According to IMDB, the source of all cinema knowledge, George Romero was originally slated to direct Haeckel's Tale, an adaptation of a Clive Barker short story that held down the 12th slot in the first season of Masters of Horror. Romero couldn't fit it into his schedule, which leads one to make the shocking conclusion that some effort was actually put into make Diary of Dead despite the end result. After Romero bowed out, Roger Corman was tapped for the gig. Corman – who actually had a full schedule: in 2006, Corman produced five films and made three appearances in various film and television projects – took the helm, but then bowed out because of health reasons. This led series producer and Haeckel writer Mick Garris to tap one horror-hit wonder John McNaughton. Though, to be honest, what a hit: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. If you're going to do just one major horror flick, coming out with a flick so bleak and grim that the MPAA slaps you with an X not on the basis of the films violence (which is gritty, but not particularly over-the-top even for the time) or sexual material (which, again, is grim, but, again, well in R territory) but for the films "moral tone." Between Henry and Haeckel, McNaughton tried his hand at one other horror flick, the sci-fi/horror/comedy/train wreck The Borrower, before walking away from the genre. Over time he amassed an interesting, if not always great track record. Among other things, he shot the DeNiro/Murray/Thurman romantic comedy Mad Dog and Glory (penned by crime-lit giant Richard Price), the sun-baked cult sleaze-o noir Wild Things, and several episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets (a.k.a. The Wire version 1.0).
So, can a guy with only one great horror flick to his name really be a "master" of horror? I can't say. But I will say that he does a better job on his episode than many, more firmly established horror directors did on their episodes. Haeckel's Tale is moody, well paced, suitably naughty, willing to be absurd, and makes a stylistic nod to the Hammer period thrillers – all in less than an hour.
Having never read the Baker story, I'm not qualified to tell how loyal it stays to the original. The flick opens with a framing device involving a widower who wants a local witch to bring back his dead wife. The witch says that she will do so, but only on the condition that the man listen to the tale of Ernst Haeckel. If, after her tale is done, the widower is still keen on the idea of resurrecting his spouse, then she'll do it.
Open on a surgical theater in Boston medical college at the turn of the Eighteenth Century. The titular doctor, having studied the notes of one Frankenstein, informs his med school prof that he can re-animate the dead. Forced to make good on the boast, Haeckel makes a mash of it and ends up setting his subject, a female corpse, on fire. After a hearty round of mockery, Haeckel is left with his failure and a local body-snatcher suggest that he should perhaps look in on "Professor" Montesquino. Montesquino, played as a cross between Caligari and a used car salesman by Homicide vet Jon Polito, is a necromancer that Bostonites credit with the ability to bring back the dead.
Doubtful, Haeckel sees Montesquino's show. After watching the necromancer bring back a dead golden retriever (a bit of anachronism: efforts to create the golden retriever didn't begin until the 1860s, with the "first" of the breed being registered in the first decade of the Twentieth Century), Haeckel attempts to bribe the secrets of reviving the dead from Montesquino, but is rebuffed.
Shortly there after, Haeckel receives news that his ailing father has taken a turn for the worse. Haeckel takes to the open road, hiking from the metropolis into the country. On the road, Haeckel finds shelter at the modest Wolfram cabin, home of Mr. Wolfram and his lovely, if creepily otherworldly, wifey: Elise. (As an aside, Elise is played by Leela Savasta, so if you're life has been incomplete because you haven't seen the lovely boobies of Battlestar Galatica's Tracey Anne, then run, don't walk, to your nearest video rental joint.)
I can't go much further without ruining the plot, but rest assured that the Wolframs' have a nasty secret that turns things all messy right quick and involves something that rhymes with "ROM bee hex." I kid not. It's based on a Clive Barker story. You could see it coming. You know what these zombies saw coming?
Where was I? Oh. The movie.
So, aside from the Ye Olde Talke™, which grates a bit before you get into the groove, the period trappings have the lush and stagey artificiality of Hammer or Amicus flicks, though the coozed up climax, if you will, of the flick is considerably more explicit than either of those inspirations implies. The graveyard set is especially nice. The acting is adequate to excellent, with the exception of Elise, who is more of narrative conflict than a character. The plotting moves along purposefully, with enough slack to add some tangential stuff and avoid giving the viewer the feeling that their on a forced march. The mood of the film goes from lushly Gothic to darkly, almost nihilistically, comedic. There is, I guess, a sort of "approval of alternate lifestyles" subtext here, but the metaphor is hopelessly clumsy and one gets the feeling that the message was in the original but that McNaughton didn't give a crap about it. The result is that whatever ideological content there is remains vestigial and under-developed. The film has too much fun with the eerie/goofy surreality of its own plot to try to hone it into some sort of take-home message.
Haeckel's Tale is really one of the highpoints of the MoH series. Playful and nasty, taboo breaking without being ponderous or smug, thoughful without being preachy of clumsily political, it's fun times.