Thanks to The Vicar of VHS from Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies for bringing this title to my attention, after reading this entry I posted about the short story by Clive Barker.
From the Masters of Horror television series comes this putrid tale of a woman's love and desire, which is so profound that it extends beyond the crypt! Crafted originally in the form of a short story by Clive Barker, Haeckel's Tale was adapted for the screen by writer Mick Garris (who also wrote an episode for HBO's Tales From the Crypt), and directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), in close association with Zombie Grand Pappy George Romero.
A handsome and wealthy man named Ralston (Steve Bacic) pays a sombre visit to an old woman, Miz Carnation (Micki Maunsell), who is said to have the power to raise the dead. Ralston's beloved wife, Samantha, has recently died and he is most desperate to pluck her from the tomb by any means necessary. The old woman, who sits in a chair by the fire gulping rum from a silver stein, scoffs at him. She tells Ralston that she is no longer in the business of necromancy, and that even if she was, she doubted the strength of his desire. Miz Carnation made a bargain with Ralston: if he still wanted his dead wife returned to him after having listened to her telling of Haeckel's tale, she would grant his unnatural request.
Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil) was a dashing, young medical student who seemed obsessed with breathing life into death. In the tradition of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, he seemed convinced that science and medicine would one day overcome the greatest obstacle placed before mankind: the reaper's scythe.
"Devoid of a soul," his bushy-haired professor (Gerard Plunkett) lectures, "all that is left is left is flesh; a machine without power, a mere husk, an empty vessel. Only God, in his infinite wisdom, may grant life and take it away."
A true man of science (and a fine example of Victorian Man Meat), young Haeckel shouts back at his professor. "What has God to do with man? Man and woman fornicate to create life. Accidents, disease, or old age take it away. Your God has nothing to do with it." He references the work of the German necrophile, Frankenstein, who has succeeded in removing God from the life/death conundrum. The older man mocks his students belief in the "re-animation of the human corpse."
Quick on the draw, Haeckel shoots back with a stinging remark about Zombie Jesus Day; touché. He promises to show his teacher, and the whole of his class, that he can, and will, bring life to the dead, using the notes of Dr. Frankenstein, the power of lightning, and the body of a young female victim of consumption. "This girl shall live again!"
Or, not. Okay, so she burned. Tommorrow is another day. "It appears divinity is still a long ways off for you, Mr. Haeckel... May God forgive you, sir."
Chester (Pablo Coffey), the grizzly commoner who brings "good beef" to the medical school, aids Haeckel in his quest to solve the mysteries of life and death. He implores him to seek out Montesquino the Necromancer (Jon Polito), who runs a carnival-like show in which he solicits money from peasants to perform the dark art of resurrecting the dead. He claims takes one year from his own life each time he undertakes the proceedings, and is therefore worth their hard-earned money. Even after witnessing Montesquino's performance (in which he re-animates a "quite dead" Golden Retriever), Haeckel discounts the man as a charlatain.
Young Haeckel's continued studies are interrupted by a message indicating that his father is near death, and would like to see his son before he passes into the Great Beyond. The young student attempts to make the journey on foot, and along his journey, he meets an old man named Walter Wolfram (Tom McBeath), who advises him that it would be wise to steer clear of the nearby necropolis at such a late hour, and offers Haeckel lodging in his home nearby.
Wolfram's home is meagre, but his wife, Elise (Leela Savasta), is young and inviting. In the way he looks at Elise, it is clear that Haeckel is wondering how she can possibly be satisfied by an old man such as Wolfram, and undoubtedly he covets her for himself. The three of them dine together, and the conversation is pleasant enough, but something is not quite right. The old man plies him with wine, while Elise nervously looks out the window as though waiting for something, or someone.
That night, Haeckel is treated to some bizarre late-night viewing from the guest room. First, he sees Elsie at the window, fondling herself as she looks out in anticipation of something unknown. She turns to see him, but her eyes are glazed over as though she is in some sort of erotic trance. Later, he sees Wolfram hand a man at the door a sum of money before the stranger departs. Later still, he is awakened by a baby's hungry cry, and sees Elsie suckling an infant at her breast while her aged husband looks on.
Haeckel is baffled, for surely Old Man Limp Dick could not possibly have fathered a child. Elsie puts the child down anxiously, and rushes out the door. Her husband watches her through the window, but does not follow, and instead, sits down at the table and cries. The young student is unable to stand it any longer; he gets up out of bed to question the old man. He suspects that Wolfram has paid the man at the door to ball his sexed-up wife.
In actuality, Wolfram has hired Montesquino to satisfy Elsie's "sickness." He explains to Haeckel that the child Elsie was nursing is not his, and that the father of the baby is dead. Elsie loves the man desperately still, and Wolfram has hired Montesquino to help her... erm, love him. She is heard crying out from the necropolis, and in spite of Wolfram's attempts to stop him, Haeckel rushes off to save her from the Necromancer's tricks. Haeckel still believes Montesquino's claims are hogwash, until he encounters the zombie Golden Retriever he had first seen a few days prior. He bashes the poor beast head in with a boulder, but still, it lives!
"It is already dead, Haeckel. You cannot kill it again."
The two men make their way into the necropolis, and encounter a most gruesome (and sexy) sight. There, in all her naked, glistening glory, is Elise, straddling a slimy corpse and riding it like a cowgirl, while a throng of other zombies stand around in wait for their turn to have a go at her.
When old Wolfram, unable to watch his wife humping the heck out of the undead, begs that she return home with him, he is gutted by zombies for his careless interruption. Haeckel is left as the sole defender of righteousness. He fires on that greedy, hellraisin' bastard Montesquino with Wolfram's musket. As the Necromancer takes his last few breaths, he tells Haeckel that there is no way to stop the undead orgy. Until the sun rises, the necrophornication will not cease.
The next morning, Haeckel steals back into the cabin, uncertain of what he will find there. To his surprise, he hears a beautiful woman's voice singing from within. He enters to find the lovely (and talented) Elise, looking particularly chipper, nursing her baby once again. Not upset in the least about Wolfram's death, she laments that "old men are the best husbands, as long as you don't want children." She stands and approaches Haeckel, with the child in her outstretched arms, beckoning him to hold the baby.
Elsie's zombie baby eats Haeckel, or at least part of his neck. There is a silver lining, however: at last, Ernst Haeckel gets to do what he had been fantasizing about since he first set foot inside old Wolfram's house: he gets to nail Elise... as a zombie!!! Please, kids. Don't try this at home unless you have proper and adequate lubrication.
The fire rages back at Miz Carnation's house as she finishes with her story. Ralston does not believe the old woman's crazy yarn, calling it "an affront to God."
"There is no God in this simple home, sir." Miz Carnation replies. "No God at all." From out of the dark corners of the house come the zombified corpses of Wolfram, and Haeckel, and the Zombie Lover from the necropolis. Old Miz Carnation is revealed to be Elise, the young hot ass from the story she just shared with Ralston. Before he is invited to join the happy family, Ralston rushes out the door, leaving the necrofam to "play... together."
Given that Clive Barker's version of Haeckel's Tale was barely more than a few pages long, a number of elements were added to the film adaptation in order to give it more substance. I won't go into detail about the additions any further than to say that, aside from the family reunion-style ending (which is cheesy to the max), it all works. Quite well, actually!
The plot follows Barker's intention quite closely, and much of the dialogue is taken directly from the original story. I would have liked to have seen the movie end where Barker had chosen to end it, but alas, Kitty doesn't always get her wish. With the exception of the last few minutes (which were good for a lark, for sure), I found the film version of Haeckel's Tale to be very entertaining and easy to watch. The setting is refreshing, and was achieved quite well by the crew. The special makeup effects, particularly the zombies and gore scenes, were outstanding.
The players in this film, while relatively unknown, were surprisingly good, especially where the Victorian Man Meat is concerned. I found myself harbouring unclean desires each time Derek Cecil appeared on the screen, and even better still, his near-flawless portrayal of the cocky medical student impressed me greatly. I found his soulful eyes, and animated facial expressions equally capable of expressing emotion as was his brilliantly-delivered dialogue. On the other hand, while extremely beautiful, Leela Savasta failed to convey any particularly remarkable skills in the acting department. Her performance was satisfactory, though I will admit that she looked great riding zombie bareback.
3/5 Kitty Skulls = Wait for this movie to hit the Bargain Bin.