Clive Barker double feature: Haeckel’s Tale / Transmutations

You know how it is, you love Clive Barker-based movies but you’ve seen HELLRAISER, NIGHTBREED, CANDYMAN and THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN a million times each, you’re not quite ready to try again on LORD OF ILLUSIONS, you even watched BOOKS OF BLOOD last year, but you want a little of that Barker movie kick, so it’s time for a Clive Dive. You gotta try some of the lesser ones out, see if you missed a good one, or if one you didn’t like back in the day is any better than you thought at the time.

So I tried one of each. The one I’d missed was the Masters of Horror episode Haeckel’s Tale, from 2006. It’s adapted by Mick Garris (THE FLY II) and directed by John McNaughton “in association with George A. Romero.” According to Wikipedia that just means Romero was supposed to direct it but had a scheduling problem. Around that time he was starting DIARY OF THE DEAD and announced a thing that never happened called SOLITARY ISLE, so it must’ve been one of those.

But McNaughton is good too. HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER messed me up as a young man, I’ve always liked NORMAL LIFE, I absolutely love WILD THINGS. So I’m down for some forgotten McNaughton.

The story starts when this rich guy on horseback (Steve Bacic, BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER) tracks down a former necromancer (Micki Maunsell, BINGO) at her remote cabin to beg her to bring his late wife back to life. She refuses, but to get rid of him agrees that if he listens to her story about what happened to medical student Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil, PARKER) in “a more naive age” and still wants her to bring his wife back, then fine, she’ll do it.

The story-within-the-story (based on the short story) starts with Haeckel making a scene during class because his professor Dr. Hauser (Gerard Plunkett, SUCKER PUNCH) says something about God. “Our young heathen,” as Hauser calls him, snottily interrupts with, “What has God to do with man?” and then the two get into one of those old timey, heavy accent snide-offs they always do in these fucking things, where you realize that you really don’t want to hear what either one of these blowhards has to say about anything, ever. If the dialogue was written to be interesting it wouldn’t matter, because both actors play it like an uptight aristocrat trying to put King Ralph in his place. But it’s important because it announces the very heavy themes of God and Man and Life and Death and all that shit. Pretty sure KENNETH BRANAGH’S MARY SHELLY’S SHIRTLESS FRANKENSTEIN had one or more of these scenes too. You can tell this is gonna be a long hour.

The two argue about whether a body can be brought back to life, with Haeckel citing the important research breakthroughs going on in Germany, a.ka. “the tales of Victor Frankenstein.” Haeckel wants to prove he knows what he’s talking about, so he invites the doctor and the class to a demonstration where he attempts to revive an “unfortunate young woman” who died of consumption using the Frankenstein electricity technique. It seems to work for a second (she opens her eyes!) but she immediately catches fire and burns to a crisp. Whoops.

Haeckel finds another guy who claims to know how to bring back the dead, Montesquino (Jon Polito, BARTON FINK), who has a similar fashion sense to Danny Devito as The Penguin. He seems to be a phony, though he apparently revives a dead dog. (I enjoyed that puppet.) Though the dog (which comes back vicious) does not make for a very appealing demo, he lets the crowd know he they can obtain his services for bringing back human loved ones for a hundred clams.

Haeckel thinks it’s bullshit, and his dad is sick, so he hits the road for London. Along the way there’s a part where he’s sitting in the woods to eat when some purplish greyish slime drips on his bread. He looks up and sees it’s coming from a hole in the dirty sock of a corpse hung up with a sign saying “PEDERAST.” Man, I hate that!

Later he’s gonna sleep near a necropolis but a stranger named Walter Wolfram (Tom McBeath, MALONE, TIMECOP) convinces him to come stay with him and his much-younger-than-him wife Elise (Leela Savasta, BLACK X-MAS). There is some sexual tension because for some reason the Wolframs discuss how handsome Haeckel is and Walter asks “Surely you have experienced physical love, have you not, Mr. Haeckel?” Haeckel later tries to get Elise to experience physical love with him but she turns him down and then in the night he sees her looking out his window and masturbating.

It’s always weird staying over at other people’s houses, isn’t it? Always some uncomfortable thing, you never know what it’s gonna be.

I gotta tell you, I was bored shitless through most of this episode, so it’s a big relief when stuff finally starts happening. Haeckel figures out there’s something going on with Elise in the woods, and he learns that she was married to another man before Walter and Walter feels bad that she misses him so he paid Montesquino to bring him back to life and they see her riding her dead husband (Christopher DeLisle, A DOG NAMED CHRISTMAS) on top of a crypt, in front of a bunch of rotting zombies. Guys with their jaws and rib cages showing, just standing there watching like it’s EYES WIDE SHUT, holding torches.

Later they start groping her and I think maybe getting in on it. Kind of ambiguous.

Haeckel is morally outraged (and jealous) but Walter explains, “I fear it is the only way she is satisfied.”

“What is she?”

“A woman. A woman in love with a dead man.”

So Barker’s contention that all men secretly want to fuck monsters (see: Shuna Sasse in NIGHTBREED) extends to women, too. At least if they are in a committed relationship with the monster already. Anyway, the zombies tear Walter’s chest open and eat his guts and she just keeps fuckin and doesn’t seem to notice.

That kinda feels like the ending (I mean, where do you go from there?) but there are some fun little cappers. Haeckel survives the zombie attack and talks to Elise in the morning. She says that her baby “looks like his daddy,” and we see that it’s an ugly little zombie bastard. See, we assumed the husband died recently since she has his baby, but actually she was impregnated after he died. So much drama!

The baby bites Haeckel’s neck, he turns into a zombie, and then Elise fucks him. I worried that last detail might intrigue the rich guy hearing the story in the wraparound, but I shouldn’t have. “That is the most horrible tale ever told,” he says, which is an exaggeration, although I agree that it’s not a great episode.

But telling the tale did the trick, the guy is getting all high and mighty and absolutely doesn’t want her to bring back his wife anymore. But there’s another twist: Zombie Haeckel enters the room and the old hag says, “Sweetheart, we were just talking about you!” and starts making out with him. So much gross-out PDA in this episode! She has the zombie baby and Zombie Walter and Zombie Montesquino come in and she indicates that after feeding the baby she’s gonna have an orgy with the three adult zombies.

That’ll do, Clive.

I also revisited the early days of Barker for TRANSMUTATIONS. That’s the U.S. VHS title for a 1985 movie also called UNDERWORLD. I remembered nothing about it besides the cover and that I rented it after HELLRAISER because they made a big deal about Barker writing it, and I was horribly disappointed because it was nothing like HELLRAISER. I later read an interview where he said they only used one line of his dialogue.

The other credited writer is James Caplin (no other credits) and the director is George Pavlou, who followed this with RAWHEAD REX in 1986. That one’s based on a Barker short story, giving Barker soul writing credit, and I kind of liked it last time I watched it, but it obviously pales in comparison to the ones Barker (or Bernard Rose) directed. And this one pales in comparison to that.

It’s the story of Roy Bain (Larry Lamb, RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER 3), who we can tell is some kind of tough guy because he slicks back his hair and sometimes wears a cool jacket and/or muscle shirt, but he also drives some kind of vintage rich guy convertible that kind of clashes with that image, makes him seem kinda prissy. I don’t know, maybe it’s a British thing that doesn’t translate to American.

He used to be a bodyguard (and boyfriend) of a high-end escort named Nicole (Nicola Cowper, DREAMCHILD) who has been abducted from the brothel. The boss man Motherskille (Steven Berkoff, KONGA, BARRY LYNDON) hires Roy to track her down.

This will be kind of a horror/sci-fi thing but for a while it’s more like a detective story. I’m tempted to say that makes it like LORD OF ILLUSIONS, which is kind of like a noir thing within a horror story, but this is not some private eye specializing in the occult. He has no idea. He just does normal stuff going and strong-arming guys and whatever. And he finds a little vial of white liquid at her place that he thinks is a super drug and he considers it a lead, trying to trace where she got that from.

It takes him a while to find her, but we know she’s actually in a lab somewhere being experimented on. The doctor has kind of Elephant Man style lumps on his face and some of the other people hanging around have fangs and stuff. It turns out a mad biochemist named Savary (Denholm Elliott, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) created the white stuff and they’re addicted to it, turning them into these mutants, but Nicole seems to be immune to the side effects, so they’re studying her to try to cure themselves.

In this sense it ends up being like NIGHTBREED – they are the monstrous outsiders, some innocent, some bestial and out of control, who live in tunnels under London, and we end up rooting for them. If we care about the story at all. There’s also a very homoerotic dance sequence at a bar that, if not suggested by Barker, at least seems somewhat up his alley. There’s a decent Barker vibe to the villain and his weird henchmen, an occasional good effects moment.

It gets a little more interesting toward the end – Roy shoots a monster guy that’s after him and suddenly another one pops out of a manhole and pulls him down. And Nicole turns into kind of a messiah for the monsters and has glowing eyes and stuff. I think the basic premise is kind of cool, or at least has potential for an action or detective horror mashup with sympathetic monster anti-heroes. But it really needs to have the character of Roy be way cooler and/or the type of elaborate makeup effects that would soon become Barker’s standard. As it is it’s mostly dull. But I would say I at least got more out of it this time than in the ‘80s. The neon/MTV artificial futuristic look and soundtrack by Welsh synthpop band Freur (who later reformed under the name Underworld, after the movie!) are things I probly thought were cheesy at the time but sort of appreciate now. I watched it on VHS, but apparently it’s on Prime, where I’m sure it looks better.

Pavlou’s only subsequent movies were GRAY CLAY DOLLS (1991), which IMDb says is a 30-minute “TV Movie,” and LITTLE DEVILS: THE BIRTH (1993), a quasi-Full Moon Pictures movie with Russ Tamblyn and Stella Stevens in the cast. But we owe him a debt of gratitude since Barker’s disappointment in UNDERWORLD and RAWHEAD REX helped spur him to direct HELLRAISER himself. Sure, that led to us renting TRANSMUTATIONS, but it was worth it.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 26th, 2021 at 6:56 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

13 Responses to “Clive Barker double feature: Haeckel’s Tale / Transmutations”

  1. Man, that MASTERS OF HORROR cover takes me back to my first trip to Canada in 2006, where I saw these things in stores and thought “What the hell is this show? This must be the greatest thing ever!”

    We all know how it turned out. But the covers were cool. I really loved the drawings of the directors.

  2. I never got round to watching any of those MASTER OF HORRORs. I’m assuming it turned out it *was* the greatest show ever?

  3. It was all worth it for DEER WOMAN.

  4. I’m quite fond of the Don Coscarelli episode, INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD, which I believe was the very first episode.

    Btw, thanks, Vern, for pointing out where I can stream TRANSMUTATIONS. I’m torturing myself with friggin’ BATTLESHIP right now and I think I’d rather die than finish it.

  5. Yeah, the Coscarelli one is the best one I’ve seen. And then I thought both of Carpenter’s and Argento’s Pelts were decent.

  6. This is one of the better episodes of Masters of Horror for me. I liked Carpneter’s first (second was eh) and Pelts was good. Takashi Miike as always created a work of insane art, probably the best genuine film out of all of them. Joe Dante’s were good.

    The only director who made a great one every time at bat for me is Stuart Gordon. (Including his Fear Itself episode).

    Aside from Miike who made a great artistic but really tough to watch one, my favorite out of all three seasons is Skin and Bones by Larry Fessenden. Was a fantastic episode, so fun and well paced, and an excellent acting job by Doug Jones. Was very cool at the time to see him doing his patented long finger acting on tv, playing a main character. He is so good in that.

  7. The Masters Of Horror dvds all had trading cards inside of those drawings of the directors. For me at least I really liked The Fair Haired Child. Directed by someone very far from being a Master Of Horror, William Malone (ugh, Fear.Com) but it has a great creature in it and a pretty cool story. Fear Itself is where they got much harder to enjoy. Also I agree Incident On a Mountain Road was one of the very best.

  8. Sadly (?) I never watched FEAR ITSELF, but I remember that when SKIN & BONES aired, writer Drew McWeeny was very vocal with his disappointment about how the episode turned out, although he praised Doug Jones as the only good thing about it.

  9. I think Fessenden rewrote their script quite a bit. McWeeney did the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen with a script, which is showing the angel in the first five minutes of Cigarette Burns. I remember him talking about how clever that was, and I’m like you jus shot your wad, I guess the next 40 minutes of this will be a slog (it was) and hopefully the ending delivers (more or less it did). Once you see an angel there’s no more mystery about the film, you might not know exactly what’s on it but you get the gist.

    I don’t remember many of the Feat Itself episodes, in general they weren’t quite as quality (and that’s saying something), but that one and Stuart Gordon’s were really good.

  10. “That’ll do, Clive.” Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Apposite and hilarious. Vern, you remain for the most part a delight. Usually open-minded yet not afraid to call a shovel a shovel, brilliantly straddling the clever-dumb dumb-clever line as only someone truly articulate can do, ethical yet not pompous or self-righteous, and the only critic to regularly make me cry laughing (both Titan versions of Seagalogy are great and despite their subject being as a sickening waste of hair dye they still make me laugh). Not only that but you have a great humane (mostly) community full of thoughtful funny people. You should be proud. I only wish you were much more/even better known because you certainly deserve it. (Alas, this is not the best of all possible worlds, it’s more the Halloween The Curse of Michael Myers/Halloween II II/Halloween Kills of all possible worlds… Ha. What did I say something wrong? *unsubtle wink*) Keep fighting the good fight, Mr Vern.

  11. Argento’s Jenifer, Landis’ Deer Woman.

  12. I actually talked to John Landis at a convention about a week before his Fear Itself episode aired. Thankfully I was able to tell him I was looking forward to it. Instead of actually having seen it already and pretend it was actually good. He was very cool by the way.

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