Samson Against the Pirates/Sansone contro i pirati/Samson and the Sea Beast (1963)

‘I’m looking for a brunette; small in places, large in others.’

Out on a sea fishing expedition, legendary strongman Samson and his friends rescue a beautiful woman adrift on a piece of ship’s wreckage. The galleon on which she was travelling was attacked by pirates, who kidnapped her friends, intending to sell them as slaves. Tired of hearing of such atrocities, Samson determines to hold their notorious chief to account…

Minor, inconsequential Peplum from Italian director Tanio Boccia, hiding behind his usual alias of Amerigo Anton. The film actually has more in common with a historical adventure picture than the mythological shenanigans favoured by Steve Reeves in ‘Hercules/Le fatiche di Ercole’ (1958), the film that triggered Italy’s brief mid-20th Century muscleman craze.

A quiet fishing trip on the ocean blue seems just the ticket for strongman Samson (Kirk Morris) and his happy-go-lucky friends Ramon (Franco Peruzzi) and Gaynor (possibly Pasquale De Filippo). The catch of the day turns out to be Amanda (Margaret Lee), niece of the Governor of Martinique, shipwrecked after an attack by pirates. Under the command of Sandor (Nello Pazzafini), the brigands slaughtered the ship’s crew, kidnapped all the women passengers, and sent the vessel to the bottom with a broadside cannonade.

Hearing Lee’s story, Morris determines to get even with the pirate chieftain Murad (Daniele Vargas), who commands his unholy troops from Devil’s Island. The three friends set out for his stronghold, posing as slave traders, but discover that Lee has overheard their plans and stowed away in the boat. She’s not about to leave best friend Sarah (the lovely Adriana Ambesi) and the other girls to their fate on the auction block. Soon after arriving on the island, they join forces with rebel leader Manuel (Aldo Bufi Landi), who plans to oust Vargas, but their schemes soon go awry.

A severely underwhelming entry into the Peplum genre, this project bears the telltale marks of a quick and somewhat contrived cash-in on the latest box office trend of the time. There’s the definite possibility that Guido Malatesta’s script was retooled to accommodate Morris and his muscles, as there are only a few scenes where his superhuman strength affects proceedings in any significant way. One of these is a lengthy sequence where he pulls against a boatload of rowers to prevent the mechanical advance of racks of spears. Vargas arranges this ordeal on the flimsy notion, unsubstantiated by anything we’ve seen that Morris needs to be humbled before the people as he is the ‘living symbol’ of a possible revolution.

The ‘trial of strength’ is one of the film’s best scenes but highlights another issue. Boccia can’t disguise the fact that there’s a very poor turnout by the local population to watch Morris in action, and the director struggles throughout to convey any sense of scale. The big set pieces take place on the high seas with the pirate army, but most of the principal cast are missing in action, so there’s a good chance that a lot of the crowd appears courtesy of another film. However, to Boccia’s credit, it’s not a certainty. The sense that this just a costume picture, or even a swashbuckler, tweaked for a muscleman is not assisted by the costume department. The pirates at Vargas’ court look like they spend most of their time crossing blades with musketeers rather than sailing on the high seas in search of booty.

Unfortunately, the film has other limitations, which speak to a lack of budget. The fight scenes are not well executed, particularly the tavern brawl, and the fishing village where Morris lives looks like a stiff wind could blow it away. And no audience member will be able to ignore the crocodile in the room. Yes, memories of Bela Lugosi heroically wrestling that fake octopus at the end of Ed Wood’s ‘Bride of the Monster’ (1956) come flooding back as Morris does similar duty with one of the worst prop reptiles in cinema history. Credit to Lee in this scene as she looks on screaming in fear when she was probably struggling not to scream with laughter. Or cry with despair.

The hopelessly underwritten script provides the cast with nothing they can use to build a performance. Characters are reduced to generic archetypes, such as ‘friend of hero’, ‘villain’s lieutenant’, ‘leader of the resistance,’ etc. Peruzzi and Ambesi get a romantic subplot, but it’s over so quickly you wonder why anyone bothered. It might have been an attempt to offset the lack of spark between Morris and Lee, who have no screen chemistry as a couple whatsoever.

Vargas does get to chew the scenery a bit as the villainous pirate king, but he’s offscreen for too much of the time and is only briefly involved in the climax. Lee comes out best as she’s able to give Amanda a little more fire than most Peplum Princesses, although she does seem to have spent a little too long in the makeup chair, perhaps in an attempt to make her look a little older than her 19 years. Morris certainly has the required physical development but makes no other significant contribution to the project.

Born in Venice in 1942 as Adriano Bellini, Morris started hitting the gym and entering bodybuilding contests while at University. In 1961, he was spotted working as a gondolier by a film producer, and Boccia cast him in the title role of ‘The Triumph of Maciste/Il trionfo di Maciste’ (1961). The muscleman had been created more than half a century earlier by Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone for silent films as a rival to the mythological Hercules. Morris went on to play Maciste half a dozen times but struggled after the Peplum movies went out of style in the middle of the decade. Subsequent movie roles were few, although they did include the kitsch sci-fi of ‘2+5: Missione Hydra/Star Pilot’ (1966) and Spaghetti Western ‘Crazy Westerners/Little Rita nel West’ (1968). He also appeared as a model in photo comics, perhaps a more appropriate forum for his acting talent.

A small footnote in the history of Peplum cinema. The crocodile scene is worth a watch, though.

Hercules The Avenger (1965)

Hercules The Avenger (1965)‘His soul has not yet entered the nether regions.’

Hercules’ teenage son is seriously injured in a hunting accident. A jealous goddess takes the opportunity to punish the legendary hero by sending the boy’s soul down to Hades, and he has to travel to the underworld to retrieve it. Meanwhile, the goddess encourages her own son to take Hercules’ place on Earth…

It’s Hercules’ Greatest Hits! Yes, rather than create an entirely new film, director Maurice Bright (real name, Mauricio Lucidi), lifts almost 40 minutes of Reg Park’s two previous appearances in the title role and stitches them together with a wrap-around story instead. Although this sounds like a recipe for complete disaster, the adventures of Hercules were always somewhat episodic, so it’s not as woeful an exercise as you might expect.

When we join Hercules (Park), he has settled down to the quiet life with wife Deyanira (Adrianna Ambesi) and his eager young blade of a son, Xantos (Luigi Barbini). These early scenes would appear to have been filmed specifically for this project as neither Ambesi nor Barbini had appeared in either of Park’s other two appearances as Hercules and there’s no technical tomfoolery placing them all in these scenes together. In total, Park’s new footage amounts to just over 10 minutes and a lot of it is in these establishing scenes.

Hercules The Avenger (1965)

‘I’m sorry but Christopher Lee wouldn’t come…’

Once Barbini has been injured after his chariot trips on a rabbit hole (or something), it’s up to Park to hightail it for Hades to get his soul back. He does this, thanks to the voyage from ‘Hercules Conquers Atlantis’ (1961) and the labours he completed in Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1962). Eventually, more footage is used from the former as this film incorporates its fiery climax.

Meanwhile, Queen Leda of Syracuse (Gia Sandri) has a problem. Recently widowed, she’s now besieged by princes from the surrounding kingdoms who want her hand in marriage. It’s nothing to do with love, of course, it’s just a matter of territory, and she wants none of it. It’s a situation strangely reminiscent of Penelope’s plight when waiting for Odysseus’ return after the fall of Troy but, if you have to steal from somewhere when making a Hercules picture, why not from Homer’s Odyssey? Anyway, on the advice of the local Oracle, Leda seeks out Hercules, instead of just hanging about. However, with the big man away from home, she has to settle for Anteus (Giovanni Cianfriglia) who is the second strongest man in the world. He also happens to be the son of the mischief-making goddess who is messing with our hero and a nasty piece of work.

Hercules The Avenger (1965)

‘Not in a million years, mate.’

Sandri makes the best of it, and the two join forces, telling everyone that Cianfriglia is Hercules himself. This is quite obviously a blatant lie because, right from the beginning, the man is such an utter bounder. He slays Sandri’s handmaidens to protect his identity and pretty much assumes control of the kingdom, levying ridiculous taxes to fill the palace coffers. Of course, this will not stand and, when Park returns from his little trip, it’s time for the real thing to bring the pain to Hercules 2.0

Expectations are bound to be low with such a ‘copy and paste’ kind of project, but it works surprisingly well. Principally, this is because Lucidi is using footage from undoubtedly the best two Italian ‘Hercules’ films of their time. Arguably, there still hasn’t been anyone better in the role than Park even after all these years. Also, Lucidi (who, not surprisingly, is also credited as the editor), utilises the footage wisely. The story makes sense, and the joins aren’t too noticeable.

Hercules The Avenger (1965)

‘I have the strangest feeling of deja vu.’

Cianfraglia’s impressive physique brought him roles in action movies and Peplum from the late 1950s onwards. To begin with, he was mostly uncredited, and this was certainly his first significant role. His breakthrough came as crime-fighter SuperArgo in two movies based on that character. Appearing under the name Ken Wood, he tackled supervillain Gérard Tichy in ‘SuperArgo Against Diabolicus’ (1966) and then went head to head with more physical opposition in ‘SuperArgo and the Faceless Giants’ (1968). He played several second leads in Spaghetti Westerns, but, by the 1970s, he was often playing uncredited heavies as well. Still, he remained busy and was still showing up regularly in genre cinema in the 1980s, with roles in ‘Road Warrior’ knock offs and action flicks like ‘2019: After the Fall of New York’ (1983).

Of course, this is nothing but a cheap cash-grab and was never going to be anything else but, considering its origins, it hangs together surprisingly well if you’re in a forgiving mood.

New York Calling Super dragon/New York chiama Superdrago (1966)

Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966)‘Tell me, have you ever had a bath in electricity?’  

An ex-secret agent comes out of retirement when one of his old colleagues dies in a mysterious road accident. Taking over the operative’s last assignment means investigating some strange goings on a college campus in Michigan…

This week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ running around continental Europe (well, Amsterdam and Michigan actually!) is U.S. actor Ray Danton, who tangles with guns, girls and gadgets in his efforts to thwart the dastardly schemes of super villain Carlo D’Angelo. The fiend has been road testing a behavioural modification drug called Synchron in small town, USA and it’s sending the kids like wild, man. Well, getting them to beat each other up if you want to be more specific, rather than something of a more psychedelic (or interesting) persuasion.

Danton recruits convicted lifer Babyface (Jess Hahn) as his bodyguard, which proves an astute choice as he turns out to be a kind of mobile ‘Q’ Division, furnishing our underwhelming hero with a series of gadgets, including a bulletproof vest, a model mini-submarine and a watch that activates inflatable buoyancy balloons (handy when you’ve been put in a coffin and dumped in the canal). Oh, and there’s a little torch, which allows him to read messages written on a mirror in what looks like lipstick (but probably isn’t). That’s about it on the gadget front, but Danton does get to tussle with a fine selection of lovely Euro-babes including Margaret Lee (England), Marisa Mell (Austria) and Adriana Ambesi (Italy).

Apart from that, it’s the usual round of double crosses, semi-convincing fisticuffs, and undercooked story elements. There’s some silly malarkey about a bunch of guys in silver masks buying Ming vases at a charity auction, and a rather muddled climax that arrives suspiciously quickly, probably due to the influence of an over-enthusiastic American distributor. Unfortunately, the film has absolutely no sense of dynamism or style, an accusation which could be easily be expanded to include Danton himself, who’s certainly no Sean Connery (or Tony Kendall, or Roger Browne for that matter!) On the plus side, it is better than Jess Franco’s ‘Lucky The Inscrutable/Agente Speciale L.K.’ (1967), another EuroSpy which starred Danton, although that’s not saying very much! What really sinks this enterprise is the unmistakable feeling that no-one’s trying very hard, including director Giorgio Ferroni.

Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966)

The Green Hornet suspected that Kato had been skipping his sessions at the gym…

Danton began his career on TV in the 1950s and graduated quickly to supporting roles in big studio movies, such as ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow’ (1955) with Susan Hayward, and ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ (1958) with Errol Flynn. He also took the title role in Allied Artists’ factually dubious ‘The George Raft Story’ (1961), but the film was not a success and he decamped to Italy a few years later. There he made a string of films; several in the EuroSpy genre. In the following decade, he headed back to the States, and many guest slots on network TV shows.

Mell sealed her place in film history as John Phillip Law’s leading lady in Mario Bava’s cult classic ‘Diabolik’ (1968), but also featured in Joe D’Amato’s appalling ‘Quest For The Mighty Sword’ (1990) at the twilight of her career. Sadly, she lost her fight with cancer just a couple of years later, at the age of just 53. Despite combining beauty with bags of screen personality, Lee never made it out of continental genre flicks, despite appearing opposite her namesake Christopher in ‘Circus of Fear/Psycho-Circus’ (1966). She also made a good showing in the brilliantly trashy ‘Dorian Gray’ (1970), which is still one of the best versions of the Oscar Wilde classic, but probably not a film to include on your CV if you’re trying to make it as a serious actress!

These half-hearted EuroSpy shenanigans are really for die-hard fans of the genre only.

Malenka/Fangs of the Living Dead (1969)

Malenka (1969)‘She subjected her husband to certain experiments in Necro-biology.’

A top Italian fashion model inherits a castle and a noble title from the mother she never knew. Arriving at her ancestral home, she finds the locals terrified of vampires and her uncle determined that she embrace a sinister legacy.

Deeply flawed Spanish Euro-horror from director Amando De Ossorio that seems unclear as to whether it’s a straight horror, a gothic mystery or a satire. At first, things seem simple enough; star Anita Ekberg gets news of her sudden windfall and trots off to the sort of generic peasant-land where there’s always a Castle Dracula up on the hill above the town. She leaves her partner Gianni Medici behind with sidekick César Benet. Of course, when Ekberg arrives at the local tavern and mentions where she’s going, all the villagers are appropriately terrified. Considering we never see the place nearly so full again, it seems that everyone just turned up that morning to pop their eyes for her benefit. The sequence brings up the first question about the film’s tone. It’s such a tired cliché as to be borderline ridiculous, so is it supposed to be funny? Well, there’s been no previous signs of comedy, so it’s hard to say.

Once at the Castle, we do seem to be in familiar horror territory; complete with an abundant selection of the usual clichés. There’s dogs howling in the moonlight, bat wings at the window, a flashback to a torch-bearing mob, the portrait of the lookalike ancestor, and the gorgeous Adriana Ambesi lounging about in a very fetching negligee and a set of pointy teeth. In fact, there’s so much church organ music on the soundtrack that I began to suspect Lon Chaney was hiding in the basement! In fact it’s all so clichéd that it all begs the ‘comedy’ question again. Certainly, Benet’s half-hearted clowning suggests that was the intention, but his lame attempts seem strangely at odds with everything else.

There’s also a confusing climax which – spoiler alert! – seems to confirm at one point that all these vampire shenanigans have been staged by suave uncle Julian Ugarte to cheat Ekberg out of her inheritance. Unlikely as that is in terms of what’s gone before, we can accept it. Until Ugarte gets staked and turns to dust. So he was a real vampire pretending to be a human pretending to be a vampire? And he was in cahoots with Diana Lorys who wasn’t a vampire after all? All this would be ok if it was a comedy, of course, but we’re not really sure about that, are we?

Malenka (1969)

‘Bottoms up!’

The ‘comedy’ angle would explain one thing: Ekberg’s performance. If she was playing it straight, then she’s absolutely dreadful, tongue in cheek then her exaggerated reactions become explicable. The film was described in some quarters as the ‘picture that hammered the final nail into the cinematic coffin of the bomb-shelter-era bombshell’ so it’s fair to say that her efforts here were not well received.

De Ossorio got it right next time, of course, delivering cult hit ‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’ (1972) and its‘ various sequels, even though they were of very variable quality. But all his films share the same strengths and weaknesses. As a visual stylist, he was truly talented; able to evoke mood and atmosphere with subtle uses of colour and landscape. His films are filled with some truly stunning compositions and memorable images. Unfortunately, he also wrote all his own projects, and his scripts betray none of the same creativity or imagination, being terribly derivative and predictable.

A confusing picture, with clashing tones, that has some memorable visuals but is likely to leave an audience deeply unsatisfied.