Sunday, January 29, 2006

What Do You Want On YOUR Tombstone?

How about a naked actress, grinding away?

This weekend, MASTERS OF HORROR concluded its First Season with "Haeckel's Tale," a Mick Garris adaptation of a Clive Barker short story, directed by John McNaughton. Roger Corman was scheduled to direct this episode until he had to withdraw for health reasons; then it was turned over to George Romero to direct, but he had to beg off for personal reasons. In the long run, I think they both rather lucked out.

Not that "Haeckel's Tale" is all bad. It's set in 1832, which makes it at least distinct from its predecessors this season. It's also fairly well acted, and offers a jolt or two. (I especially liked the bit with the hanging man.) Best of all, it plays like a story rather than a script; it has the unmistakable feel of a literary backbone running through it, which counts as a mark of distinction in a series which has primarly felt screen-written. But regrettably, "Haeckel's Tale" is one of those dramatic pieces that pulls you along by the nose, promising you that you will see things you'll never forget, unimaginable sights that will sear your eyes and stain your very soul... and then delivers silly horror clich├ęs that are actually so feeble, they're laughable.

Derek Cecil stars as the young medical student Ernest Haeckel, whose Frankensteinian ambitions to restore life to the dead are curbed after a disastrous, failed demonstration. When his provider of cadavers alerts him to the presence of a necromancer (Joe Polito) in the vicinity, he attends his sideshow and witnesses the reanimation of a dead dog. But the necromancer reveals that to resurrect a more ambitious subject, like a human being, would rob him of an entire year of life, so such requests must be well compensated. Informed by letter of his father's failing health, the penniless Haeckel sets out on the open road and is met by bad weather. A passing elderly stranger (Tom McBeath) offers him shelter and a meal cooked by his beautiful young wife (Leela Savasta) but, as the evening passes, Haeckel observes that the May-November couple has a baby... and that the wife has a lover beckoning to her from outside. Left alone with his host, Haeckel discovers that the wife was impregnated by her lover, with whom she has assignations in the neighboring cemetery.

The episode opens with the title card "In Association with George A. Romero," placed there to dot some legal I's, because the series had Romero's name attached when it was proposed to its financers. It has a nice Cormanesque atmosphere in the cemetery scenes, but when it introduces its living dead characters, they all come across as pathetically comic -- like the reanimated dog, who's in pretty bad shape but, as the old joke goes, at least he's "in show business." As I've suggested, the episode involves necrophilia, but it's not NEKROMANTIK-style necrophilia or even KISSED-style necrophilia; it's more like Sara Bay-movie-poster necrophilia. Silly as it is, at least it allows the season to end with a bang as well as a whimper. The whimpering, incidentally, comes from Baby, whose true nature is another low-level shock you can see coming from a mile away. The final surprise of the framing story did catch me unawares, but not in a good way; it merely served to add another layer onto an underbaked cake, causing the whole thing to collapse.

The good news, as you've probably read elsewhere by now, is that this episode was put into production at the last minute to replace the original, intended, final episode of MOH, which Showtime refused to air. The only episode filmed outside of Vancouver, Takashi Miike's "Imprint" apparently succeeded in its aims to unsettle and frighten only too well, becoming the series' unexpected sole foray into toxic cinema -- kind of a "Cigarette Burns" for real. This reportedly very-hard-to-take episode will be released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in the fall, for those of you prepared to surpass the spectacle of a naked girl ecstatically humping a KNB EFX Group zombie and break on through to something really serious and adult and confrontational.

How do I rate the Season 1 episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR? Since you're bound to ask, here's my Top 12, presented in reverse order for maximum suspense:

12. Deer Woman (Landis)
11. Haeckel's Tale (McNaughton)
10. Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (Coscarelli)
09. Dance of the Dead (Hooper)
08. Chocolate (Garris)
07. Sick Girl (McKee)
06. The Fair-Haired Child (Malone)
05. Jenifer (Argento)
04. John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (guess who?)
03. Pick Me Up (Cohen)
02. H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch's House (Gordon)
01. Homecoming (Dante)

I think the top four finalists add something significant to the filmographies of their respective directors, and this in itself is a vindication of the series. The three top finalists converge for me in something very close to a photo finish. I think Gordon's episode is the strongest traditional short horror film of the bunch, but Dante's and Cohen's are ultimately more disturbing and innovative and reflective of our times. I'm not even sure that either of them really qualify as horror, or if they are just reflecting as unflinchingly as possible the horror of what we've become as a society. As a fan, I am delighted by that sort of uncertainty.

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