Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), Or I Need Some Peplum Bismol!

Dearest friends, I bid thee welcome! It is I, the Duke of DVD, once more walking in on you as you step out of the shower, water beading on your supple skin. I shield my eyes and gasp in mock alarm, pretending to look away as I leer at you through my fingers. I smirk as you try to cover your nakedness with a hand-cloth. Fear not! That saucy tattoo of Mother Teresa being buggered by the entire line-up of the 1971 Manchester United football team will go unspoken of henceforth!

Come, join me once again as we walk down Mario Bava Lane. Notice the neatly manicured lawns starting to give way to rusted-fence-lined blackened earth. There, on our right, is the Johnson place, they with their two kids, fancy cars, and popular gatherings. Oh how I hate them! On our left is Old Man Shriveledsack, walking out to get his morning paper. Yes, we see you, no, we won’t wave in return, you scrawny git. Further down the lane we travel, red eyes from unnameable creatures watch us from shadowy thickets. Your hand grasps my arm more tightly. Do not fear! These are pathways I’ve traveled oft of late, and I will see you through it.

We arrive at a mansion seemingly carved of a single stone from the face of a granite mountain. Blackened and twisted, with no line a straight edge, the edifice reeks of madness and despair. Dare we enter? Not without checking the mailbox first! It seems Mr. Bava is a front-runner to win the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes, and has also received a coupon for a free large coffee at Denny’s, the lucky sod! The front door creaks open of its own accord.

Let’s see what’s inside, shall we?

HERCULES! That’s right folks, the son of Zeus himself, oiled up by the gods, ready for action! Some might be surprised that the mad genius that is Mario Bava (along with co-director Franco Prosperi) would turn an eye towards Greek/Roman mythology, but indeed he has! In fact, Hercules in the Haunted World marks Bava’s entry into the world of color filmaking. Bava always paints a beautiful picture with his lens, and this movie is no different. Not only do we get to see fantastic landscapes and frightening widescreen vistas, but we also get Bava’s keen eye for showing well-oiled pectorals.

'Oh Theseus, is that a dagger digging into my hip or are you just glad to see me?"

Hercules, played magnificently by Reg Park, is returning to his homeland of Ecalia along with his best (and in no way gay) friend Theseus (George Ardisson). Having been out adventuring for many years, Hercules is longing to finally settle down with his honey Deianira (Leonora Ruffo) and perhaps live a simpler life. He’s having trouble getting back, however, because Theseus feels it’s his duty to sex-up any wanton maiden he happens across. It’s during one of these romps that our movie opens, with Theseus making out with a saucy farm woman beside a stream. Hercules is cajoling him to hurry things up when suddenly bandits attack!

"Yes, Hercules, your strength is very impressive. Now please untie the boulders from your wang."

Seeing no other recourse, Hercules picks up a wagon the size of a gypsy mansion and throws it at the marauders, finally succeeding in running them off. Little does Hercules know that Lico (the always awesome Christopher Lee), brother of the king of Ecalia, has sent these attackers to dispatch Hercules once and for all. Apparently Lico is also a dullard, to think something such as this would work, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hercules finally makes it back home, only to discover that the king has died, leaving his daughter (and Hercules’ love) Deianira the heir to the throne. Lico isn’t much for the line of succession and wants to rule things himself, so he has a curse placed on poor Deianira, one which renders her nearly catatonic and only able to speak in spaced-out sentences. Seriously, it’s like she did 10 hits of LSD followed by some Jello shots.

"Herc, could you please do your butt-clenching exercises somewhere else? Marna there is overcome."

Hercules knows nothing of Lico’s designs and takes his word that something has befallen Deianira that must be cured.  Offering to help, Lico sends Hercules to the Oracle for advice. The Oracle tells Hercules that only Pluto’s Stone, hidden deep within the foul confines of the underworld, can save Deinaira. Not only that, but that the only way Hercules can brave the underworld at all is if he first possesses the fabled Golden Apple.

Hercules likes to give his friends the gift of Surprise Buttsex.
Before they can head out, though, Hercules and Theseus hook up with the bumbling comic relief of Telemachus (played awesomely by Franco Giacobini), who is the current beau of the last saucy beauty  Theseus hooked up with--though Telemachus seems unconcerned with that little tidbit. Telemachus tells them they must get ahold of a magic boat, which happens to be in the posession of this strange, beared man. We aren’t really sure why a magic boat is needed, but I guess if you are going to journey into Hell itself you need something a bit more reliable than Grandpa’s rusty fishing trawler.

"For the last fucking time, I'm not Kevin Nealon!"
After obtaining the boat, the trio finally set off and arrive at the island of mysterious women, the Hesperides. These women, prisoners of the monster Procustes, exist in a sort of permanent night, where they are required to sacrifice unwary travelers to their dark god. They also keep track of the Golden Apple--it’s all a bit complicated. While his two companions sleep on uncomfortable stone slabs, Hercules heads right to the giant tree that houses the Apple. He climbs, far up into the tree, only to be driven back down again by the wrath of the gods, which consists of lightning flashes, blowing wind, and someone just off camera dumping burning paper dangerously near Hercules’s head. Giving up on the climbing plan, Hercules instead takes some leather straps off a horse’s bridle and uses them as a sling for launching a boulder the size of his left testicle up into the tree. As it flies, he asks Zeus to guide it, and sure enough, down falls a limb with the Golden Apple attached. Great success!

Meanwhile, Procustes shows up to kill both Theseus and Telemachus. I have to admit, the costume department did right when it came to making a stone monster suit to represent Procustes. About the only thing wrong with the suit is that it doesn’t allow for any movement other than a slow waddle. Theseus hits it with his sword, which shatters (but later in the movie is mysteriously whole again, hah!). Hercules arrives just in the nick of time, and picks up the seemingly helpless Procustes and tosses him straight through a rock wall, which has the lucky benefit of opening a pathway to the underworld. Score!

With this film, Bava transitions from black & white to crimson & blue
Leaving Telemachus back at the boat with the Golden Apple (which sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, but whatev), Hercules and Theseus head off into Hades to retrieve the Stone of Awesome. Bava’s masterful use of color is in full effect here, folks. Stunning vistas surround the couple at every turn, making Hades look very unwelcome indeed, though beautiful in certain spots. Hades isn’t so much filled with demons and imps as it is a simple obstacle course, filled with burning lava, wafting stenches, and vines that bleed and moan when you cut them. Hercules and Theseus traverse this Hellscape with ease, until they come to a wide canyon filled with lava. Hercules uses some of the aforementioned vines to launch a rock once again, this time forming a rope bridge across the chasm that they two men then use to go across, hand-over-hand.

The Spectacular Stalagmite Sisters lull Hercules to sleepwith their #1 hit, "Fog Machine Boogie in D-flat."
However, halfway across, poor Theseus proves yet again that he isn’t the same manly man that Hercules is when he tires out. Hercules tries to make it back to help, but Theseus falls at the last second, sinking through the lava as Hercules watches on in horror. Herc moves on, knowing he can’t give up yet. Meanwhile, we see that Theseus lives, and is indeed perfectly fine. He wakes up in a mysterious, foggy cavern, and finds a stunning beauty beside him. As with anything bearing a vagina, Theseus falls immediately in love with her, not even bothering to find out who she is, and promises to get her out of Hades safely.

"Come on, Herc, hug it out."

Meanwhile, Hercules arrives at the Stone of Fantastical Things and pulls it free from its prison, burning his hands badly in teh process. But Hercules doesn’t need any ointment, oh no! Nor any elixirs, salves, unguents or poultices. He is a (demi)god among men! Hercules returns to the ship to find Theseus alive and well, much to his joy. Telemachus, who showed inhuman restraint in not eating the Golden Apple while the other guys were away, sets sail for home. During the voyage, Theseus spends an inordinate amount of time below decks, which makes Hercules curious, but not enough to investigate himself. He sends Telemachus instead, who discovers that Theseus has secreted away a chick, attempting to smuggle her out of Hell.

Pluto is pissed at the trespass, and sends a powerful hurricane in an attempt to stop the fleeing thieves. The girl, still nameless, bids Theseus to chunk the Golden Apple overboard in an effort to appease Pluto. Theseus runs topside, grabs the apple before Herc can stop him, and hurls it into the sea. Before Hercules can finish his sentence admonishing Theseus for such a crazy act, the hurricane clears and they are on the shores of Ecalia! It seems this plan worked. Their happiness at arriving home safe is short-lived, however, as they find Ecalia is in near ruins. It seems the wrath of Pluto has shifted to their homeland. Crops are withering, cows are dying, dogs and cats are living together. Just mass hysteria, I’m tellin’ ya!

"Is that a... Procustes turd?"

They all head back to the main castle, where Hercules uses the stone to heal Deianira, and the young beauty that Theseus rescued from Hades reveals herself to him, saying that she’s Persephone, most favored daughter of Pluto*, and that she is the real reason things are in ruins. Pluto is punishing humanity for the theft of his daughter. Theseus vows that he’ll protect her, even up to and including killing Hercules, if it came to that. Bold words, little man! Meanwhile, Lico isn’t in the least happy about Hercules returning to Ecalia. It is revealed that he is in communion with some dark god, who advises him to send Hercules to the Oracles, and so he does.

*Not the way the myth really goes, I know. I guess Bava was using a cut-rate translation of Bullfinch's Mythology.

Hercules decided to give Deianira the Stone of Horniness instead.

While Hercules is away, Lico jumps into action, killing Deianira’s servant girl and kidnapping Deianira herself, taking her into the catacombs below the castle. At the Oracle, Hercules learns the truth about Persephone and that in order to save Ecalia, he must convince Theseus to give up the underworld poon of which he’s grown fond. Hercules arrives back at the castle and has it out with Theseus, who attempts to fight the demigod, even going so far as to cutting Hercules’ arm with a sword, before finally Persephone interrupts the fight by causing Theseus to fall into a deep slumber. She tells Hercules it isn’t right that so many would suffer because of her love for Theseus. She promises now that Deianira is healed she’ll take the Stone of Kickass back to Hades along with herself to assuage Pluto’s wrath.

Altogether Ooky
Hercules realizes that he hasn’t seen Deianira in a while, so he goes looking, only to discover the servant girl dead and Deianira missing. He makes his way down to the catacombs to confront Lico, but finds that Lico has summoned an army of zombies! Folks, I have to tell you, Bava made the most of his shoe-string budget here. The zombies are fucking awesome! They fly through the air, or run on the ground, grasping and clawing at Hercules with their rotted, gray limbs. Hercules fights them off and finds himself in a trap, consisting of two rock walls slowly squeezing shut, with him in the middle. He manages to make it out at the last second, leaving the zombies inside to be crushed.

"Praise be to the gods for Rohypnol!"

He finds himself in a large chamber, where Lico is placing Deianira on an altar to be sacrificed, so that Lico can drink her blood while the moon is just right in order to obtain True Ultimate Power. Hercules runs up the slope to the altar, and begins tossing Lico around like a deranged bear trying to get at a Little Person's sweetbreads. Hercules picks up a nearby stone column and crushes Lico to death with it. At about that time, the zombies free themselves of the garbage compactor trap and begin assaulting the hill in wave after wave of zombie attacks. Hercules fends all of these off, tossing stone pillar after stone pillar at the zombies until they are all dead. Finally, the moon passes out of its critical phase, causing the pretty-much-dead-already Lico to burst into flame!

Hercules wields Procustes' cock as a weapon, with awesome results.

Bava then cuts to the seashore, where a newly-bedecked-in-snazzy-white Hercules pulls up in a chariot, along with the beautiful Deianira. Telemachus rides up on a horse, with the saucy brunette, claiming that she’s finally agreed to marry him! Before Telemachus can even begin to day-dream about the consummation of said union, Theseus runs up, telling everyone that he just had the most vivid dream in which he loved a beautiful woman and... Theseus sees the chick. He jerks her off the horse and they run laughing down the beach while a bewildered but not really mad Telemachus falls into the surf. Hercules and Deianira share a laugh. Fin.

Dearest friends, I submit to you that this is the pinnacle of Hercules movies. And I’m not just saying that because it had Bava’s masterful hand at work... ok, well, yes I am saying it for that reason, but it’s not the only one, no! Reg Park makes a fantastic Hercules (he played him in 4 films, including this one). His pecs appear to be sentient, and his beard could easily flay the paint off a battleship. The man is pure testosterone, and he plays Hercules fantastically, with a glint in his eye and a spring to his step. Christopher Lee is fantastic as always as the evil Lico. It’s said that a different actor dubbed Lee’s voice for the movie, which is sad (what, it wasn't sonorous and eeevil enough?), but it doesn’t detract from his brilliant portrayal.

"God, how I love you, Eddie Rabbit."

Once again, Bava was on a budget set ludicrously low, but this is how the Master thrives. I’m afraid given too much money Bava would have been not as cavalier about taking chances or setting up shots as he does in most all his films. His use of color and frame are unparalleled, and this movie brings those traits to life perfectly. Sure, the movie isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it’s exciting, good to look at, and even freaky (flying zombies, yeesh!). There are probably hundreds of movies in this genre (“Sword & Sandals” for the peasants, “peplum” for the in-crowd), but to me this one stands out as worth watching over most others.

Two Thumbs Up.


venoms5 said...

Really wonderful review for this excellent movie, Duke. There's at least 200 peplum/fusto movies. Reg Park did five of these movies, though. Only the first two are worth watching. The others are HERCULES IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES (Maciste in the original;1964), HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (Ursus in the original;1964) and HERCULES, THE AVENGER (1965). The latter film utilizes stock footage of some of Park's other movies to pad out the running time.

PRISONER OF EVIL is a major missed opportunity. A muscleman horror picture directed by Margheriti and Deodato about an evil sorceress who turns men into werewolves, but it's a terrible movie. It does benefit from an Eastern European locale as opposed to the typical Grecian ones.

The Duke of DVD said...

Prisoner of Evil sounds really good though! An evil sorceress turning men into werewolves, set in eastern Euro-land? What could go wrong?! I'll have to hunt it up and give it the royal Duke treatment, just for shits.

Peplum movies are the bee's knees, it's too bad more of them aren't worth watching. Thanks for the kind words!

Anonymous said...

Bava and the Duke -- like chocolate and peanut butter. But w/o looking so much like dog poop.
Another fine Bava post, sir. I confess to being peplum-challenged. But that ends here, today! If both the Maestro and yourself chose to embrace the Greco-Roman, then who am I to shrink away?
And how did you get in my bathroom?

The Duke of DVD said...

I used my Scroll of Unlocking +1 to gain entry, and my Tome of Glistening Body +3 to see you, dearest Geo!

I confess I'm peplum deficient as well, having only watched a few, but in doing research for this review, I see that I'm sorely missing a positively MAD library of films, just waiting for the Duke to peruse, chuckle at, and then lift aloft on my shoulders, to be paraded around for all to see, and enjoy.

JamiSings said...

Oh, the movie had me until the apple thing - I went through a Greek Mythology obsession as a child and I know that Hercules had to trick Atlas to get the apples. And Hades & Persephone along with Eros & Psyche are my favorite of the myths! Probably explains why I love The Phantom Of The Opera so much.

Just - making Persephone the daughter instead of the wife - I can't get past that....

The Duke of DVD said...

Jami - I'm really not sure why they chose to change things so, but Persephone is definitely referred to as "Pluto's favored daughter".

However! Do not let this stay thy soul from experiencing such Bava goodness! His use of color, coupled with the shoestring budget, makes for such awesome delight.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Reg Park is my favorite Hercules. "Hercules and the Captive Women" is another good one. I have been trying to get around to this one again.

Anonymous said...

Great review! I'm really enjoying this site. There is a Maciste film starring Bartolomeo Pagano called MACISTE IN HELL. Made in 1925, the images of Hell are unnerving. How is it that some special effects in silent movies can come across creepier than present day effects? Anyway, if you get a chance to see it, please do so.

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