HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD/1961/ /MARIO BAVA/REG PARK/WOOLNER BROTHERS
The title Hercules at the Center of the Earth is probably closer to the actual Italian title but the titles Haunted world and Hercules vs. the Vampires conjures up more of a Bavaesque world. The story opens up with Hercules and his friend Theseus (George Ardisson) traveling to the kingdom of Ecalia. His true love Princess Dianira (Leonora Ruffo) is waiting longingly for him. He makes quick work of a band of apparent cutthroats who attack him and Theseus along the way even hurling a huge wagon a few of them. Unbeknownst to Hercules the highway robbers are actually assassins that were sent by the evil Lico played by the always reliable Christopher Lee. To my understanding another British actor dubbed Lee’s voice for the film though it really sounds like him most of the time. When Hercules arrives at Ecalia he discovers that not only has his old friend the king has died and his brother Lico has assumed control of the kingdom but that Dianira has been stricken some strange ailment that has left her in a confused, dreamy state all of the time. Of course we can quickly figure out that it is Lico who has put some spell over Dianira to prevent her from ascending to the throne that is rightfully hers.
Hercules is told by the Oracle Sybil that Dianira’s mind can only be restored by the powers found in the Stone of Forgetfulness located in Pluto’s underworld of Hades, and so Hercules sets off on the quest with Theseus and the less than reliable Telemachus (Franco Giacobini) who plays the obligatory goofy sidekick. Before entering Hades Hercules has a quest he must perform first and that is to retrieve the fabled Golden Apple of the Hesperides. The three set off on a ship and soon find themselves on the mythic island and it strange inhabitants of women who dwell in eternal darkness and Procustes the stone monster. To get at the apple Hercules must climb a huge tree surrounded by raging fires and lightening. All of this world is made the more intriguing by Bava’s often extreme lighting effects and elaborate, though low budget, sets. Hercules retrieves the apple and is soon in Hades where the sets get even more grand and visually stunning. While in Hades Hercules does not do battle with monsters or soldiers so much as with the dangerous elements of Hell itself. In one scene he and Theseus must cross, hand over hand, a rope suspended over a lake of fire to reach the stone of Forgetfulness. There a set backs but the magic stone and Hercules returns to Ecalia to rescue Dianira and confront the evil Lico and his legion of zombies who are all taken care of rather easily by Hercules and the huge pillars he hurls at them. Ultimately that seems to be Hercules’s solution to any major threat. Picking up a huge pillar or boulder above his head and hurling at his adversary or adversaries. I sort of wish he had grabbed a sword and chopped up a few of these zombie creatures. The sets here are done in a fine, classic horror style but the actual action is wanting for the most part. That is not a major issue in my book however. The underground worlds, the palace’s and Oracle’s temple are splendid to behold.
As I said at the beginning sword and sandal/peplum films are not everybody’s cup of coffee. There is most definitely a high level of cheese involved in these projects and some of the films made in this genre are deserving of the designation “bad film.” If you like bad cinema you will not find the genre wanting. Last night I watched a little of a peplum called Colossus and the queen and was literally dumbstruck at how terrible the film was. Of course I can’t wait to get back and finish it when I have the free time. However Hercules Unchained and Hercules in the Haunted World would not fall in this ultra-bad category by any stretch though there are some pretty corny moments. These Greek and Roman were usually treated by there European creators with all the sanctity that Biblical epics were treated by their American counterparts. They suffer however from nearly non-existent budgets and casts of mediocre to poor actors. But they are still lots of fun and I find myself being pulled into the myths and legends the films are trying to retell.