In 2005, Showtime began airing Masters of Horror. This weekly anthology horror series saw some of the most significant horror directors in the world get the opportunity to create original one hour horror films with no restrictions. They were provided an equal budget and the freedom to create whatever kind of horror story they wanted. The end of the first season of the show featured some unexpected challenges in production that changed the course of the series.
Haeckel’s Tale holds an interesting place in Masters of Horror. It technically was the finale of the first season, as Showtime refused to air the intended finale Imprint due to controversial subject matter (more on that next week). This is the first episode connected to Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Candyman, Books of Blood, and so much more) in the series, adapted by fellow horror author and series producer Mick Garris. This is also the episode George A. Romero was supposed to direct but had to back out of due to scheduling conflicts. Everything about the episode makes more sense knowing who was involved, who was supposed to be involved, and where it was supposed to sit in the season.
It is the late 19th Century and John Ralston seeks out the help of Miz Carnation, a necromancer. He wants to revive his late wife and will do anything to have her back. Miz Carnation agrees to do it if John will listen to her story. Everything flashes back to Ernst Haeckel, a man who tries and fails to recreate Victor Frankenstein’s experiments in reanimating human life. He, in turn, visits a necromancer, who introduces him to another way of reanimating the dead.
John McNaughton is the director I know the least about in Masters of Horror. He’s best known for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This is a true crime horror film that revolutionized how the story of a charismatic murderer gets told onscreen. We would not have films like American Psycho or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon without McNaughton’s crossover work in true crime/horror. He earned his invitation to the series with one of the most influential character-driven horror films of all time. All of the production drama means a master of the crime thriller had the chance to lead a production meant for the master of the American zombie film.
Haeckel’s Tale is the most naturalistic entry in Masters of Horror. The story is treated as historical fact with no winking at the audience. The period settings and costumes ground the series in a believable sense of reality. McNaughton directs his actors to very subtle, believable performances even as the screen fills with bizarre medical experimentation and dark rituals.
Mick Garris does a great job capturing that Clive Barker tone onscreen. Good or bad, Barker’s stories and novels strike an unnerving balance between beauty and the grotesque. There’s an obsession with the value of flesh, even more so than life, as if our parts can be used to create something greater than the whole of one person. Barker’s world is filled with erotic content permanently entwined with destruction, playing with that Hellraiser territory of pleasure and pain in ways that could never be fully shown in a theatrical release.
This adaptation of “Haeckel’s Tale” really leans into the Frankenstein references. This supports the structure of the more successful episodes of Masters of Horror, where the first act becomes a brief introduction and the episode is mostly built of the second and third act of a three act horror structure. The dialogue is quite proper to create a greater payoff in the final moments where the true nature of the story within the story comes to life. It’s an elevation of extremely graphic content into the world of a high button drama.
Haeckel’s Tale is one of the most polished episodes of Masters of Horror. It is a Gothic fascination more than a horror film. Nothing is particularly scary. If you took away the series logo, most of it could pass as a one-off period drama made for PBS, an adaptation of some forgotten stage play or recovered manuscript brought to life after being lost to history.
One of the great mysteries of Masters of Horror is how often the episodes all centered on a particular kind of horror story. Most of the episodes in the first season are spins on women in peril stories, filled with tons of gore and circling back to the shock value of the 80s slasher film. Haeckel’s Tale is worth celebrating just for providing so much more range to the series. Gothic horror defined the early decades of cinematic horror in America, setting up the structure and character types we take for granted in modern horror films. Not every horror film is jump out of your seat scary, but every horror film pulls from the literary traditions celebrated in Haeckel’s Tale.
content warning: nudity, gore, surgical footage, cruelty to animals, graphic sexual content
Up Next: S1E13: “Imprint,” directed by Takashi Miike.