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Hercules in the Haunted World

Hercules in the Haunted World
1961 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 82, 84 min. / Ercole al centro della terra / Street Date August 6, 2002 / $29.99
Starring Reg Park, Leonora Ruffo, Christopher Lee, George Ardisson, Marisa Belli
Cinematography Mario Bava
Production Designer Franco Lolli
Film Editor Mario Serandrei
Original Music Armando Trovajoli
Written by Mario Bava, Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi and Duccio Tessari
Produced by Achille Piazzi
Directed by Mario Bava, Franco Prosperi

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Mario Bava's first color film as a credited director is a Peplum mini-epic done Bava-style: weird settings, mysterious characters and clever special effects take the place of feeble swordfights and the usual massed battles. The result is a fanciful hybrid between ancient Greece and gothic weirdness. It's a lightweight film with very classy touches, thanks to Bava's hypnotic images and the presence of always-impressive Christopher Lee.


Hercules (Reg Park) returns home to silly pal Telemachus (Franco Giacobini) and skirt-chasing good buddy Theseus (George Ardisson), but finds that his fiancee Queen Dianira (Leonora Ruffo) is sick with a memory-killing disease, and does not even remember him. Lyco (Christopher Lee) administers the state while pretending to look out for her best interests, but secretly plots to steal her kingdom for himself. He sends Hercules and his sidemen on what he hopes will be a fatal mission - to steal a glowing crystal from an island in the middle of a lake of fire, in Hades' underworld. The Queen of the Hesperides gives Hercules one bit of advice: "Believe only what you do, not what you think you see."

"Believe only what you do, not what you think you see." That's good advice in this fun Mario Bava picture, where Bava's illusions are on view in practically every scene. Hercules in the Haunted World is nowhere near as serious as his horror excursions, but it's just as entertaining. Signor Bava was responsible for the effects and special lighting in the earlier Steve Reeves Hercules movies, exciting and dynamic pictures that technically elevated Italian genre product to export quality - Il Maestro's battle with the monster guarding the fleece in Hercules was a terrific illusion, and we got our first taste of his bizarre color lighting style with those delirious closeups of Sylvia Lopez over the boiling wax in Hercules Unchained.

Hercules in the Haunted World is fairly unique for a sword and sandal show, in that the illusory nature of the hero's quest gives mythology a psychedelic dimension. Ideas like Dianira's loss of memory are cribbed from the earlier hits, but Hercules' trip to Hades has some nice touches that lift the story above the dull kingdom - liberating typical of the genre. Hercules solves the problem of getting in and out of Hell, by navigating a shifting landscape of illusions. Naked sirens in chains try to seduce Theseus, a jolly philanderer who can't say no. A sorceress in a land of Amazons directs him to a treacherous tree containing a magic apple that will safely allow him to pass into Hades. But there's no point in blaming her - she's been bewitched as well, and in fact helps Hercules when she's able. Theseus and Hercules must override basic assumptions to accomplish their mission: the fires of hell may only be a trick of the mind. Luckily for Theseus, since Hades is a place of people already dead, it's very difficult to get killed there. But there are other, very real penalties to be paid, should one abscond with one of Pluto's wayward daughters.

Hercules in the Haunted World is replete with visual marvels created by ingenuity and imagination. A sea voyage takes place under skies of molten color, the kind of effects not normally seen until years later in psychedelic films. Fire and colored smoke create an underworld that's a Bava fantasyland of contrasting reds, greens, and blues. Likewise, Bava's palace interiors are darker, richer and far more interesting than the standard high-key peplum look.

Christopher Lee is almost an illusion unto himself. He doesn't actually do that much, or seem to have any real resources except deception with which to confront the gullible Hercules, but Bava so billboards Lee in dynamic framings and dramatic entrances, that his character maintains an uncommonly potent threat. Even dubbed into Italian, Lee's facial expressions carry a cool menace below his feigned concern for Leonora Ruffo. It's odd that such a stock role in a denigrated genre is actually one of Christopher Lee's most striking appearances. His hair and costume are elegant in their simplicity, and, especially in scenes with the agreeably wooden Reg Park, the screen is his for the taking. Unlike his discovery Barbara Steele, Lee came back to work with Bava again in The Whip and the Body, and was again rewarded with a role more memorable than most.

As for Reg Park, he's not a bad second-stringer, but he's no Steve Reeves, who just looked bigger, mightier, manilier and more steriod-free than any oiled glamour guy around. On the other hand, Park is a distinct improvement over some of the other pretenders, like, say, Dan Vadis. He doesn't strut around with his arms in a fixed pose, at least. Park's facial expression rarely breaks away from a kind of concerned puzzlement that give him the look of an irate lumberjack. For English audiences, the abstraction of the Italian dubbing here prevents him from looking too silly; at a screening of the American version of the film a year or so ago, his uncomprehending reactions brought down the house. After a kindly friend gives him a 30 second explanation, spelling out the entire plot, Park's response (in English) is a stupified monotone: "What are you trying to tell me?"

The main cast is very good. Giorgio Ardisson has a classic profile and makes a great blonde Theseus, and Leonora Ruffo, while not as va-voom as Sylva Koscina, is a good match for Reg Park. Even more interesting is the eye-catching Ida Galli, who plays Persephone, smuggled by Theseus out of Hell. That subplot really helps to keep the third act from dragging. Franco Giacobini's silly clowning is a lot less annoying in Italian. At least his idea of comic relief is better than the later Bava attempt in Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. As kids, we loved the scary-funny 'rock man' monster, who has ideas to make Theseus and Telemachus fit their stone beds by stretching one and chopping the other.

The action avoids lame sword battles, which is good, but the substitute is rather overused. Herc baby tends to solve most problems by reaching for the closest large object to hurl, usually a massive boulder. When Lyco raises a corps of undead ghouls for a final attack on Hercules, the Black Sunday- like stone crypt action is great - this is stuff that Bava always makes memorable, whether in Transyvania, or on a minimalist Planet of the Vampires. But Hercules conquers the undead by (what else) tossing large objects at them, in this case some Stonehenge-like slabs, and the struggle doesn't end on a high note... the only letdown is that there's no really big finish.

Hercules in the Haunted World, like most Mario Bava films, is a gift to the producer. It probably cost a fraction of one of those groaners with dozens of dancing girls and platoons of footsoldiers with their sandals falling off, yet holds the attention much better. There's one large-scale set of two columned buildings in a quarry that looks as if it were a rental site hired by the hour, the Cinecittá version of Gower Gulch where cowboy actors and their horses would hang out hoping to be hired. You get the feeling that Cottafavi or somebody is just off screen left, waiting with his actors and crew to get the set at 2PM, like a sign-up tennis court.

As a Sword 'n Sandal epic, Hercules in the Haunted World isn't as good as the first two Pietro Francisi films, simply because their production scale and iconic casting was on a higher level. But it's certainly the next best, far more interesting than the countless interchangeable Sons of Hercules- type shows. A good comparison is the previous year's Goliath and the Dragon, a high-budget dud, even with Broderick Crawford and an animated Jim Danforth dragon.

Taken on its own as a mythological fantasy apart from the Peplum genre, Bava's film is very interesting. He exercises his full imagination in color for the first time, and animates a world where magic and mystery hide behind the actions of heroes and villains alike. The relationship of the mythological gods to the humans is deceptively complex. There's a lot of cross-breeding going on, with Hercules a notable offspring of god and mortal (of Zeus and somebody? My myth-expert son is away). The Lycos character is less a sorcerer than an usurper who tries to bend the rules with a few deceptions and murders. Some of the ironies are very interesting. Hercules will defy the whole pantheon to secure the oject of his affections, whereas poor Theseus' true love with a forbidden gal from across the tracks (okay, okay, from HELL... ) doesn't get the same respect. Behind Reg Park's bag'o hammers simplemindedness, is a rich web of mythological plotting.

Fantoma's DVD of Hercules in the Haunted World is a very special treat, a chance to see the original European export version, Hercules in the Center of the Earth, instead of the edited and redubbed American version that Savant saw at age 12. The Woolner Brothers added an animated title sequence (with music, I think, from The Incredible Shrinking Man (??) and cleverly padded the picture by repeating the masked sybil scene (a beautiful setpiece) up front with a different dubbed prediction.

The disc has clear soundtracks in both English and Italian (Lyco: "Coward!" / "Billiaco!") and removable English titles, the best combination. The English credit sequence is a bit sloppy, with about twelve seconds of textless background hanging on after Bava's credit has faded. It's as if the exporters expected it to be changed or amended by whoever picked it up.

The cutprice Woolner organization did release the film in fantastic-looking Technicolor, and in 35mm the picture is stunning. Fantoma's transfer element is in great shape, and the color job is a very good one, but just the tiniest bit duller-looking than a Tech print. The bit rate is more than adequate too, and the blacks are very rich, but a little crushed. This means that a silky black Lyco and the inky black background behind him that in Technicolor had two distinguishable levels and textures, are here just one. This is nit-picking - honestly, the color is very satisfactory and up to the level of all of the previous Bava discs .... except perhaps Image's too-good-to-believe Black Sabbath, which has the best IB Tech look of any DVD I've yet seen.

Tim Lucas' notes are a very interesting read, especially the explicit details of how Bava conjured so many distinct rooms and palace halls out of a minimal number of modular columns and wall-sections. He really must have preferred to work in this ultra-personal, un-lavish way.

The extras are a fat selection of stills and posters, many of them international in origin - a lot of the retitlings are variations on Hercules against the Vampires. Mario Bava addicts should twist some arms and get 'civilians' to watch this one, just to prove that Italian Hercules movies, in their original language, aren't always a bad joke.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hercules in the Haunted World rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, still 7 poster gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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