Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Bigger is Better: Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

I’ve got a thing for sword & sandal films. Well, actually I have a weakness for all kinds of epic films. Whether it’s the religious phantasmagoria of The Ten Commandments (1956), the pleasure of watching The Vikings (1958) rape and pillage, seeing the mighty forces of Rome get their comeuppance at the hands of barbarian hordes in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), or witnessing the lone Maximus getting his just-revenge in Gladiator (2000), the twelve year-old boy in me can’t seem to get enough of the spectacle and the melodrama that are integral to the genre. For years, before the latter of the above became a smash success and ended up winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, I complained to anyone who would listen (mostly my indulgent wife and friends) that Hollywood (or anyone else for that matter) was no longer making those kind of pictures any longer. “Why not?” I asked, absolutely mystified. “They’re so damn cool!” Obviously expense played a huge factor in them not getting made. But now with advancements in special-effects, you don’t actually need a thousand extras to fill the seats of the Coliseum. You don’t even need the Coliseum for that matter. All you need is a computer.

Of course, you don’t really need that either. Mario Bava didn’t have a computer or a cast of thousands to help him and he ended up making one of the best, most enjoyable of all peplum films, Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). For those of you who don’t know anything about the peplum genre, the films were primarily Italian made and focused on the heroic exploits of legendary figures such as Maciste and Hercules. A lot of the films were dull and unimaginative. But at their bizarre best the films are splendid pulp melodramas with imagination to spare. Although Bava is best known for his wonderfully surreal horror films Black Sunday (1961), Black Sabbath (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), and my personal favorite Kill, Baby … Kill! (1966), his contribution to the genre is an equally excellent mix of sword & sandal and horror. Starring British body builder and two-time “Mr. Universe” Reg Park (who replaced Steve Reeves in the role) as Hercules, and the great Christopher Lee (who would also work with Bava in the 1963 gothic Whip and the Body) as the evil and vampiric Lyco, Hercules in the Haunted World is one of the best of its peculiar sub-genre. Like most of Bava’s films from this period, Hercules is fabulous to look at and contains plenty of eye-popping, hallucinatory visuals. Whether it’s seeing Hercules and his faithful sidekick crossing a lake of fiery lava by rope or watching Hercules battle flying cave-dwelling vampires in his quest to retrieve a golden apple that will save the soul of the woman he loves, the film is perfect matinee material. Bava’s use of dazzling primary colors (one of his trademarks) and inventive set designs help raise it far above its hackneyed storyline or lackluster acting (Christopher Lee excluded).

In all fairness, I don’t watch films like Hercules in the Haunted World for “good” acting and a strong storyline. Sure, if the film contains strong performances and a brilliant narrative, then all the better. I surely won’t complain. But it’s all about spectacle, really. These films, however ridiculous and cartoonish they may get, reconfigure history through the infernal lens of cinematic fantasy and myth, eschewing the restraints of reason and logic for something far more powerful and all-consuming. And that’s not just the twelve-year old boy talking, either.

Hercules in the Haunted World is available on DVD from Fantoma in all its widescreen glory and in its original European cut with English or Italian language options. Bava biographer Tim Lucas (his long-awaited book on the director should be out in June) has written informative liner notes for the release, and the disc also includes a theatrical trailer and some cool stills and poster art.

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