Hercules returns home to claim his bride after the death of her father, the King. In the meantime, her evil uncle has bewitched her and tells Hercules that he must travel to Hades in order to obtain a cure.
Despite being a fairly terrible film, Hercules (1958) had been a world-wide smash, made Steve Reeves a star and kick-started a whole wave of Italian muscleman movies that were dubbed and shown in American theatres over the next decade. All of them stuck pretty closely to the formula of the first film; a grab-bag of mythological bits and pieces glued together by tatty SFX, terrible dubbing and a lead actor with the charisma of a fence post. But with everything, there’s nearly always one exception. In this case: ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1962).
Director Mario Bava was a cinematographer and visual stylist, who had worked previously in the ‘sword and sandal’ genre and was coming off his first solo directorial gig; the creepy horror classic ‘Black Sunday’ (1960) with Barbara Steele. He also came up with the story for this film and worked on the screenplay, which allowed him to tailor the project to his particular strengths and sensibilities. Working with production designer Franco Lolli, he conjures up a striking vision of the underworld with a painter’s eye for detail and also manages to evoke a sense of dread with the gloomy palace interiors that lesser directors would have not exploited. Yes, some of the SFX are rather dated (particularly the nasty Rock-Man!), but there’s a real sense of solidity to the sets, which helps the atmosphere no end and is such a welcome change from the smooth fakery of CGI.
So, technically, the film is way ahead of its contemporaries, but what about the other elements of the project? Well, the plot is obviously nothing special; we’re in familiar territory with a straightforward struggle between elements of good and evil which are very clearly defined. Hercules’ solution to almost every problem is to throw a big rock at it(!) and he is saddled with a couple of useless sidekicks; sexist pig Thesus (who gets his comeuppance when he falls for a goddess) and a comedy relief idiot who falls over a lot, but thankfully they are not involved too much.
The big guy is played by Reg Park, an Englishman who once played reserve team football for Leeds Utd! An award-winning bodybuilder, he was still performing feats of strength in his 40s that would have made him a natural for the ‘World’s Strongest Man’. And, as an actor, he’s not bad either; an easy, natural presence that’s far more engaging that most who played the role.
In later years, he also mentored a young Austrian muscleman who acknowledges that Park was ‘like a second father to him’. Yes, another screen Hercules: Arnold Schwarzenegger!
Best of all, though, our main villain is played by Christopher Lee; a man who appeared in many films in continental Europe due to his impressive facility for foreign languages. Unfortunately, he is dubbed by another actor here, which dilutes the intensity of his performance, but not his screen presence. There are a couple of nods to his ‘Dracula’ persona too, which are obvious without being out of place.
Proceedings are a little dated, of course, but this is far superior to any other entries in the genre and well worth an hour and a half of your time.