Ursus, the Terror of the Kirghiz/Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi/Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964)

‘Her mind is sick and in the hands of the dark spirits.’

The Prince Regent of the Kirghiz is determined to claim the entire kingdom for his own and exterminate the Cherkes tribe, who live as hunters and trappers. The countryside is in thrall to a mysterious creature, who is slaughtering merchant caravans without mercy. The leader of the Cherkes, begins to suspect that the two things may be connected…

It was the seventh time out for strongman Ursus, birthed as a minor character in the pages of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s epic 1896 novel of Ancient Rome’ Quo Vadis?’. Italian film producers cast him as a rival to Peplum musclemen like Hercules and Goliath and dropped him into a variety of adventures in whatever location and time period was convenient for their purposes.

After seizing the throne of Sura on the mysterious assassination of the Grand Khan many years earlier, Prince Regent Zereteli (Furio Meniconi) is now feeling a little anxious. His cousin, Princess Amiko (Mireille Granelli), will come of age in a few months. Then he’ll have to abdicate in her favour as she’s the daughter of the Khan. She’s not interested in wedding bells either because she’s busy playing footsie in an underground love nest with the hated Ursus (Reg Park), leader of the Cherkes.

Park is focused on tracking down the local monster, though, with his efforts aided by the unexpected arrival of his quick-witted brother, Ilo (Ettore Manni). Back at camp, amnesiac beauty Kato (María Teresa Orsini), who joined their tribe as a little girl, is also devoted to the cause. Meniconi decides to take Park off the board by blaming him for the creature’s deadly handiwork and using this as an excuse to crack down hard on the Cherkes and strengthen his royal position.

It’s a serviceable, if hardly startling, setup, but it has potential. Unfortunately, in the hands of scriptwriter Marcello Sartarelli, the story fails to develop in an exciting way, leading to a listless and lengthy second act. However, the scenarist achieves some measure of redemption by throwing in a couple of unusual twists near the finish. Some of these are not particularly credible, but it’s good to see a climax that has a little more going on than just the usual big battle. Also it’s a nice touch when the Lost Kingdom Dancing Girls add some male partners to their troupe and mix burlesque bumps ‘n’ grinds with a touch of Ballet!

However, there is little real humour on display, and that’s an issue over the 90 minutes. The straight-faced approach robs Park of the effortless charisma that he brought to his two earlier appearances as Hercules, and he struggles to make much of an impression as a result. Also, Ursus is no superman on this occasion. Instead, he’s merely a capable leader who’s a bit handy in a scrap, so his exploits are reduced to some average swordplay and fighting a man with a blanket over his head, who leaps about making strange noises like a giant bird.

In a similar vein, although Meniconi is a big man, he’s too long in the tooth to make for a dynamic villain because he brings so little to the table in the combat scenes. There’s also some dodgy ‘day for night’ shooting and a suspicion that some of the more crowded scenes appear courtesy of another film. After all, the business end of the conquest of Sura seems to be accomplished with barely half a dozen men. Although if that is the case, the older footage is well-integrated. Inevitably, the film received the usual ‘Hercules’ makeover when it eventually arrived on American shores.

The failure of producers to mould Ursus into any one particular incarnation led to an inevitable lack of a clear, established identity. After this outing, his next appearance was in a minor role as a thuggish ape-man in tag-team hi-jinks ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964). Linked only by his name, his status as a hero and little else, it’s perhaps inevitable that the character became the forgotten muscleman of Peplum.

The director here was Antonio Margheriti, a man with a truly remarkable career in Italian genre cinema. To list all his contributions would double the length of this post, but there were many notable projects. Early Science-Fiction efforts like ‘Assignment: Outer Space/Space Men’ (1960) and ‘Battle of the Worlds/Il pianeta degli uomini spenti’ (1961) (with Hollywood legend Claude Rains!) were followed by gothic horrors like ‘Horror Castle/La vergine di Norimberga’ (1963) and ‘The Long Hair of Death/I lunghi capelli della morte’ (1964). The following decade brought Giallo ‘Seven Deaths in the Cats Eyes/La morte negli occhi del gatto’ (1973) and martial arts hi-jinks ‘Mr. Hercules Against Karate/Ming, ragazzi!’ (1973).

Perhaps the director’s best-remembered films are the bat-shit craziness of ‘Yor: The Hunter from the Future/Il mondo di Yor’ (1983) and ‘The Wild, Wild Planet/I criminali della galassia’ (1966), both rightly celebrated as cult favourites. Margheriti’s name certainly wasn’t any guarantee of quality, but his films were almost always fast and entertaining. He was helped out on this one by Ruggero Deodato, whose duties as Assistant Director apparently stretched to some work fully in charge. Later on, he became notorious for the scenes of violence and animal cruelty in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980).

There are some interesting aspects to this one, but they’re buried pretty deep beneath the relentless mediocrity.

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