Hercules returns home from his labours to claim a princess for his bride. However, he finds that she has been bewitched and the kingdom under threat from dark forces. The throne has been assumed by her uncle, who explains that he must travel to Hades to obtain a cure for her and undo the curse that afflicts the land…
Despite being a fairly terrible film, ‘Hercules’ (1957) had been a world-wide smash and kick-started a whole wave of Italian muscleman movies that were dubbed and shown in American theatres over the next decade. Some stuck pretty near 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. Others just left out the mythology entirely and kept everything else. But there’s always one exception to the rule. In this case: ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961).
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; gothic horror classic ‘Black Sunday’ (1960) with Barbara Steele. He also had a family connection to the character and the story: his father, Eugenio, had worked on the design of Guido Brignone’s ‘Maciste In Hell’ (1925), the silent classic that featured the original Italian ‘Hercules’ character taking a trip to the land of the dead. Itno surprise, then, that Bava gets a joint story and screenplay credit with three other writers. Also taking further duty as his own cinematographer, this gave Bava considerable creative control of the film, and he was able to tailor it to his particular strengths and sensibilities.
Hercules (Reg Park) and Theseus (George Ardisson) are enjoying a little rest and relaxation after running their latest errand for the Gods. For Ardisson this means a tumble in an outdoor hayloft with dark-haired beauty Jocasta (Ely Drago), but Park isn’t playing around; he’s on his way back to home to wed the gorgeous Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). But all is not well in the kingdom. Without warning, they are attacked by a group of assassins. Park shrugs them off by throwing a wagon at them, and they run for the hills when they realise how they’re messing with. This opening scene helps to establish two important things. Firstly, there’s a healthy dose of humour in the film, something often lacking in the big man’s exploits on the big screen. Secondly, that Park’s default method of solving a problem is to throw something big at it. A wagon here, but it’s usually a rock.
When Park reaches the city, he finds that his old friend the King has passed away, but Ruffo has not assumed the throne. That position is in the hands of her uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee). He’s reluctantly assumed the responsibility because she is confused and bewildered, seemingly bewitched. Lee convinces Park that the only way he can sort things out is travel to the underworld and obtain a magic stone which will undo the spell. Unfortunately, the big lummox falls for it, even though the audience knows only too well that Lee is the bad guy here. After all, we saw him in his underground lair earlier when he summoned Ruffo from where she had been sleeping in what looks suspiciously like a coffin! She rises as if on a hinge in what was almost certainly a nod to Max Schreck’s appearance in the hold of the ship in F W Murnau’s iconic ‘Nosferatu’ (1922).
Park and Ardisson depart on their journey, getting saddled with comedy relief Telemachus (Franco Giacobini) on the way. Before they can enter Hades, though, they need to grab the golden apple of the Hesperides and tangle with the rock monster, Procrustes. And this is where Bava’s imagination and visual mastery really take over. Working with production designer Franco Lolli, he conjures up a striking vision of the underworld with a painter’s eye for detail and blending colour. Also, 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. Sure, some of the SFX have dated poorly (particularly the rock monster!) but, on the other hand, scenes where the dead rise from their tombs and battle Park are still striking and impressive today.
It’s all the more remarkable when you discover the budgetary constraints that Bava was working under. The palace set was a small stage with the director creating a sense of scale with just four pillars that he regularly moved around and sometimes resprayed. Occasionally, he was able to add a fifth with camera trickery! Similarly, one door stands in for every entrance that you see, Bava shooting with multiple angles and setups to create the illusion of a vast complex of rooms and chambers. Unless it’s pointed out, you would never notice. Bava also manages to evoke a sense of dread with these gloomy interiors that a lesser director would probably have neglected.
On the other side of the scale is the story, which is nothing special and bears some evidence of late rewrites and revisions. While in the underworld, Ardisson falls in love with the goddess Persephone (Meiazotide in the original Italian cut). She’s played by Evelyn Stewart, billed under her real name of Ida Galli, and it’s interesting to speculate whether her character was a late addition to the film, or whether the part originally had far more screentime. As it is, her presence in certain scenes (or lack of it) doesn’t quite dovetail with the rest of the story’s events. But it’s a minor quibble when you consider the many delicious nods to Lee’s ‘Dracula’ persona. In one memorable moment, his face appears reflected in a pool of blood on the floor; in another, he leans over the unconscious Ruffo and directly into the camera. It’s a lot of fun to see the vampire iconography in a mythological setting and, of course, Lee is as charismatic as ever. Unfortunately, and despite reports to the contrary, he was not invited back to loop any of his dialogue so we are left with voice actors delivering his lines and, although they do a decent job, they can’t compete with his imperious tones.
The film was released in alternate versions in different territories, although the changes were not as significant as made to some of Bava’s other projects, such as ‘Black Sunday’ (1960) and ‘Black Sabbath’ (1960). The UK version was almost identical to the Italian version, although it was released under the title ‘Hercules In the Centre of the Earth’. Stateside, a corny and over-explanatory prologue was added featuring VoiceOver Woman and some repeated footage of the masked Oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) who appears later on. Thankfully, no other significant changes were made. Curiously, cult movie legend Rosalba Neri is credited with appearing in the film, although you’d be hard pressed to spot her! She certainly isn’t playing Helene, Ruffo’s companion, as is often credited. Apparently, in her early career, Neri sometimes sent one of her cousins along to fulfil her contracted acting obligations, so that may have been the case here!
This was Park’s second outing as the Greek Demi-god after ‘Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide’ (1961) and it’s interesting to note the changes that Bava chose to make to the character. It’s almost as if this acts as a kind of prequel. In the earlier film, the big man was already married to the Princess Deianira (played by a different actress), and the two had an impetuous young man for a son. The character was also far more laidback and a little world-weary in his attitudes. Bava’s version is more of a young blade; quick to arms and action, although retaining the good-natured charisma that made Park probably the screen’s finest Hercules. Off the screen, he was a natural athlete and sportsman who, in later years, became a mentor to the young Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ruffo had already played the Princess Deianira in an earlier version of the legend; the hopeless (but hilarious) ‘La vendetta di Ercole/Goliath and the Dragon’ (1960) with Mark Forest. She also went onto appear in another bad movie gem, the space opera trash fire of ‘2+5: Missione Hydra’ (1968). Ardisson signed on with Bava again for Viking adventure ‘Erik The Conquerer’ (1961). Patched-up horror ‘Katarsis’ (1963) with Lee followed, before a leading role in the far more effective chiller ‘The Long Hair of Death’ (1964). He returned to the mythological arena in the TV film ‘Hercules and the Princess of Troy’ (1965) and went onto grace several Eurospy and Giallo films as well as ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) cash-in ‘The Eyes Behind the Stars’ (1978).
A visual feast from a master filmmaker that has a few hokey aspects when viewed today, but otherwise remains a remarkably entertaining experience and a classic of its kind.
(This is a revised and expanded version of a post originally published on 15th January, 2015)