfram keeps asking the young doctor if he finds his wife attractive and she keeps looking nervously out the window. In the middle of the night a few things happen that could charitably be described as insane. First Elise comes to the window and starts touching herself and barely stops when she finds Haeckel looking at her. Next a man shows up with a package for Wolfram and when Elise shows up she's nursing a baby. Then Elise leaves the house and screams begin emanating from the woods. Ernst tries to get Wolfram to elaborate on some of the weirdness he's just seen, but the old man keeps his mouth shut except to warn against going into the Necropolis nearby. It's safe to say some bad mojo is afoot and that Montesquino is behind it. I won't ruin the ending but suffice it to say it has to do with that baby and the necromancer. When we re-enter the framing story, we become privvy to the identity of the witch, which just makes things a little creepier, but after the big reveal in the necropolis, there isn't much left to gross out of you.

John McNaughton is a name a lot of people probably scratch their heads over. His name always does the same thing for me "I know him, who is that?" McNaughton directed The Hitcher and so will always have horror street cred as far as I'm concerned. Haeckel's Tale is lousy with his wince-inducing nastiness. The first half works well as an atmospheric piece, even if the effects and cinematography aren't great. McNaughton fills the relative silence before we meet Wolfram with all manner of creeps, my favorite being the "pederast". The stuff involving zombies at the end is significant because it's the first time that a crucial kind of zombie relation has been shown with any sort of effectiveness to my reckoning and the character of Elise Wolfram all of a sudden takes on a very new, fascinating dimension. She answers a question I've had for a long time: what might it look like a few months after the end of Rosemary's Baby?

The performances, all save Steve Bacic who really brings everything down with his wooden turn as Ralston, are pretty savory. Jon Polito gets to show off as Montesquino, a character that despite being written by Clive Barker many, many years ago, seems designed for him. Derek Cecil as Haeckel and Tom McBeath as Wolfram make for convincing adversaries. The real gold medal goes to Leela Savasta who is either really desperate to make it in movies or the most patient and adventurous actress since the days of Lina Romay and Carol Laure. I hope it's the latter because I like her in this film a lot - she's fourteen kinds of weird.
Haeckel's Tale is off-putting and definitely made me cringe more than once and I had a lot of fun with it. Easily the strongest entry in the Masters of Horror series - if not the strongest made for TV horror film - I've seen so far. Everything down to the period costume was all convincing and contributed to the miasma McNaughton creates. Despite his hiatus in the world of mediocre cinema (he's directed under the name Alan Smithee if that tells you anything), McNaughton has lost nothing of his power to shock. I hope he gets a bigger arena again soon.

1 comment:

Doc Zombie said...

good review! i'm gonna check it out. thanks.