Thursday, October 9, 2008
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961) aka HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH aka ERCOLE AL CENTRO DELLA TERRA aka HERCULES VS. THE VAMPIRES
Reg Park (Hercules), Christopher Lee (Lyco), George Ardisson (Theseus), Leonora Ruffo (Deianira)
Directed by Mario Bava; Cinematography by Mario Bava; Music by Armando Trovajoli
After thwarting an assassination attempt on his life and that of his best friend, Theseus, Hercules returns to Ecalia. Upon his arrival to see his beloved, Deianira, Hercules learns that Uriteis, the king of Ecalia has died under mysterious circumstances. Deianira, the king's daughter, has suddenly taken a strange illness rendering her incapable of ascending the throne. Her uncle, Lyco, has taken over in her place as a great evil descends upon the city of Ecalia. Hercules learns the only way to cure Deianira is to traverse the horrors of Hades and retrieve a magical stone. But first, to be able to enter and leave the Land of the Dead alive, a Golden Apple, a treasure of the evil God Pluto in the marshes of Hesperides must be obtained. Meanwhile, the vile Lyco plans to sacrifice Deianira to Pluto during an eclipse drinking her blood gaining immortality in the process and plunging Ecalia into eternal darkness forever.
Exquisitely stylish and visually impressive film from Mario Bava who is like a little kid in a candy store with his new play toy--Technicolor film stock. Regardless of whatever people may think of the genre or prudes who mock the limitations of older genre cinema, this is hands down, one of the most gorgeous 81 minutes of film you will ever see. A macabre painting brought lovingly to life by Mario Bava's gleefully inventive approach to the material. Anyone familiar with his techniques showcased in such films as THE MASK OF SATAN (1960) or THREE FACES OF FEAR (1963) will know what to expect only here you get Bava's trademark style in abundance.
With what was reportedly a minuscule budget than was sometimes afforded these films, Bava of course, used his ingenuity to cover up budgetary shortcomings making use of limited sets by simply rearranging or combining existing sets to make them appear different. Also, the use of mirrors is employed to give the illusion you are seeing more than is actually there. Painted backdrops are used to there fullest effect in complimenting the nightmarish world of Hades. This also lends the proceedings a cadaverously opulent, operatic feel. Bava also goes the full mile incorporating opaque colors and gels and milky black shadows to drive home his fantastic vision.
Not content with just the films direction, Bava also handles the cinematography as well as the effects work which itself, saved some production money. What is immediately noticeable upon seeing this film is that Bava creates some interesting ways to shoot action sequences. Numerous shots display some wonderfully varied angles in scenes where the action takes place. Bava utilizes wide shots from afar to allow the viewer to see the scope of the scene at hand.
There are also some striking composite shots during the lengthy Hades sequence including one in which Hercules and Theseus are atop a massive precipice looking down into an enormous sea of flame. Directors both before and after Bava's entry were content with "playing it safe" when it came to shooting the action scenes. This is taking nothing away from the number of true artisans that labored in the genre, it's just refreshing to see it done with so much vigor and love for creating something special. Bava not only loved movies, but loved making them, too.
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961) is not Bava's first foray into the fusto realm. He had previously finished the classic Steve Reeves peplum epic, THE GIANT OF MARATHON (1959) when original director Jacques Tourneur became ill. Bava also performed photographic duties there as well. Bava also worked on the special effects for Vittorio Cottafavi's HERCULES & THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (1961), also starring Reg Park. There would also be a small number of sword and sandal films that would have an air of horror about them. These include THE WITCH'S CURSE (1962) starring Kirk Morris and GOLIATH AGAINST THE VAMPIRES (1961).
Reg Park was a former Mr. Universe having won the title in 1951, 1958 and 1965. He had even attained second place against Steve Reeves in 1950. Park didn't partake in Italian cinema for the fame but for a stepping stone for his future business ventures in bodybuilding and fitness. He starred in five films in the genre; The remaining four being HERCULES & THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (1961), HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (1964), MACISTE IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1964) and HERCULES THE AVENGER (1965). Each of Park's torch and toga movies diminished wildly in quality especially HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (1964); A limp and lazy effort from Margheriti that returns to the horror elements that made Bava's movie so enduring. And the film isn't really a Hercules film but one of the Ursus series retitled for foreign consumption. One of the most famous men to follow in Park's footsteps is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger who held great reverence for Park even plastering his walls with posters and articles about the distinguished British muscleman. It was also Park that talked Arnold into taking the role of the Olympian Demi-God in HERCULES IN NEW YORK (1970). Reg Park would die on November 22nd of 2007 after losing his battle with skin cancer.
Christopher Lee is an odd but easily gratifying choice to play the lead villain, Lyco. What is disappointing here and really the only negative I can levy at the film is that Lee did not dub his own voice. So much more depth of character and malice would have been evoked had Lee dubbed his dialog in his patented deep, commanding tone. Lee was a great admirer of Bava and I'm sure he was delighted at the chance of working with the grand old man of Euro horror. However, Lee was not enamored with Bava's trendsetting BAY OF BLOOD (1972) after witnessing the cavalcade of gore on display. Lee was, of course, famous for his portrayal as Dracula in the Hammer films series and whether the role was advantageous or detrimental to his career is entirely up to interpretation. But vampire lore seeps its way into the narrative of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD. Although Lyco bears no fangs, he intends to drink the blood of Deianira "when the dragon devours the moon" gaining him eternal life and transforming Deianira into the undead. While it's not shown on screen, Lyco kills a beautiful woman in vampiric fashion; her blood running out onto the marble floor and Lyco's visage suddenly appearing in the pool of plasma.
Without reiterating too much that has already been said, the set design is stupendous and Bava clearly shows his knack for making so little appear to be so much more. Other than a clunky rock monster (this was 1961 and such things should be overlooked given the circumstances), the effects are incredibly imaginative and innovative with what little Bava had to work with. The gloriously spooky score by composer Armando Trovajoli is suitably fantastical and even includes a nicely bombastic Hercules Theme. Given that so many composers got far more notice internationally for their scores on Italian westerns, I find the orchestral scores in Italian mythological movies just as memorable if not more so. They add a sense of majesty that belies the budgets on many of these productions. This version of the film utilizes the original title HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH moniker. Bava's sole directorial effort in the fusto arena would be distributed in America by the Woolner Brothers as HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD re-edited and cut eliminating some important exposition. The Woolner Brothers version was released to VHS back in the late 80's from Rhino with terrible sound quality.
The anamorphic DVD from fantoma is a glorious presentation with the 2:35:1 framing allowing even more appreciation of Bava's visionary and visual accomplishment. Colors are strong and the many blues and reds jump off the screen complimenting the exemplary mise en scene of the world Bava has created. Liner notes by Tim Lucas are provided even though a commentary from the man would have been further icing on the cake, it nonetheless is a welcome extra. The US trailer under the HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD title is on hand as well as a photo gallery of stills and poster artwork. English and Italian language are options as well as English subtitles which gives a slightly different interpretation of the storyline. The mono sound quality is also strong throughout.
Enough cannot be said about Mario Bava's commendable journey into this misunderstood genre. An auspicious start for Bava entering the world of color photography, his stamp hovers and engulfs every frame of this picture. One of his finest achievements of his career and easily one of the best and best loved muscleman movies to ever come out of the fabled Cinecitta Studios of Italy.
DVD availability: Fantoma