Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hercules & the Masked Rider (1964) review


Mimmo Palmara (Don Juan Phillippe), Alan Steel (Hercules), Arturo Dominici (Don Romero), Ettori Manni (Captain Blasco), Jose Greci (Donna Blanca)

Directed by Piero Pierotti

Don Francisco seeks peace between his enemy, Duke Don Romero. A couple of peasants belonging to Romero's camp escape with the Duke and his men in pursuit. The lovers manage to get safely across Don Francisco's border in Val Verde. Wishing to kill Don Francisco, the Duke lays eyes on his enemy's daughter, Donna Blanca and changes his mind momentarily. Don Francisco, believing a marriage between his daughter and Duke Don Romero will guarantee a treaty, agrees to give his daughters hand to the devious Duke.

However, Donna Blanca is betrothed to her cousin, Don Juan Phillippe. Opposing Don Francisco's plan for peace, Don Juan is banished from the kingdom. He is soon captured by a band of gypsies and in order to become one of their group, he has to beat the musclebound Hercules in a fight. Dueling with knives, the fight ends in a draw. Juan is accepted into their ranks and becomes the Masked Rider. Meanwhile, Don Romero assassinates Juan's uncle and takes over his kingdom prompting Juan, Hercules and the gypsies to avenge for Don Francisco and the oppressed people in the surrounding countryside.

An unusual entry in the peplum genre. For the English release, the character of Goliath is changed to Hercules. This can make for a jarring experience although the "Hercules" featured here isn't the Hercules of Greek myth, merely an incredibly strong man. The title is also misleading in that the Masked Rider is the main protagonist. Herc is more of a sidekick than anything else. It's safe to assume that AIP figured by making this seem to be a Hercules film, it would attract a bigger audience.

Mimmo Palmara gets a rare lead role and also one as the hero. He appeared in dozens of sword & sandal movies and Italian adventure pictures. Here, he seems to be having a grand time being the center of attention. He attacks all his scenes with a lot of energy and fervor. Palmara has presence and he's imposing in the fight scenes. He wears a silly red mask (similar to the black mask Zorro wore). He wears it only a couple of times before seemingly doing away with it for the remainder of the film. He has a nice rapier duel with Dominici at the end.

Palmara featured in the Steve Reeves Hercules movies and many more roles followed such as Ajax in THE TROJAN HORSE (1961), a very good co-starring hero role in the ambitious GOLIATH & THE SINS OF BABYLON (1963) and the main villain, and the only worthwhile thing in KINDAR, THE INVULNERABLE (1964) among a lot of other screen credits.

Alan Steel (Sergio Ciani) is his usual stone faced self and shines in the many fight scenes on display. The presence of Steel and the role in which he is used gives off a peculiar vibe. This being the tail end of the muscleman cycle, producers were melding different elements to attract audience interest. Steel hadn't really taken off yet as a lead in torch & toga cinema, but HERCULES & THE MASKED RIDER is a nice starting off point for the up and coming performer.

Steel also starred in the classic fusto HERCULES VS THE MOON MEN (1964), HERCULES AGAINST ROME (1964) and HERCULES & THE BLACK PIRATES (1964), a film similar to the one being reviewed. He also starred in the action film, SLAUGHTER ON THE KHYBER PASS (1970) and the spaghetti western FAST HAND IS STILL MY NAME (1972). Earlier in his career, Steel featured in a small, yet important role in the Steve Reeves vehicle, THE GIANT OF MARATHON (1959).

Arturo Dominici, who Euro horror fans will no doubt remember as the evil Asa's brother, Javutich, in Bava's MASK OF SATAN (1959) plays the insidious Duke Don Romero. He dominates the film with his devilish visage and slimy intentions. In addition to assassinating his enemy after falsely agreeing to a treaty, he steals away his lands and plans to take Donna Blanca by force. At one point, he also threatens to burn a woman alive and hang another. The scene that really shows off his nastiness is one in which captives are forced into a duel to the death with whips, the winner going free.

Although the fight scene is kind of haphazardly pulled off, it nonetheless shows Romero's penchant for blood and death. His right hand man, Captain Blasco watches as Romero laughs seemingly enjoying the men dying in front of him. Dominici also featured in HERCULES VS THE MOLLOCH (1963) and PERSEUS, THE INVINCIBLE (1963) among others. The action scenes themselves are exceptional compared with other films in this, and other Italian genres such as the spaghetti westerns. The actors all appear to be really having a good time with this picture.

Frequent spaghetti western and action film character actors Nello Pazzafini and Sal Borgese feature as members of the gypsies. Pazzafini was in just about every Italian genre picture through the 1960's and 1970's. He seldom got to play big roles, but he seemed to enjoy his most fruitful career opportunities in European western films playing a plethora of villain portrayals with an occasional good guy role thrown in at irregular intervals.

This film was one of a few hybrid productions melding swashbuckling adventure with traditional Italian peplum antics. Spurred from the apparent success of Umberto Lenzi's ZORRO CONTRA MACISTE (1963) other hybrids followed like SAMSON IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1964) starring Reg Park, SAMSON & THE SEA BEASTS (1963) starring Kirk Morris, HERCULES & THE BLACK PIRATES (1964) and HERCULES & THE TREASURE OF THE INCAS (1964) starring Alan Steel and also directed by Piero Pierotti.

Pierotti handles the action scenes really well and sprinkles them consistently throughout the picture. Although it's nothing overly special, it is a good time waster with lots of action and adventure bolstered by a damn fine and bombastic score by Angelo Lavagnino which grabs your attention from the start. An unusually strong score perfectly captures the Spanish flavor of the subject matter. Definitely an enjoyable curiosity piece, the film also has some gorgeous women such as prolific peplum actress, Jose Greci thrown into the mix.

One of the best scenes has the gypsy women infiltrating Romero's fort as dancers paying their respects to him. They perform a dance in which the finale involves them tossing their daggers into the air landing in front of a person who will come to a bad end. Naturally, the daggers all fall at Romero's feet which prompts him to demand the execution of the women. At 82 minutes, it seems a bit short, yet the story comes across just fine and there's more than enough action to keep viewers occupied and the wonderful score adds to the fun factor of this curious peplum.

The Curse of Nostradamus (1962) review

THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS 1959 (1962 English version: Trans-International Films, Inc.) aka LA MALDICION DE NOSTRADAMUS

German Robles (Nostradamus), Domingo Soler (Professor Dolan), Julio Aleman (Anthony), Manuel Vergara Manver (Leo), Aurora Alvarado (Anna)

Directed by Federico Curiel; 78 minutes

The evil vampire, Nostradamus, the son of the original Nostradamus, visits the home of the esteemed Professor Dolan. The Professor heads what is known as the Society For the Abolishment of Superstition; an organization dedicated to the destruction of superstitious beliefs and the proposed manifestation of evil. The assertive creature of the night demands that Dolan restore the tainted name of the Nostradamus lineage. If not, the vampire will kill thirteen citizens of some importance until the professor agrees to his terms. Dolan refuses proclaiming this Nostradamus as nothing more than a charlatan.

After several deaths, Professor Dolan and his assistant, Anthony, begin to take the vampire seriously and commence their campaign against him. Dolan learns that Platinum bullets and the Cross of Antioch are the only weapons proficient against vampires. When Nostradamus kidnaps Anna, the professors daughter, Dolan and Anthony learn that he is holed up somewhere within the Castle of the Marquis. The two heroes set out to stop the evil vampire using the weapons at their disposal.

The Nostradamus series was a string of Mexican vampire pictures produced in 1959 capitalizing on the success of the hit film, THE VAMPIRE (1957) starring German Robles as the undead Count. These four subsequent movies also starred German Robles. Imported by enterprising producer, K. Gordon Murray, they were released to American television in the early 1960's through AIP TV. I first caught up with them in the mid 80's on the wonderful science fiction horror program, Commander USA's Groovie Movies. It showcased a double feature picture show hosted by Commander USA. Often times, there would also be a chapter from an old serial interspersed before, or between features. This television program premiered on the USA Network.

For years it's been said that this was a Mexican television series cut down into the four existing films by Murray for American consumption. However, there are Mexican movie posters of these four movies, so it's a bit confusing if this was actually a televised serial in its country of origin, a set of theatrical releases, or possibly both. The posters specify 'The Series' on them, but it's curious if this entire series was shot as one and later broken up into four films theatrically in its native land. Each film (save for the fourth entry) ends very abruptly, and it is the hasty finishes of the first three pictures that would easily confuse initiates to the series.

In this first entry we meet the self-assured Professor Dolan and his best student, Anthony during a party at the professors home. Judging by his damning views on the supernatural, it's a given he'll be made a believer before long. A vampire named Nostradamus becomes aware of Dolan's views on the unknown. Speaking with the undead spirit of his father, the original Nostradamus, he tells him to restore the name of the prophet, here presumed to have been an alchemist and creature of the night. He also makes mention of a magical parchment that becomes the main point of interest in part three, THE GENIE OF DARKNESS (1962).

The vampires descendant pays the professor a night time visit resulting in one of the funniest dubbed dialog sequences ever. The professor continuously slings insults at Nostradamus till he states he will kill 13 people close to Dolan leaving him as the thirteenth victim. Aiding Nostradamus in his quest for vengeance is a hunchbacked goon named Leo. The dubbing for his character is especially riotous. His voice is extremely cartoonish sounding very similar to the assorted bumbling Looney Tunes characters. It's not all goofy, though.

The first murder is fairly gruesome. Nostradamus visits his first victim, Charles Brandon. At first we get more hilarious dubbed dialog before the spiteful vampire hypnotizes Brandon making him appear dead. Thinking he has passed away, the next time we see him he's inside a coffin at a wake. We hear his voice pleading with his family not to bury him alive, but, of course, no one can hear him. This is the best scene in the whole movie. The professor and Anthony go to exhume Brandon's body and as they dig, they find a shocking discovery; the bent and twisted hand of Brandon as he apparently tried to emerge from the coffin, six feet below the ground.

The remainder of the show is Nostradamus revisiting the professor announcing the next one to die, most of the time in the form of a riddle. This leads to more silly back and forth banter between good and evil. Dolan receives a package from a Dr. Landers containing an Antioch cross and a manual detailing its purpose. This, again, leads to another meeting of the minds between Dolan and the vampire. Dolan also makes himself a batch of Platinum bullets(!), which are fatal against vampires, or at least those of the Mexican variety. During the last half, the film leaves the professors mansion behind and heads outside into the night as Nostradamus' riddles get more opaque in addition to Dolan's daughter, Anna, being kidnapped by the evil vampire. This finally leads our intrepid heroes to Nostradamus' castle where Anthony chases Nostradamus shooting at him with his gun loaded with Platinum bullets. The end comes when a cave in buries the creature under a ton of dirt and rock.

The first film in this series is pretty decent, if a bit mundane. A lot of the program takes place in the professor's study with the continuous arguments he has with Nostradamus taking up much of the screen time. The whole movie seemingly takes place at night. There's some nice atmosphere and German Robles is having a grand old time portraying the vampire. The similarities to the b/w Universal horror pictures of the 30's and 40's is clearly in evidence. This is a fun series especially for those who love cheesy movies. Despite the inherent silliness, there are a number of well done sequences that sometimes get lost in all the puerile dialog exchanges. Interestingly, despite being a vampire and changing into a bat, we never see Nostradamus bite anyone on the neck till the last entry. This was followed by THE MONSTERS DEMOLISHER, GENIE OF DARKNESS and BLOOD OF NOSTRADAMUS.

To read about the complete quartet of films in order, click the link below...

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