Haeckel's Tale is the latest episode of Masters of Horror to make it out on DVD. Having seen it, I have only Fair-Haired Child to complete my viewing of the first season. Sadly, the reviews on the second season have been considerably less kind than those for first season, which were generally mixed, so I have a bit of sinking feeling regarding it.
This episode was directed John McNaughton and based on a short story by Clive Barker. It was originally the episode slated for Roger Corman, who had to bow out for health reasons. Some have suggested the honorary credit given to George A. Romero at the beginning suggests he was also attached specifically to this episode, but I've heard nothing more than speculation on that.
The set-up on this is quite good. The acting is terrific. The period detail is excellent. The pre-event jolts are shocking and build the mood well.
Unfortunately, in order to tell the story this story, you must break taboos. In fact, "Breaking Taboos", in fact, is the name of the interview segment with director McNaughton.
I'm not saying that this set-up couldn't have paid off in a non-taboo breaking manner. I'm saying that Barker's short story has little other purpose than to build to and revel in a sequence that, especially on film, breaks basic taboos that we rarely see broken.
Unfortunately, this sequence was not given the gravity it needed. It suffers badly from being staged and lit like a late '80/early '90s direct-to-video sex thriller (or the suprisingly tedious Orgy of the Dead). It's that kind of movie sex that doesn't resemble any form of the sex act as I've seen or experienced it in real life. It doesn't even resemble any story passed along to me by a friend (or obtrusive acquaintance).
I give away a bit much, I suppose, even if I try to talk around it a bit.
This scene needed something more than a sexual performance. It's not a titillating bit of side business, it's the climax, as it were, of the story. It's the film's reason to be and it utterly fails.
All the more disappointing as I would point to the sex in Wild Things as remarkable for its realism, within its own reality, and I seem to recall the same about Mad Dog and Glory, although it's been quite a while with that one.
And this doesn't even mention the fact that after that scene, we're treated to not one, but two incredibly bad, incredibly predictable and incredibly poorly done twists. Shockingly bad.
Mind you, the first 2/3 still make it better than Cigarette Burns, but not by much.