Ursus in the Land of Fire/Ursus nella terra di fuoco (1963)

‘Do you believe an animal can rule human beings?’

An uneasy standoff exists on the borders of an ancient kingdom, with a tribe of shepherds under constant threat from soldiers of the King. A plot makes it seem that the peaceful settlers attempted to kidnap the King’s daughter, so the Princess is sent out as bait to trap their unwary leader…

The sixth film in the loosely connected series based around the exploits of muscleman Ursus. His literary origin, rather than biblical or mythological, allowed him to be conveniently placed in any ‘ancient world’ scenario that producers chose. Here, he turns up in the usual vague location and time period. American actor Ed Fury makes his last of three appearances in the role, finding himself with a brand new cast and director Giorgio Simonelli.

Princess Diana (Luciana Gilli) is out for her usual morning ride along the border of her father’s kingdom when a rattlesnake spooks her horse. Her unconscious body is thrown into a river, but she’s fished out by Ursus (Fury). He’s the leader of the shepherds who live across the water in the neighbouring lands. The big man hands her over to General Hamilkar (Adriano Micantoni) and her cousin Mila (Claudia Mori), who witnessed the incident but did nothing to help. Back at court, Micantoni convinces doddering King Diego Pozzetto that Fury’s rescue was an attempted kidnapping and that it’s time to deal with the shepherds once and for all. Persuading the reluctant Gilli to act as a lure, his soldiers pursue Fury to a nearby volcanic region where a landslide buries him within the side of a mountain.

Expecting praise from the King when he returns to court, Micantoni finds instead that he’s in deep trouble. Not only is the Land of Fire taboo, but his troops killed the holy man who tried to prevent their sacrilege. Pozzetto turns the General over to High Priest Lotar (Nando Tamberlani), who pronounces a sentence of death. However, the verdict is carried out on the priests instead, with only Tamberlani escaping via a secret passage from the temple. Realising he has nothing left to lose, Micantoni kills the King and assumes the throne, believing Princess Gilli slain trying to escape.

Micantoni tries to spin events in a positive light, but, of course, the populace isn’t happy. Mori suggests a tournament to distract them but, by now, Fury has dug himself out. Gilli isn’t dead after all (surprise, surprise) and links up with Fury. It’s only now we find out that the two grew up together and that she’s always had a thing for him, which makes her lack of belief in him at the beginning of the story somewhat hard to swallow. In the best ‘Robin Hood’ tradition, they go to the tournament in disguise, and Fury’s attitude lands him a gig fighting five of the kingdom’s most formidable warriors. Triumphant, he’s still thrown in the dungeon, and Micantoni decides to kill off Mori and marry Gilli to legitimise his reign.

Fury’s first two outings as Ursus may not have boasted a great deal of creativity in the story department, but they did manage to sidestep the more well-worn clichés of the genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. Perhaps aware of the predictability of developments, director Simonelli leans more into the violence of the tale. Although there’s nothing too graphic, warriors do plunge into the inevitable pit of spikes at the tournament, and Mori takes a whip to Gilli in the dungeon. Something she seems to enjoy far too much.

The actors who brought their talents to Fury’s two previous appearances in the role (albeit as different characters) do not return for this third round, and their replacements are definitely off the substitute’s bench. Mori fares best, but then the ‘evil queen’ in Peplum is usually the part with the greatest opportunity to shine. Unfortunately, the script does not provide her with the chance to turn Fury to the dark side, although it’s heavily implied that she’s more than willing to try. However, one tired development that is present and correct is Fury getting chained to ‘The Big Wheel’ with the other slaves. Some mention is made of a gristmill, though, so perhaps it’s actually connected to something on this occasion.

Fury was born in Long Island and travelled to Los Angeles in his early twenties to compete in bodybuilding contests. His screen career began with a string of uncredited appearances over a decade before he finally got billed for a small appearance in Universal ‘B’ Western ‘Raw Edge’ (1956). There was a more significant role in the bad movie classic ‘The Wild Women of Wongo’ (1958), but, perhaps figuring he was not on the fast track to success, he followed in the footsteps of compatriot Steve Reeves to Italy. It was an intelligent move, his impressive physique resulting in second-billing to Australian actor Rod Taylor in comedy ‘Colossus and the Amazon Queen/La regina delle Amazzoni/ Queen of the Amazons’ (1960). He was then cast for the first of his three turns as Ursus and a couple of other Peplum roles. As the craze for musclemen ran out of steam in the middle of the decade, Fury returned to America and played bits on Network TV shows such as ‘Star Trek’, ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘Columbo’, his last small screen appearance being on a 1979 episode of the original ‘Fantasy Island’. Seventeen years later, he came out of retirement to play a character called ‘Ur-So’ in Donald F Glut’s poorly received comedy ‘Dinosaur Valley Girls’ (1996).

A workmanlike Peplum but a step down from previous entries in the series.

The Nights of Prague/Prazske noci/Prague Nights (1969)

‘And he has a lion in his emblem, the hairless rabbit!’

A lonely businessman in Prague meets a mysterious woman who seems to know all about him. She takes him to a cemetery, where he tries to seduce her, but she’s more interested in telling him three bizarre, supernatural stories…

An offbeat Czechoslovakian anthology film, which cheerfully mixes its horrors with romance, some comedy and even a faint whiff of science fiction. Director Milos Makovec delivers the framing story and the third tale, with the other two are helmed by Jirí Brdecka and Evald Schorm respectively.

Middle-aged executive Willy Fabricius (Milos Kopecký) arrives in Prague on the eve of closing a big business deal. However, rather than spend the evening with his prospective new partners, he begs off, claiming he needs time to study the contract on offer. In truth, he’s after some fun instead. After unsuccessful attempts to interest the pretty hotel receptionist and the female motorist who gives him a lift into town, he meets Zuzana (Milena Dvorská). She comes with a vintage car and chauffeur Václav (Jirí Hrzán) but, unfortunately for Kopecký, their first stop is not the kind of boneyard he had in mind. Instead, it’s a nearby cemetery, and all Dvorská wants to do is tell him bedtime stories.

The first tale revisits Prague’s most famous legend: the Golem. In this version, the clay statue brought to life by Rabbi Jehudi Löw (Josef Bláha) has already completed its mission and lies inert on the temple floor. However, Emperor Rudolf II (Martin Ruzek) wants to use the creature for his own purposes. Bláha explains that it cannot be revived, but the ruler has anticipated his refusal and called in the ambitious Rabbi Neftali Ben Chaim (Jan Klusák) to do the job. During preparations for the rites, the young pretender becomes inflamed with desire for a mute servant girl (Lucie Novotná). Determined to impress her, he uses a spell to grow his Golem to giant size.

The second story focuses on Countess (Teresa Tuszynska), who has made manipulating men her lifetime’s work. She’s driven them to suicide and ruin, even provoking a pair of twins to kill each other over her. Her latest plaything is the Knight Saint de Clair (Josef Abrhám), who invites her to a masked ball. She’s happy to accept as long as he can furnish a pair of party slippers made from loaves of bread. He cannot procure the unusual footwear, and she breaks with him, prompting his offscreen rendezvous with a pistol. On the evening of the ball, a Shoemaker (Josef Somr) suddenly arrives to fulfil her order. She’s delighted and sets out in a coach with a masked man she assumes is Abrhám. Of course, it’s Somr instead, and he takes her to his gothic mansion, which is staffed by mechanical servants and covered with cobwebs.

Rounding out the trio of stories is the oft-told tale of the bloody tavern. Yes, this traveller’s rest is likely to be your last, courtesy of landlady Yvetta Simonová and the elderly Attendant Prech (Václav Kotva). There’s a warm welcome waiting, accompanied by a quick dose of poison and an exit through a trapdoor to a cellar filled with corpses. At least Simonová doesn’t bother her guests with a bill, lifting their jewellery, purse and silver buttons instead. However, her perfect scheme begins to unravel when she starts to fall in love with her latest victim. When this story concludes, we go back to our modern-day Scheherazade and her hapless audience of one for a final twist in the tale.

There’s a lot to admire in this unusual collection of tales, with Brdecka’s Golem story and the activities of Schorm’s Countess being particularly noteworthy and engaging. The first of these edges the honours, with the smartest script and some striking production design. Brdecka’s economic direction also ensures that not a second of screentime is wasted, and the cast are on point throughout. Although the practical effects are crude and unconvincing, they are highly imaginative and memorable for all the right reasons.

Schorm’s segment runs it a close second, principally due to a tour de force performance by Tuszynska. Her Countess is deliciously corrupt; a sexy, blonde kitten who holds court naked in her bubble bath, fondling Chambermaid Mici (Jana Brezková) and sending men to their doom with uncontrollable glee. Her request for slippers made from bread seems an innocent piece of fun at first until a later scene highlights the plight of the local peasant population. Let them eat cake, indeed! The scenes in Somr’s mansion pile on the atmosphere impressively, and there’s even a homage to the Powell & Pressburger classic ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948). The only fault lies in its length; the final scenes are in danger of becoming too repetitious.

The remaining sections of the film fail to scale these heights. Humour has been present throughout the first hour of the film, but director Makovec opts for far broader comedy in both the tavern segment and the wrap up of the framing story. These create a serious clash of tone. The handling of the former is particularly jarring as it’s shot without dialogue or synchronised sound. Instead, the plot is conveyed courtesy of offscreen singers, who seem to have wandered onto the film’s soundtrack from an operetta taking place next door! As of in itself, it’s a creative idea, and the sequence is entertaining; it just doesn’t fit well with what the audience has been watching. Similarly, subtlety goes out the window, along with the cast, when the fate of amorous businessman Kopecký is revealed. It’s played for big laughs and is accompanied by some (intentionally?) terrible SFX.

Ultimately, the theme that ties these stories together is man’s inability to resist a beautiful woman. Even when the female concerned is not actively deadly, she’s still a trap that leads to man’s ultimate destruction. The apple offered by Eve is still a temptation that cannot be resisted. Not an original notion, of course, but one that’s examined here in a pleasing variety of ways and with genuine creativity and imagination. There are some lovely quiet touches too; it rains indoors when the Golem is brought to life, and its feet break the stone slabs of the floor when its walks, Tuszynska gives a quick shrug of indifference when she finds the silver snuff box of an old lover in her bed, and Somr takes a peek at the cogs and wheels inside the head of one of his mechanical servants by lifting the top of its head like the lid of a coffee pot.

Of the three directors, Makovec has most feature films to his name, although he was not prolific, with just 15 credits in 25 years. Although this may not seem a bad strike rate by modern standards, many of his contemporaries in Western Europe ran up far higher totals in comparison. Brdecka often worked as a writer on his projects and was also a prolific director of short films, as was Schorm, making them the perfect collaborators on an anthology. Little of their work is known outside Eastern Europe. Still, Brdecka was the principal script collaborator on writer-director Oldrich Lipský’s bizarre Jules Verne adaptation ‘The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians/Tajemství hradu v Karpatech’ (1981).

Overall, an uneven effort thanks to its late swerve into overstated comedy. Still, there’s a great deal to admire and enjoy in this unusual production.

Ursus and the Tartar Princess/Ursus e la ragazza tartara/The Savage Hordes (1961)

‘Are there any other Tartars in the neighbourhood?’

In 17th Century Poland, knights drive the Tartars hordes from their homeland. However, during the invaders’ retreat, they abduct a young boy, the son of celebrated warrior Ursus. The famous soldier joins the local forces commanded by Prince Stefan, but the detachment is lured into a trap and captured. Loyalties are tested on both sides when the Prince finds himself drawn to the Tartar warlord’s lovely daughter…

The fourth film in the series that finds Pepluim strongman Ursus following in the footsteps of box office winners Hercules, Maciste, Goliath and Samson. Rather than boasting a mythological or biblical origin, however, the character was created by writer Henryk Sienkiewicz for his epic novel ‘Quo Vadis’ and hijacked by Italian film producers as a viable alternative to those more celebrated musclemen.

Despite the trouble on his native soil, legendary warrior Ursus (Joe Robinson) has retired from the fighting to spend time with his family. However, young son Mikhail (Antonio Piretti) is snatched by Tartar soldiers and taken to the warlord Suleiman’s (Tom Felleghy) camp. Robinson immediately rejoins the main Polish forces as the best method of pursuit and comes under the command of Prince Stefan (Ettore Manni). Charged with an expeditionary force on a reconnaissance mission, the impetuous Manni attacks a Tartar battalion instead. The sortie is successful, and they capture a valuable prisoner after Robinson uproots a tree and shakes him loose from its branches.

Unfortunately, the prisoner is less than helpful, so military genius Manni leads his troop into a narrow valley where they are surrounded. Outnumbered fifty to one, he takes the deal Felleghy offers; his men go free if he surrenders to being ransomed. But almost immediately after he accepts the warlord’s hospitality, Robinson and the men try to rescue him, fail spectacularly and are put on the chain gang anyway. It’s not all bad, though, as Felleghy’s daughter turns out to be Princess Ila (Yôko Tani), and within five minutes, she’s in his arms. ‘I want to be your slave,’ she breathes by way of an introduction.

Although he doesn’t approve of his daughter’s romantic preferences, surprisingly enough, Felleghy is prepared to go along with the arrangement, provided that Manni renounces his people and becomes a Tartar. Displaying his usual wit and savvy, instead of leveraging the situation for the advantage of himself and his men, Manni is outraged and throws the offer back in the warlord’s face. Thus ensuring he joins his men in chains. What a genius. Meanwhile, the Tartar’s imperial leader, the Great Khan (Akim Tamiroff), rocks up, accompanied by his slimy offspring, Prince Ahmed (Ivano Staccioli). Again, within the space of a few seconds, the young rascal has got his eyes on Tani and wants her for his own (the girl has quite a volatile love life!) Discovering his intended true feelings, the arrogant Staccioli challenges Manni to a fight to the death.

If the above story summary seems a little light on the involvement of our titular hero, then there is a good reason. Writer-Director Remigio Del Grosso focuses proceedings squarely on Prince Stefan and Princess Ila, reducing the strongman to a level barely approaching a sidekick. There are a handful of demonstrations of his super strength, notably pulling down a bridge, but he’s offscreen for long periods of the film. The audience could be forgiven for thinking that the character has been added to an existing project simply to provide name recognition in the title. As such, Robinson has little opportunity to make much of an impression.

However, there is more going on with the story than the average Peplum entry. For a start, it’s not all swords and bows and arrows; both sides of the conflict have firearms, although we never see the mentioned cannons and artillery. Instead, we get what appear to be muskets and crude rifles, even if all the close combat is conducted with blades. These fight sequences are a bit hit and miss, and there’s a suspicion that the armies appearing in the wide shots may be doing so by the kind permission of another film.

Still, the film does address themes of pacifism and violence, principally through the inclusion of a slave who is preaching the Christian doctrine in the underground caves of the slave quarter. It’s a little on the nose when he is crucified, of course, but it is the film’s best scene, as Tani repudiates the Tartar creed of violence in the face of his sacrifice. The cast is generally good, with the best opportunities given to bully boy Staccioli and an almost unrecognisable Tamiroff as the Great Khan who delights under the title of ‘Great Lord of the Flowering Almond Tree’ among other things.

Tani was born in Paris in 1928 to parents who were attached to the Japanese Embassy. The family went back to their homeland just a couple of years later, but Tani returned to the French Capital in 1950 to attend university. Instead, she drifted into the cabaret scene and became a dancer, famous for her ‘Geisha-themed’ performances. Bit parts in films followed, including two features in Japan, one of which was initially going to be directed by Akira Kurosawa. A brief appearance in ‘The Quiet American’ (1957) was followed by the female leads in ‘The Wind Cannot Read’ (1958) starring Dirk Bogarde and Nicholas Ray’s ‘The Savage Innocents’ (1960). She worked mostly in mainland Europe for the rest of her career, appearing in a handful of Eurospy projects such as ‘OSS 77 – Operazione for di loto’ (1965), ‘Agent Z-55, mission désespérée/Desperate Mission’ (1965) and ‘The Spy Who Loved Flowers’ (1966). She worked only a handful of times after the 1960s and passed away in 1999.

A more thoughtful Peplum than most which has some effective moments. However, expect to see a great deal more of the Tartar Princess than strongman Ursus.

Fury of Hercules/La furia di Ercole (1962)

The Fury of Hercules (1962)‘Without violence, power gives no satisfaction.’

Hercules arrives at the city of Arpad to find that his old friend, the King, has passed away. His daughter now rules but she has become fixated on building a high wall around the city. Her chief advisor has indulged this obsession and enslaved the populace to complete the project while he strengthens his grip on power…

The ninth in the loose cycle of muscleman films featuring the demi-god that came out of Italy in the late 1950s and early 60s, riding the coat-tails of the international success of ‘Hercules’ (1958) starring Steve Reeves. This time around US actor Brad Harris sports a nifty beard and toga in the title role and brings the requisite physical presence. However, the results are tired and predictable with director Gianfranco Parolini bringing nothing new to the party.

After being waylaid by apparent bandits on the road, Hercules (Harris) rides his chariot into Arpad to visit the King. He’s immediately confronted by a hostile captain of the guard who needs some form of identification. Luckily, a couple of utility bills and a driving licence are not required as the big man averts an accident at the walls nearby when a building block almost falls on the men working there. As a guest at the court of Queen Cnidia (Mara Berni), he soon realises that all is not well in the city. The real power behind the throne is the silver-tongued chief advisor, Menistus (Serge Gainsbourg) who has levied the usual unreasonable taxes on the populace to fill his own pockets. He’s also put any dissenting voices to work on the building site under the whip.

The Fury of Hercules (1962)

‘Do you come here often?’

The state of the union doesn’t sit well with Harris, particularly when the innocent Mila (Irena Prosen) is accused of treason and condemned to death. Mitigation of the sentence is only possible if a champion appears at her execution and undergoes three dangerous trials on her behalf. This is the big man’s bread and butter, of course, and he’s lowered into a pit to face a sleepy lion, followed by a man in a gorilla suit, who gives Harris a surprising amount of bother. Finally, he defeats a gladiator above ground in front of an appreciative crowd. It transpires that Prosen is the daughter of the local rebel leader, Eridione (Carlo Tamberlani), and, of course, it’s not long before Harris is allied with their cause.

Perhaps it’s not all that surprising that this film hits all the expected targets with such dull and lifeless precision. After all, besides vehicles starring Hercules, there had already been about another dozen features with identikit musclemen such as Maciste, Goliath, Ursus and Samson. So it was inevitable that a formula would arise pretty quickly in such circumstances to keep up with the pace of production. Unfortunately, Parolini’s effort sticks so close to established conventions that the results are drained of any real interest.

The Fury of Hercules (1962)

‘You want another take?’

There are no mythological elements either, so all that remains are just the usual story beats. Queen Berni falls hard for Harris and/or his muscles, but he fancies handmaiden Daria (Luisella Boni, billed as Brigitte Corey) instead. She’s Tamberlani’s daughter, of course, which gives the big man a personal stake in the rebellion. The ‘in-court entertainment’ is provided by the usual troupe of dancing girls in gauzy costumes, although, on this occasion, they are played by the Zagreb Opera Ballet! Arpad’s unlikely to become a recurring list on their tour itinerary, though, what with their act ending with an assassination attempt. There’s also a scene where Harris turns back a herd of rampaging elephants in the best Johnny Weismuller tradition. Umgawa, indeed.

Harris shines brightest in the action and combat scenes, appearing appropriately daring and heroic as he cuts a swathe through Gainsbourg’s men. These include Sergio Ciani, who went onto play Hercules several times himself, under the name of Alan Steel. The climactic battle scene outside the palace is staged on a reasonably large scale; it’s just a shame that the film itself is so lacking in any personality. There is an effort made to show the rebel group as a happy, loving community as a contrast to the selfish, dour city dwellers, but it’s half-baked at best. Also, the attempts to interest us in the fates of various side characters come over as feeble when there’s been insufficient effort to establish their characters in the first place.

The Fury of Hercules (1962)

‘Those dancing girls can sure do the Mashed Potato.’

This was Harris’ sole appearance as the legendary demi-god, but he had already flexed his muscles in the title role of the suspiciously similar ‘Samson’ (1961). He re-teamed with director Parolini for the ‘Kommissar X’ Eurospy series opposite Tony Kendall and with both actor and director as one of ‘The Three Fantastic Supermen’ (1967). Those later roles provided him with far more opportunity as an actor, and he was able to bring a lighter touch to them, mostly as a foil for Kendall. They also allowed him to show off his martial arts skills in fight scenes that he often choreographed himself. Over two decades later, he appeared briefly in Luigi Cozzi’s ‘Hercules’ (1983) starring Lou Ferrigno. On the face of it, this might appear to be a clever cameo, but it was probably just as much a matter of convenience as anything else. Both actors had gone straight into that production from ‘I sette magnifici gladiatori/The Seven Magnificent Gladiators’ (1983) in which Harris had a far more substantial role.

‘Sulk all you like, I’m not doing that record with you!’

And, yes, that is French singer-songwriter and hitmaker Serge Gainsbourg, the man behind the controversial hit ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ which he released in 1969 as a duet with Jane Birkin. Although principally known as a musical artist outside his native country, he also had an acting career, one of his earliest roles being an appearance with Harris in ‘Samson’ (1961). Later credits were appropriately eclectic, considering his roles in multiple aspects of cultural media. There was unusual superhero satire ‘Mr Freedom’ (1968), a part in Jerry Lewis’ still unseen ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ (1972), and a role as a police inspector in Antonio Margheriti’s offbeat Giallo ‘Seven Dead In The Cat’s Eye’ (1973), which reunited him with Birkin.

An uninvolving, desperately unoriginal Peplum which develops on well-travelled lines, but does deliver its action sequences efficiently enough.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)‘I felt very sorry for thinking that my sister was a snake.’

An adolescent girl living at an orphanage is claimed by her birth parents at last. However, she finds herself joining an unusual household. Her mother has memory issues, her father keeps snakes in his basement study, and she has the strange feeling that she’s being watched…

Unusual black and white Japanese horror-fantasy that displays some interesting concepts but lacks logic and a focused, consistent story. Although based on two separate Mangas by Kazuo Kozu, it also bears a strong resemblance to the medieval Western folk belief of ‘the changeling’, something modern commentators now to tend to credit to the appearance of any disability in a child when it outgrew the cradle.

Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) has grown up as a happy, well-adjusted girl under the care of nuns at the orphanage run by Sister Yamakawa (Kuniko Miyake). But it’s still wonderful when her father and mother (Yoshirô Kitahara and Yûko Hamada) offer her a stable and loving home instead. But, as soon as she takes her place in the family, there are problems. Hamada seems generally confused, due to injuries sustained in an apparent car accident, and reptile-fancier Kitahara has to leave on a long expedition to Africa because of reports of a rare species of snake. We’re never told precisely what the work it is that Kitahara does (it’s just identified as ‘research’) and, although that doesn’t seem initially important, given the way that the story develops it’s odd that it wasn’t more integral to the plot.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

‘You don’t know the way back to the ‘Spindrift’ by any chance?’

It’s not long before Matsui feels uncomfortable in the house, particularly after seeing a strange girl in her room. Although Hamada and live-in housekeeper Shige (Sachiko Meguro) try to pass it off as a bad dream, Matsui is not convinced. Further incidents occur, and the adults are forced to reveal the truth: Matsui has an older sister, Tamamai (Mayumi Takahashi) living in a private room at the top of the house. Matsui is happy to welcome her new family member, but there’s an immediate sibling rivalry, fueled by Takahashi’s anti-social and controlling behaviour. She also leaves scales in the bed, which is not very hygienic.

What most viewers will remember from this unusual film is Matsui’s dream sequences, as realised by director Noriaki Yuasa. Most of the SFX in these are somewhat dated, but there’s still an uncomfortably trippy and psychedelic edge to them, which makes them oddly unsettling. Matsui uses a sword to battle both flying snakes and the gruesome, long-clawed Silver-Haired Witch of the title. It’s also impressively surreal when Matsui is dragged through the air like Lois Lane by the (super)human personification of her doll, only to see her only companion eventually strangled by a snake, leaving her mentally more isolated than ever.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

‘Ouch!’

But where a film like this stands or falls depends on the child actors, of course, and it’s pleasing to report that both Matsui and Takahashi are absolutely terrific. Matsui gives us a heroine who is both happy go lucky but relatable, and Takahashi is deliciously spiteful but ultimately tortured by her insecurities and overwhelming anger. They make a highly effective partnership; it’s only a shame that neither ever acted again.

Unfortunately, the story is weakened by a severe lack of exposition, particularly regarding the motivations of key characters. Although the version of the film that I viewed runs the complete length as quoted by reliable sources, a suspicion lingers that something is missing. Certainly, the story starts rather abruptly and fails to establish the initial setup clearly. This can be forgiven when explanations begin to emerge during the second act, but they are never fully developed. Several important questions are left unaddressed after the film’s climax, well-executed though it is. Of course, a greater familiarity with the source material and Japanese folk myths might yield greater clarity, but it’s still a little frustrating.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

‘Are you sure I can’t interest you in some cough drops?’

Technically, the film is well-accomplished, with Yuasa and his director of photography, Akira Uehara, creating an effectively claustrophobic and creepy ambience out of the one set where most of the story unfolds. Yuasa was the man who initially brought a giant flying outer space turtle to the big screen in ‘Gamera: The Giant Monster/Daikaijû Gamera’ (1965). He also directed several of the sequels including the epic ‘Attack of the Monsters/Gamera tai daiakuju Giron’ (1969) and the almost as incredible ‘Gamera vs Zigra/Gamera tai Shinkai kaijû Jigura’ (1971).

Offbeat Japanese horror fantasy that makes up for what it lacks in the story department with some interesting visuals and a strong atmosphere. Well worth checking out.

Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide/Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide/Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)‘The temples of your useless Gods will collapse, and Uranus will take possession of the skies.’

Strange rumours have reached the court of King Androcolo, and he determines to meet these unseen dangers head-on, outfitting an expedition to investigate. Unfortunately, the nobles of his court are more interested in claiming his throne than going along for the ride, so he’s forced to shanghai legendary muscleman, Hercules. Their quest takes them to the lost civilisation of Atlantis where its evil Queen is planning world conquest…

Good-natured muscleman picture that introduced probably the screen’s finest Hercules, British actor Reg Park. His natural screen charisma and physicality translated well into both a serious take on the character and one with a more light-hearted tone, such as this. Director Vittorio Cottafavi keeps things moving at a good clip and provides a smattering of outlandish elements on a sufficient budget to realise a satisfying mythological experience.

Proceedings open with Park intent on his lunch and a mug of ale in a crowded tavern. He’s taking it easy after catching up with errant son, Ilio (Luciano Marin), a dashing young blade whose thirst for adventure does not meet with parental approval. A brawl breaks out over a woman, and soon the entire pub is in an uproar with fists and furniture flying in some well-choreographed action. Park ignores it all, calling for more ale. No-one bothers him, of course, because he’s Hercules. It’s a bright, clever scene, establishing both the tone of the film and Park’s happy go lucky take on the Greek demi-god. This Hercules is quite content to let everyone else do the hard work, being more interested in the quiet life than anything else, something that involves catching a quick 40 winks whenever possible.

Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide/Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

‘You might pretend to pay some attention when I talk about my day at work.’

Once they get back to the court of King Androcolo (Ettore Manni), the drama continues in much the same vein. Manni wants to mount an expedition to investigate the rumours and omens of something sinister abroad in the land, but his Senators can’t be bothered. They’d much rather jockey for position when he’s gone and make no bones about letting him know! The satire isn’t particularly subtle, but it’s still amusing. Even Hercules doesn’t want to go, preferring to stay behind with wife Deianira (Luciana Angiolillo). However, Manni invites him to the Royal Suite for one last drink before his departure and Park wakes up on the boat. But he doesn’t let being kidnapped bother him; preferring to shrug his shoulders, grin and lie down again for another kip. Of course, it’s no surprise that son Marin has stowed away below decks with the help of dwarf Timoteo (Salvatore Furnari).

It’s also not a shock when their crew of slaves and prisoners mutiny and try to steal the boat. No problem, the big man yanks them back by the anchor chain and these miscreants are abandoned on the desolate shore. Rather short-handed as a result (especially considering Park can’t be bothered to help!), our heroic quartet run into the inevitable storm (the weather was often dodgy in mythological times). Afterwards, Park finds himself shipwrecked alone on the shore of a rocky island. Alone? Well, not quite.

Park’s potential ‘Girl Friday’ is young brunette Ismene (Laura Efrikian), but she’s been partially absorbed into a wall and is waiting for her ‘wedding’ to the monster Proteus. The tardy bridegroom is the local representative of malevolent god, Uranus, who is worshipped by the occupants of the lost empire of Atlantis, which, rather conveniently, is located a mere stone’s throw across the water tank. Proteus can ‘appear in many forms’ such as an old man, a lion, and a snake but, best of all, the man-sized rubber lizard that Park grapples. It’s the silliest moment in the film by far, but quite charming in its way.

Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide/Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

‘You know, you look really silly in that get-up.’

But if Park was thinking about getting romantic with the pretty Efrikian, then he’s going to have a serious ‘mother-in-law’ problem. You see, when they get to Atlantis, he discovers that she’s the daughter of Queen Antinea (US actress Fay Spain) and, what’s more, she was sent to die on the island by the Royal Command. If this seems hard to understand, then it’s because Spain has a hidden agenda. Apparently, if Efrikian outlives her, then Atlantis will fall! It says so in ‘The Prophecy’ after all. Just what is it about prophecies in these kinds of films? Why does everyone always believe them? Oh, yeah, it’s because they always come true. Without fail.

Of course, things go awry for Spain because she falls for Park, instead of sticking to her game plan. Obviously, she didn’t know that all evil Queens fall in love with Hercules when they meet him. They don’t get a choice about it. Similarly, he believes all her lame excuses and explanations, right up to taking a drink of the drugged wine that she gives him before bedtime. But then, with a nice comic touch, we discover that he’s not been fooled by her at all. He’s been playing his own game all along.

Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide/Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

Reg’s audition for ‘Dawn of the Dead’ was a lock-in.

Without doubt, this was the best Hercules film to date. Park has a natural, friendly charisma, the script (credited to 6 different writers, including the director) plays a little with the familiar cliches and the use of impressive natural scenery and lots of extras conveys high stakes and a real sense of scale. There’s also some excellent production design from Franco Lolli, including Spain’s massive throne room that comes complete with a hidden acid bath. It’s also good to see that entertainment at Spain’s court comes courtesy of the usual troop of dancing girls, no doubt part way through their endless tour of the world’s lost civilisations.

It’s probably not a coincidence that this production made it into theatres barely three months after George Pal’s big-budget Hollywood tentpole ‘Atlantis, the Lost Continent’ (1961) took its first bow. However, whereas, Pal’s film feels stiff and awkward, this Italian creation is far breezier, laid-back and all-around enjoyable. A bit like Park’s iteration of Hercules. He was an ex-Leeds United footballer, who became a champion bodybuilder and, in later life, was a mentor and inspiration for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide/Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

‘Is that called the Christmas Tree Formation?’

Cottafavi had already directed previous entry in the series, the hilariously bad ‘Goliath and The Dragon/La vendetta di Ercole/The Vendetta of Hercules’ (1961) and went onto a long career behind the camera on Italian television. Spain also did an enormous amount of TV, appearing as a guest star on numerous hit Network shows like ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Night Gallery’, ‘The Fugitive’, Rawhide’ and ‘Ben Casey.’ She occasionally took time out to do low-budget noirs and dramas such as ‘Dragstrip Girl’ (1957), ‘The Beat Generation’ (1959)‘Flight to Fury’ (1964) (opposite a fresh-faced Jack Nicholson!) and Rita Hayworth’s penultimate film, William Grefé’s somewhat notorious ‘The Naked Zoo’ (1970). She even had a small role in ‘The Godfather, Part II’ (1974). In later life, Efrikian became a regular on Italian TV soap opera ‘Ricominciare’ and, as of 2019, is still gainfully employed in the business.

Thoroughly enjoyable mythological antics that stand tall above the other movies in the cycle, with the notable exception of Park’s next outing in the role: Mario Bava’s captivating ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1962).

The Loves of Hercules/Gli amori di Ercole/Hercules vs the Hydra (1960)

The Loves of Hercules/Gli amori di Ercole/Hercules vs the Hydra (1960)‘Oracle, you who see truth in shifting sand, in the moving tides of the sea, in the flight of birds across the sky, you to whom the stars reveal their secrets and the fates disclose their mysteries we mortals see only in our admonishing dreams.’

Hercules visits an Oracle for guidance on the will of the Gods. While he is away, his camp is attacked by the forces of the King of Acalia. His wife is killed, and he vows revenge but soon discovers that the King is already dead and his daughter is on the throne….

The fourth in the loose series of Italian films produced in the wake of global hit ‘Hercules’ (1957) starring Steve Reeves. As a legendary hero, the demi-god was (mostly) not subject to copyright infringement, so there was nothing to stop rival Italian producers bringing their own vision to the screen. This entry comes from Alberto Manco who had not surfed the wave of muscleman films but had previous experience in the Peplum arena with ‘Aphrodite, Goddess of Love’ (1958). The major selling point of his film? American star Jayne Mansfield, only four years on from her star-making turn in ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (1956). She was still under contract to 20th Century Fox, but they were perfectly happy for her to go work for someone else. Her only condition? The title role in the film had to be played by her husband.

Fed up with a life of labours performed at the whim of the Gods, Hercules (Mickey Hargitay) wants nothing more than to settle down to the quiet life with pretty wife Megara (Lidia Alfonsi). Unfortunately, fate has other plans. He’s seeking advice from an Oracle when the army of his greatest enemy, King Eurysteus (Cesare Fantoni), overruns his camp and slaughters almost everyone, including Alfonsi. It’s not a good day for Fantoni either, who ends up on the wrong end of the blade of his trusted lieutenant, snake in the grass Licos (Massimo Serato). Why Kings in ancient times put some much faith in their right-hand men is a bit of a mystery! They were about as trustworthy as a Caliph’s Grand Vizier!

The Loves of Hercules/Gli amori di Ercole/Hercules vs the Hydra (1960)

‘But you said that bread was Gluten-feee…’

Predictably steamed by events, Hargitay storms the gates of Acalia solo, ready to call out Fantoni and unleash a world of hurt. But, of course, it’s daughter Deianira (Mansfield) on the throne, and the big lug has second thoughts at once. Mansfield opts for the ‘Trial of Themis’ to atone for the wrongs done to our hunky hero. This ritual involves Hargitay throwing spears at her much like a nightclub knife-throwing act! She survives and, of course, the two fall in love. The same romantic complications occur for the big man’s sidekick, Timanthes (Andrea Scotti) and Mansfield’s handmaiden, Aleia (Rossella Como) so I guess some time is supposed to have passed? If so, then the film spectacularly fails to make that clear. Perhaps Hargitay didn’t care for his murdered wife that much, after all!

The evil Serato can’t be having all this lovey-dovey stuff, of course, and frames Hargitay for murder. Going on the run to prove his innocence, the big man ends up in a hilarious fight with an almost entirely immobile Hydra and falls under the spell of Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Tina Gioriani). She’s able to disguise herself as Mansfield, thanks to the spells of Maga, the witch (Olga Solbelli). Hargitay seems fine with a photocopy of his lady love, though, thus proving that looks are everything and that he’s a complete jerk. What he doesn’t know is that Evil Mansfield turns her discarded lovers into Tree Men who are rooted to the ground in a nearby quarry. They make for quite an impressive visual image, at least until one of them tries to cuddle Evil Mansfield to death!

The Loves of Hercules/Gli amori di Ercole/Hercules vs the Hydra (1960)

Tell me, honestly. Do these look big in Cinemascope?’

Those expecting a ‘so bad, it’s good’ experience based on the film’s somewhat cheesy reputation are likely to be in for a bit of a disappointment. Yes, it’s certainly bad, and there a few laugh out loud moments, but it doesn’t plumb the depths that might be expected. This is mostly because of the technical expertise on display. Some of the sets (presumably at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome) are very impressive in their scale, and the cinematography of Enzo Serafin is pretty good in the location scenes. However, the cheap Eastmancolor process doesn’t help with the interiors.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of weak links in the finished product, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who I mean. Despite being a bodybuilder and former Mr Universe, Hargitay even fails to convince in the action scenes, let alone when he’s called to interact with the rest of the cast. Apparently, in real life, he was extraordinarily strong, but he often seems to be struggling to lift the various props. Tales of his muscular prowess could have been exaggerated, of course, but the props could have possessed genuine weight. Of course, it’s hard to believe that the filmmakers were searching for that kind of realism, but perhaps Hargitay insisted on impressing his wife? Whatever the truth of it, the results are not pretty.

The Loves of Hercules/Gli amori di Ercole/Hercules vs the Hydra (1960)

‘I’m only demonstrating the Heimlich Maneuver. Honestly!’

For her part, Mansfield struggles in both roles with a tendency to overact at crucial moments. Many modern critics point to this film as evidence of her lack of talent, and it is true that light comedy was a far better fit for her style of performance. However, those lacking faith in her ability as a dramatic actress should check her out in Paul Wendkos’ interesting noir ‘The Burglar’ (1957) opposite Dan Duryea. It was actually filmed two years before its release and, in effect, was her first leading role. No, she’s not award-worthy in the film, but she’s perfectly acceptable and, on occasion, quite effective. It’s also worth remembering that it’s highly likely that there was a language barrier when filming this mythological adventure and Mansfield wouldn’t be the first inexperienced actress exposed by a lack of direction.

By this point, her big-screen career was effectively already over anyway. Of her five films that were released immediately after her breakthrough hit, only ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter’ (1957) was successful at the box office. A seeming addiction to public attention led to an endless series of cheap publicity stunts which over-exposed her and fostered the general perception of her as less of an actress and more of a cut-price Marilyn Monroe stand-in. Pregnancies in 1958 and a year later scuppered whatever plans 20th Century Fox might have had for their new starlet and they closed out her contract with a couple of loan-outs for low-budget British thrillers in the early 1960s. A few independent projects followed, including her notorious nude appearance in ‘Promises…..Promises!’ (1963), before she met with a fatal road accident in 1967. And, no, she wasn’t decapitated as urban legend has it; that was one of her wigs on the dashboard.

The Loves of Hercules/Gli amori di Ercole/Hercules vs the Hydra (1960)

‘I love you, but that accent has got to go…’

Hargitay struggled on as an actor for a while after the couple’s Mexican divorce in 1963. There was a starring role in another Italian muscleman picture ‘La vendetta dei gladiatori/Revenge of the Gladiators’ (1964) and a handful of Spaghetti Westerns. His only other real roles of note were in guilty pleasures ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ (1965) and ‘Lady Frankenstein’ (1971). He left the business in the 1970s but came out of retirement to appear on TV’s ‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’; sharing the screen with series regular Mariska Hargitay, his daughter with Mansfield.

Serato was an actor whose career stretched from 1938 to his death in 1989. He never stopped working, running up an impressive 176 credits. These were mostly second leads in Italian films, often historical dramas, swashbucklers and biblical epics, but he moved into the cult arena as tastes changed in the 1960s. Offbeat science fiction projects, such as ‘The Tenth Victim’ (1965) and Antonio Margheriti’s demented ‘The Wild, Wild Planet’ (1966) were followed by Giallo films like ‘Who Killed The Prosecutor and Why?’ (1971) and ‘The Bloodstained Shadow’ (1978). He also had a supporting role in Luigi Cozzi’s ridiculous space opera ‘The Humanoid’ (1979) and the notorious ‘Killer Nun’ (1979) with Anita Ekberg. At the other end of the scale, he also appeared as the Bishop in Nicolas Roeg’s classic ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973).

The Loves of Hercules (1960)

‘But it said “Strawberry Blonde’ on the box…’

Having defended the film to some extent, it is worth mentioning that there’s more than one version out there. The one I saw featured our golden couple dubbed by other American actors, but apparently, there is a print that features their original voices. This has the distinction of giving the world the only screen Hercules who speaks with a heavy Hungarian accent.

Mostly competent mythological madness derailed by the performances of its imported stars.

 

Goliath and the Dragon/Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

Goliath and the Dragon/Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)‘You don’t depend on your brains; you’re just a mass of fat and muscle.’

Goliath, King of Thebes, is forced to quest for a sacred blood diamond, stolen by rival King Eurystheus and hidden in an underground cave system filled with monsters. Believing Goliath will not survive the quest, Eurystheus plans to invade Thebes and conquer the kingdom. But he has reckoned without Goliath’s superhuman strength…

Oh, my. To fully appreciate the full splendour of this third entry in the Italian ‘Hercules’ cycle, it’s necessary to examine some production information. Yes, I know it’s called ‘Goliath and the Dragon’ (not ‘Hercules and the Dragon’) but, be patient, we’ll get to that.

After the first two Hercules films made him an international star, US muscleman Steve Reeves expanded his range with a vastly different acting challenge; the lead role in ‘Goliath and the Barbarians’ (1959). This film was picked up for US distribution by American International Pictures, and it proved enough of a hit stateside for studio heads James H Nicholson and Samuel Z Arkoff to announce a sequel: ‘Goliath and the Dragon’. But that film never happened, possibly because Reeves sustained a severe shoulder injury during the filming of ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ (1959), a problem that caused him difficulties for the rest of his life.

With no film in the works, Nicholson and Arkoff needed a movie. What could be better than buying the rights to the third official Italian ‘Hercules’ film: ‘Le Vendetta di Ercole’ (The Vendetta of Hercules) (1960)? It even had Italian-American Mark Forest in the title role and big-screen tough guy, Broderick Crawford, as the villain! It might have been a while since Crawford’s terrific, Oscar-winning turn in ‘All The King’s Men’ (1949) but he was still in the spotlight thanks to long-running hit TV show ‘Highway Patrol.’ So, Nicholson and Arkoff acquired the movie, renamed ‘Hercules’ as ‘Goliath’ and the day was saved! Only it wasn’t. Not really. What happened when the film was re-cut and re-dubbed for US audiences is unrecorded, but the finished article is a complete disaster. And in the best possible way.

Goliath and the Dragon/Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

The new gym equipment was a little weird…

The film opens with Forest already on his quest, descending into the fiery caves where the diamond is hidden. First, he encounters a three-headed dog chained to the wall. Cerberus is never mentioned by name, and the hound of hell is probably quite grateful for the lack of a shout out, given that this abomination seems to have more than a touch of the mange. It’s also almost entirely immobile, movements restricted to some bobbing of the heads and breathing a little fire. Next, our hero is attacked by a stuntman swinging from wires and dressed in a furry bat costume! Not surprisingly, Forest reclaims the gem shortly afterwards without breaking much of a sweat and can restore it to the head of a huge idol, which falls on him a couple of times later in the film, just for a laugh.

Meanwhile, intrigue abounds in the court of King Eurystheus (Crawford), whose generals won’t join him in the attack on Thebes until they are sure that Forest has taken a permanent, one-way trip to the underworld. And it’s here where things begin to get extremely confusing. Crawford has usurped the throne from the parents of Princess Thea (Federica Ranchi), who seems unaware that they were killed by Crawford’s slimy lieutenant Tindaro (Giancarlo Sbragia). Forest’s brother, Ilius (Sandro Moretti) and Ranchi are in love, but Forest doesn’t approve, because Ranchi’s parents killed his own parents…or something? And is Moretti the brother of Forest or the brother of his wife, Dejanira (Leonora Ruffo)? He seems to be both!

Goliath and the Dragon/Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

‘You keep grilling me, you’ll catch these hands!’

And then there’s Crawford’s slave, the scheming Alcinoe (Wandisa Guida), whose parents were killed during one of Crawford’s previous campaigns. Is she related to any of the other characters? I really don’t know. The only thing I am sure of is that it was hazardous to your health to be a parent in Ancient Greece! Whether all this confusion was present in the original film or is the result of the writers of the US adaptation being unable to think of any character motivation other than the murder of parents, l guess we’ll never know

From then on, it’s a crazy rollercoaster ride through Forest’s encounters with various idiotic monsters and the machinations of Crawford and Sbragia as they attempt to kill him with schemes of underhanded treachery. These also involve some sneaky manoeuvres by the duplicitous Ismene (Gaby André), because, hey! We really don’t have enough characters already! All this does suggest a much longer original running time, of course, and it often seems that a lot of important story stuff went on before the film began.

Goliath and the Dragon:Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

Cerberus was overdue his visit to the vet.

But there’s still an awful lot to enjoy here, nevertheless. See Forest wrestle a large man in a silly bear suit to the death! See Forest bring an elephant to its knees while the beast’s handler heroically attempts to hide behind the creature while dressed in bright blue robes! Hear a ridiculously over the top woman’s scream each time we see the occupants of Crawford’s snake pit! Hear an unnamed American voice actor giving us his best Broderick Crawford impression every time the actor delivers one of his lines!

As a matter of fact, this anonymous dubbing artist is pretty good at mimicking Crawford, but it does leave the audience with the inevitable impression that this Greek King would be more at home setting up a bookie joint in the back room of a pool hall in Queens! The confrontation between Forest and the dragon is also predictably laughable, with the great beast portrayed in long shot by some less than stellar stop-motion animation (added by the American studio) and close up by a terrible, life-sized head puppet which can barely move!

Goliath and the Dragon:Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

‘You are supposed to brush twice a day, you know…’

Director Vittorio Cottafavi was already an experienced pair of hands when it came to the Sword and Sandal genre and stayed on board for the next film in the series: ‘Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla Conquista di Atlantide’ (1961). Ruffo skipped that one, before taking the same role she plays here (this time as a blonde) opposite Reg Park in Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1962). A few years later, she starred in the wonderfully trashy space opera ‘2+5: Missione Hydra’ (1968). André had already appeared in the very British science-fiction oddity ‘The Strange World of Planet X’ (1958).

Forest went onto more muscleman roles, including another one more official turn as Hercules in ‘Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun’ (1964). He also played the character Maciste half a dozen times in a series of films that eventually ran to almost 30 titles. These were usually retitled as ‘Hercules’ films in the States. This was purely for box office purposes, of course, but there was some justification for it, Maciste being generally considered as an alternative name for the Big H. To add to the confusion, Forest’s first film in the series, ‘Maciste nella valle dei Re’ (1960) was re-christened ‘Son of Samson’ in the States, to cash in on another series of films featuring that character!

Goliath and the Dragon:Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

She hadn’t expected the audition for ‘Fifty Shades off Grey’ to be so hardcore…

But this film features ‘Goliath’ of course, and the dub track doesn’t let you forget it. It’s almost as if the US editing crew were desperately trying to convince everyone that this wasn’t a ‘Hercules’ movie. It makes for a good drinking game, though, if nothing else. Try taking a shot every time ‘Goliath’ is mentioned by name. You won’t make it to the end of the movie, and you probably won’t remember much about your trip in the ambulance to the hospital.

Regrettably, the butchered US cut is the only version readily available for our viewing pleasure today. Ok, given the goofy monsters and the lack of production value, this was never going to be a classic or, quite probably, even a remotely decent film. But at least the original version might have made a bit more sense.

Sword and sandal cheese at its finest!

James Batman (1966)

James Batman (1966)‘Listen, I’m at the hospital. I was bitten by a centipede.’

An international conference of world leaders is interrupted by a representative of the CLAW organisation. He demands that all countries submit to communist rule or they will be destroyed. The authorities recruit James Bond and Batman and Robin to fight back…

What could possibly be better than a 1960s, unlicensed, black and white, Filipino Bond and Batman spoof? Yes, the over-sexed superspy teams up with the Caped Crusaders to take on the evil Red minions of CLAW who have acquired some kind of superweapon which puts the world on the brink of destruction. Unfortunately, professional rivalry threatens to torpedo this uneasy alliance, and there are only five days before the dirty pinko commies are due to make good on their threat.

We open at a meeting of international importance, called to discuss the growing power and influence of a secret organisation that’s rapidly becoming a danger to world peace. Unfortunately, before the diplomats can form endless sub-committees and working groups, they are interrupted by an envoy from the sinister group itself. In one of the film’s most entertaining sequences, this intruder overacts outrageously, shows the assembly some stock footage of a nuclear bomb going off and disappears in a puff of smoke.

James Batman (1966)v

‘The name’s Batman…               …….James Batman.’

After that, we get our first look at our heroes; Bond, played by well-known Filipino comedian Dolphy and Batman, played by Dolphy again. He’s accompanied by Robin, of course, played by Boy Alano. And that’s all the casting information that’s available here; other actors are listed, but there’s no information on which parts they play. There’s not exactly a lot of production information available about a low-budget 1960’s comedy from the Philippines.

And low-budget this seems to be. We get our first clue of limited resources when we see how our leads are dressed. Sure, Robin’s costume is a pretty accurate representation of Burt Ward’s look from the iconic US TV Show, but Batman’s gear? Not so much. The cowl seems a good size too big for Dolphy’s head and seems to be attached to his striped(!) cape, and I’ve no idea what that symbol on his chest is supposed to be. As for Bond, he comes in a hideous check suit with matching hat! The Batmobile looks a lot like an early 1960s Cadillac Eldorado just with bigger tail fins, and it even has striped seat covers. I guess to match Batman’s cape?

The plot, such as it is, mostly consists of excuses for a lot of running about and fight sequences. These are executed with admirable energy, but are never remotely convincing, although, being a parody, it’s probable that this was intentional. Check-suit Bond has an eye for the ladies, of course, and even Bad Cosplay Batman has romance on his mind. He’s in love with the daughter of the Chairman of the conference. Unfortunately, she’s fixated on the man in the cowl, rather than the man without the costume.

James Batman (1966)

‘Holy Copyright Infringement, Batman! Is that your lawyer?’

The soundtrack also includes the classic ‘Batman Theme’ and snatches of Monty Norman’s iconic Bond music. Sure, these are arranged differently from the originals, but they’re not going to fool even the most tone-deaf copyright lawyer. There’s even an appearance by the Penguin, top hat, monocle, cigar and cane all present and correct. Unfortunately, he’s played by a tall, slim actor who makes no effort to do a silly voice.

The comedy is relentlessly juvenile and predictable, but there are a few notable moments. Robin has forgotten to pay the electricity bill, and the Batcave is in darkness, so he lights the place by putting a bulb in his mouth. The main villain has a giant hand behind his desk, which fires deadly lasers from its fingers. Batman gets a call on his Batphone from someone wanting to book a taxi. There’s also a bizarre sequence where the dynamic duo shovel olives and rice into their mouths, before a man’s hand emerges from a machine to hand Batman a banana. Sadly, the device isn’t labelled the ‘Bat-Banana Dispenser’ or anything like that. Writer-director Artemio Marquez missed a trick there.

Goofy comedy that’s going to be far too infantile for a lot of tastes. It’s difficult to spoof subjects that are arguably a spoof already and this feature would have been much more effective as a short subject.

Mister-X/Avenger X (1967)

Mister-X:Avenger X (1967)‘A woman with a brain is like two women without one.’

Career criminal Mister-X is framed for the murder of a drug courier in Rome and sets out to catch the real culprits while staying one step ahead of the law. On the way, he discovers that his opponents are planning to flood the continent with a large amount of narcotics, courtesy of a foreign government…

The cultural impact of Sean Connery’s appearance on the big screen as Agent 007 is hard to underestimate. Within a couple of years, almost every square-jawed handsome leading man in Europe was running around the continent with a gun in one hand and a blonde in the other. But, as well as the more obvious cheap ‘Bond’ knock-offs, it helped to resurrect another movie archetype; the mysterious villain with the secret identity. But, this time, instead of simply fulfilling the role of the hero’s antagonist in American movie serials, European filmmakers put him front and centre as the main character.

This all began back in France in 1911 with master of disguise ‘Fantômas’ but really took off in the early 1960s due to Italian comic book character ‘Diabolik’ who was so successful that he birthed a whole sub-genre of the form called ’Fumetti neri’ (‘black comics’). These featured similar villains like Kriminal, Killing and Satanik, as well as lots of graphic sex and violence. The edgy content helped to make them hugely popular, but led to public outrage in some quarters and eventual legal proceedings! Anyway, it was probably no coincidence that the first Diabolik story hit newsstands in the same year that ‘Dr. No’ (1962) came out. One of the lesser examples of this merry band of master villains was gentleman thief Mister-X, created by Cesare Melloncelli and artist Giancarlo Tenenti in 1964. Like most of the others, a movie adaptation was inevitable.

Mister-X:Avenger X (1967)

‘Do you know where we are? I can’t see a bloody thing…’

For a change, there’s a refreshing lack of back-story about Mister-X (Norman Clark: real name Pier Paolo Capponi). All we know is that he’s a notorious criminal, whose skill with the makeup box is such that no-one in authority knows his face. He’s apparently in a monogamous relationship with it-girl Gaia Germani and still on the radar of Inspector Rooux (Franco Fantasia), even though the policeman seems to have retired.

We never get any details of his past brushes with the law so we have no opportunity to form an early opinion as to his moral code and likely behaviour. One thing we find out early, though; he won’t play the patsy for anyone. Oh, and out of costume, he’s a world champion professional golfer! Making the mistake of trying to put Cappponi in the frame is international businessman (and drug dealing kingpin) Armando Calvo, whose busy hatching a once in a lifetime deal with mobsters Umberto Raho (apparently British) and Renato Baldini (apparently American).

What follows is a series of half-baked action set pieces with a smattering of gadgets, a fair amount of gun play and little in the way of fight choreography or stunt work. lt’s a pity as the film opens with a pretty good credit sequence featuring lots of colourful comic book panels, which raise expectations for a fast-paced, stylish thriller with a cool 1960s vibe. Sadly, it appears director Donald Murray (real name Piero Vivarelli) had only limited resources at his disposal, and we’re left with a rather flat and uninvolving adventure that often appears to be little more than a standard crime picture with a comic book character attached. Vivarelli had better luck-with the more inventive ‘Satanik’ (1968), but that project still suffered from some of the same shortcomings.

With a distinct lack of action, we’re thrown back on the cast to provide what entertainment there is and they do a decent job. Capponi is not over-blessed with screen presence, but it’s nice to see him injecting the character with a pleasingly ruthless edge to counterbalance the general smarm offensive. Germani rocks a series of funky 60’s outfits (there’s one hat in particular which is an absolute triumph!) and provides a similar blend of cuteness with a good left hook.

Mister-X:Avenger X (1967)

Can’t you hurry ? I’ve got another dozen films to be in before the end of the year.’

Appearing in the rather thankless role of Calvo’s main squeeze is the statuesque Helga Liné, who makes the most of what she’s given to work with here, even though it’s precious little. She was probably the hardest working actor in Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s, running up an impressive list of credits, which include the similar ‘Kriminal’ (1966) and its sequel, Spaghetti Westerns, Eurospys, Giallo thrillers and several horror pictures with the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Paul Naschy and Barbara Steele.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t helped by a seriously careless English dub track. The dialogue is exceptionally banal, zero effort is made to match it to the actor’s mouth movements and Raho’s gangster sounds as if he comes from a strange place located somewhere vaguely between the Scottish Highlands and the banks of the Emerald Isle.

An adequate time passer if you’re interested in the genre, but it’s probably best to keep your expectations fairly low.