19 March 2012

Movie Review: Hercules in the Haunted World

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)
Directed by Mario Bava. Starring Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, Giorgio Ardisson, Ida Galli, Marisa Belli.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

My most popular post I’ve written for Black Gate takes on one of the goofiest fantasy films of the ‘80s, the Lou Ferrigno Hercules. Two-and-a-half years later, I feel I should give the on-screen Hercules another shot with one of the better films to carry his name. Plus, I just pondered the news that a new Hercules film is on the way. Or maybe I’m just trying to repeat the search-engine magic of the name “Hercules.” So let’s leap back twenty-two years from the science-fiction cheesy glitz of Ferrigno’s film and take a kaleidoscopic trip to Hell on a shoestring budget with Mario Bava.

Among the many movies produced in the “sword-and-sandal” (peplum) deluge in Italy between 1958 and 1965, two stand out for movie fans: The Colossus of Rhodes (1960) and Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). Both films were early efforts from directors who went on to re-shape other genres and subsequently turned into legends. Sergio Leone, director of The Colossus of Rhodes, created the style of the Italian Western with his three films with Clint Eastwood and the ultra classic Once Upon a Time in the West. Mario Bava, director of Hercules in the Haunted World, gave form to the Italian giallo film and Continental horror in general, starting with Black Sunday, made the year before his one Hercules films.

The difference between The Colossus of Rhodes and Hercules in the Haunted World is that Bava was already in fine form and showing his signature style, while Leone displayed little of his famous “Leone-ness” in his first movie; The Colossus of Rhodes looks like something any competent director could have turned out. Nobody but Bava could have created the colorful fantastic eeriness of Hercules in the Haunted World.

(To be fair, The Colossus of Rhodes is an enjoyable film, and one of the few sword-and-sandal films audiences can appreciate without irony. But it is not much of a “Sergio Leone film,” and anyone expecting sprawling vistas, twitchy close-ups, terse ritualized violence, and an Ennio Morricone score will come away disappointed.)
Bava was working on the special effects for another Hercules film, Hercules and the Captive Women (also known as Hercules at the Conquest of Atlantis), when his first credited film as director, Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan), became a significant international hit. The producer of Hercules and the Captive Women, Achille Piazza, immediately handed Bava the assignment to direct the next Hercules film: Ercole al Centra della Terra (Hercules at the Center of the Earth, its international English title). Bava was also an accomplished cameraman, so Achille Piazza got a director and cinematographer in a package deal.

Hercules and the Captive Women was an expensive spectacle co-produced with France. Mario Bava had fewer resources for Hercules in the Haunted World, which was a solo effort by Italian production company SpA Cinematographic and shot on a tight three-week schedule. But Bava’s genius with in-camera visual effects and his expansive vision got through the limitations to create arguably the finest sword-and-sandal film of the classic era.

Except for the “Sons of Hercules” syndication package and the two Steve Reeves Hercules movies, peplum films have a low-profile in North America—and for good reason. There are a number of decent sword-and-sandal films, such as the first two Hercules films with Reeves, and Hercules and the Captive Women is lavish and beautiful. But the majority of these films center on bland muscleman fight scenes and tepid romance, and contain scant fantasy content with vague bit and pieces Greco-Roman mythology.

But Hercules in the Haunted World is genuine fantasy. There’s some standard peplum beat-em-up rituals, but Bava doesn’t seem to care much about them. He’s fascinated with colorful horror-themed set-pieces and eerie visuals. The movie contains an unremarkable story with wooden performances and a loathsome comic relief character, but on its imaginative look alone Hercules in the Haunted World is worthy of multiple viewings and a space on the DVD shelf of any fantasy enthusiast. Plus, it has Christopher Lee—even if it doesn’t have his voice.
Color is Bava’s principle tool in the movie, since he had very little to work with as far as sets: “For this film, I made a bet with myself that I could shoot the entire picture using only one segmented wall containing doors and widows, and four moveable columns.” Bava wasn’t exaggerating; those exact four columns keep popping up everywhere, with mirrors used to create the illusion of more. But it’s astonishing how little it matters, since Bava always keeps the scenes visually interesting with his lighting and visual effects. The film’s haunting color palette of reds and purples resembles one of Bava’s future films, the trippy science-fiction/horror movie Planet of the Vampires (1965).

Hercules in the Haunted World begins with its most routine sword-and-sandal scenes. Hercules (Reg Park) and “Theseus” (Girogio Ardisson) are lazing around a river so Herc can tan and Theseus can make time with a girl in the hay. A pack of assassins attack them, stunt men get tossed into the river, Hercules picks up a wagon and hurls it, and then our heroes have a hearty laugh. It gets the film off to an unpromising start, because Bava’s handling of the stunt-work feels perfunctory. This is some pathetic fisticuffs and swordplay.

I put “Theseus” in ironic quotes because this character has no connection to the Athenian hero; in fact, I’ll go with the Italian spelling, “Teseo,” from now on. Same for “Telemacho,” our obnoxious comedy relief (Franco Giocabini), whom the English dub calls Telemachus. By the way, the girl in the hay with Theseus is named Jocasta, but I don’t think she’s the same one whose adult son is still living with her.
Obligatory muscle-head stuff over, let’s get on to the weird fantasy. The villainous Lyco (Christopher Lee) rewards his failed assassin leader with a death trap in a creepy underground grotto. Unfortunately, Christopher Lee’s real voice wasn’t used for any of the dubs, but the actor still has commanding power that lends an almost vampiric presence to his character. This merger of Continental and Anglo horror is a welcome one.

Herc comes to the city of Ecalia to marry his fiancĂ©e, princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). However, since her father’s death, she has fallen into an uncanny trance, and her uncle Lyco has taken the throne. It’s of course Lyco who has entranced Deianira and caused the curse that upon the city, but thickheaded Herc can’t figure out that someone played by Christopher Lee is obviously up to no good.

Hercules consults the Sibyl, in a scene of hypnotic minimalism (with those same pillars). The Sibyl sends Hercules to the region of Pluto to seek the Hesperides and the Stone of Forgetfulness, which may cure Deianira. Hercules takes along Teseo and mugging comedian Telemacho. After a short scene of our heroes beating up some fellow on the beach so they can take his boat, they plunge into the deepest section of the fantastic.

The film now turns into one astonishing studio-shot set-piece after another: the boat sailing through a purple and red mist of the Kingdom of Eternal Night; Hercules climbing the Sacred Tree to reach the golden apple of the Hesperides during a lightning storm; the stone monster Procrustes strapping down Teseo and Telemacho to beds of death; a forest of bleeding trees containing souls in torment; and Hercules and Teseo crossing over a lava lake on a single rope.
Procrustes is the best moment in the film: despite the cheap quality of the costume, the large rock monster looks quite horrific, especially in close-ups. Procrustes is a rare inclusion of real mythology in a sword-and-sandal film. Procrustes was a son of Poseidon who imprisoned travelers on a bed that he claimed could fit anyone. If the captive was too long for the bed, he stretched them out. If they were too short, he sawed off their legs. Theseus (the real one) eventually strapped Procrustes to his own bed and that was that. Procrustes wasn’t a Ben Grimm-like rock monster as he appears in the movie, but that’s change I can handle since it looks so ghastly. Too bad Herc disposes of him so speedily. With a suit that rigid, a long fight scene would be difficult to choreograph.

But the mighty Hercules’s problems do not end once he gets returns to Ecalia with the Stone of Forgetfulness. Teseo secretly took Pluto’s daughter, Meiazotide (called “Persephone” in the English dub), back with him—and the wrath of the gods falls on the city because of it. Teseo won’t relent and let the girl go back to Hades. And Lyco, of course, doesn’t plan to surrender the throne. So Herc is going to have to beat up more people and face the sorcery of Lyco.

Plenty about the movie doesn’t work. British bodybuilder Reg Park is a boring Hercules; he looks the part with his three-time Mr. Universe Winner musculature, but he brings no charisma to the part the way Steeve Reeves does. He is better than Ferrigno, at least. The low, low budget emerges in many places, no matter what Bava does to disguise it. The story is standard “one quest after another” that feels as if it was improvised scene by scene. And Telemacho is nauseatingly unfunny. Maybe if Hercules had run a bit slower, Procrustes would have chopped the guy’s legs off and we’d be done with him.
But nobody comes to Hercules and the Haunted World to enjoy those elements. It’s to watch Bava’s infernal fantasy spectacle, and he delivers to make sure viewers don’t have a chance to get bored. In scenes like Procrustes’s attack and the finale with flying zombies rising from crypts to mob Hercules, the director feeds the viewer with dark fantasy goodness captured with eerie, nightmare lighting.

I will give the story this one prop: the drama between Meiazotide and Teseo once it becomes clear that his refusal to surrender her will destroy the city is well played. Bava gives the height of their story the atmospheric suspense it needs.

Hercules and the Haunted World has shown up in numerous home video releases, but the only one to look at is Fantoma’s 2002 DVD. It has an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer from an excellent 35mm international print (which means it has the title Hercules at the Center of the Earth at the front) and the option for the Italian dub with English subtitles or the English dub. Remember, you don’t get Christopher Lee’s actual voice in either version.

The film is available on Neftlix Instant, but in a cropped print that appears transferred from a damaged videotape and has sound so muddied that a quarter of the dialogue is difficult to make out. It’s also the edited version that the Woolner Brothers released in the U.S. in 1964, which is missing some key scenes. Go for the Fantoma DVD and be wary of any other edition. Hopefully, an independent Blu-ray label such as Blue Underground (which has released some great Italian genre classics, such as Django) will produce an HD disc in the future. The film certainly will reap huge benefits from a high-quality presentation.