Monday, December 28, 2009

Hercules In The Haunted World (1961)

Hercules In The Haunted World

Italy 1961 colour

Fullscreen, dubbed into English

aka Hercules In The Center Of The Earth, Ercole Al Centro Della Terra, Hercules vs. The Vampires

Directors Mario Bava, Franco Prosperi Writers Mario Bava, Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi, Duccio Tessari

Cast Reg Park (Hercules), Christopher Lee (King Lico), Leonora Ruffo (Princess Deianira), George Ardisson (Thesus), Rosalba Neri (Helena)

We backtrack a few years in the Mario Bava filmography to 1961, and an early film for Bava as director. By the time Hercules In The Haunted World was released the sword and sandal (or “peplum”) genre was at its midpoint, with Italian production companies turning out one sausage-meat-squeezed-into-a-human-skinsuit actioner after the other. Only a few rise to the top of the B-film mudpool to be recognized as minor classics, and this, my dear Schlock fiends, is one of them.

The story is pure peplum with little deviation from the rules. Demigod Hercules travels to the kingdom of Ecalia with his friend Theseus to be reunited with his love, the king’s daughter Diarina. After fending off would-be assassins, he arrives to find the king dead and Diarina in a death-like trance under the control of her regent uncle Lyco (a creature described as “the spirit of evil on Earth” played, appropriately enough, by Christopher Lee). The film unfolds as a predictably mythic quest to find a magic rock from Hades, the world of the dead presided over by the god Pluto, to restore Diarina to life.

It all sounds like a hundred muscleman actioners and that’s exactly how we’d remember it without director Mario Bava at the helm. Bava had worked as cinematographer on some of the more strikingly visual sword and sandal films of the late Fifties. Hercules In The Haunted World was his first as director, and despite an embarrassingly low budget to work with, the talented cameraman was able to work miracles. Aside from the creepy studio-bound sets bathed in gels and dry ice, there’s subtle camera movements and breathtaking compositions – take the moment, for instance, when Diarina emerges from her sarcophagus and floats towards Lyco. Then there’s Bava’s trademark macabre touches, like blood seeping from vines holding the souls of the Underworld, and the final journey through Hell is a sight to behold.

British-born Reg Park was a former runner-up to Steve Reeves in the Mr Universe contest before winning the title three times, and so can more than hold his own in the oiled muscleman stakes. As always, Christopher Lee is at his cadaver-like best, playing a semi-dead bloodsucker at the height of his Dracula fame (and pre-empting the film’s alternate title Hercules vs The Vampires). Tragically his distinctive voice dubbed by someone else, and even more disconcerting is his pageboy wig, but these are minor quibbles – it’s a stunning frightfest stapled to a muscleman actioner as we catch Hercules In The Haunted World. (Andrew Leavold)

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