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Hercules in the Haunted World

by Glenn Erickson Oct 12, 2019

Mario Bava excelled with at least five super sword ‘n’ sandal pictures — shooting two Hercules classics and directing two viking sagas in addition to this eye-popping mix of mythology and horror. Forget warring armies and casts of thousands. Bava places Reg Park, Christopher Lee, and several beautiful Italo actresses within his weird visual world of and hallucinatory imagery: swirling mists, intensely physical actors and retina-burning color. Kino’s disc carries three discrete versions on two discs, and a gotta-hear commentary by Tim Lucas. On your next trip to The Underworld, remember NOT to trust what you see!  Trust instead, uh, trust your … oh, just use the Force!

Hercules in the Haunted World
Blu-ray
Kino Classics
1961 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / Hercules in the Center of the Earth (UK, 81 minutes), Hercules in the Haunted World (US, 84 minutes), Vampire gegen Herakles (Germany/Italy 86 minutes) / Ercole al centro della Terra / Street Date October 8, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, George Ardisson, Marisa Belli, Ida Galli (Evelyn Stewart), Franco Giacobini, Mino Doro, Rosalba Neri, Ely Drago, Gaia Germani, Raf Baldassare, Elisabetta Pavan, Monica Neri.
Cinematography: Mario Bava
Film Editor: Mario Serandrei
Original Music: Armando Trovajoli
Written by Sandro Continenza, Mario Bava, Francesco Prosperi, Duccio Tessari
Produced by Achille Piazzi
Directed by
Mario Bava

 

Another prime-source Mario Bava debut on Blu-ray is here, which is always cause to celebrate. Bava’s near-magical color cinematography launched the Italo sword & sandal Peplum craze with his work on 1957’s Hercules, and he contributed direction to its sequel Hercules Unchained as well as at least two other epics signed by others. 1961’s Hercules in the Haunted World is the first such movie to bear his directorial credit. It’s his second credited directing gig, despite having directed most of Caltiki, the Immortal Monster and an undetermined fraction of The Day the Sky Exploded (1958).

Rather than lead with ‘personal experiences’ — readers have had enough of that with last Tuesday’s The Fearless Vampire Killers — I’ll just describe the disc’s impressive contents and assess the film compared to a few other Bava epics. Bava’s incredible visual sense is here stretched to the limit, as if he were intent on proving how much he could create with the fewest production resources. We see what might be an hour’s rental of one of Cinecittá’s standing exterior sets, a large pillared building seemingly hewn from rock. Creatively-shuffled interior walls, curtains and special objects of déor conjure a dozen distinctive interiors. For his ‘journey to the underworld’ sequence Bava goes one step further, seemingly sculpting an entire haunted realm from smoke, colored light, some hand-me-down set pieces and the judicious application of double exposures and mirror shots. Unless the IMDB is way off (are they ever?) this is Bava’s first picture in ‘Super/100′ Totalscope… a format that seems to have given him some grief, here and there.

The multi-authored original story sidesteps the standard Peplum format, which more often than not sees a generic muscular hero defeating various foes and a monster or two before ridding a city-state of a swinish usurper. Bava’s Hercules is duped by an usurper, who in this case moonlights as a satanic necromancer. But Hercules’ journey to the underworld is no fool’s mission. After bringing back the cure for his beloved, he must sort out several mythological/personal complications.

Popularity wise, English bodybuilder and Mr. Universe winner Reg Park holds a high roost among Steve Reeves substitutes. Although Park cuts a righteous musclebound body profile, I find him a sincere lightweight compared to the God-like Reeves, whose stunning presence as Hercules is unmatched. From this period, second runner-up would be the great Gordon Mitchell, who projects the vibe of a weatherbeaten Greek hero who has endured mythological adventures. By comparison, the subdued Reg Park seems a personality-challenged nice guy. His amiable smile reminds me of Chris Elliott in Groundhog Day. I haven’t seen Park in his first Hercules movie for the same producer, Cottafavi’s Hercules Conquers Atlantis. Critic Raymond Durgnat liked that one and maybe Park is more inspiring in it.

But the real star here is Mario Bava. When surrounded and supported by il Maestro’s sensational visuals, it almost doesn’t matter who plays Hercules. And this eccentric Hercules movie is marvelous fun.

 

This time out, Hercules (Reg Park) is bracketed by a pair of lesser wingmen. George Ardisson is Theseus (Teseo), who I believe in mythology did join forces with Hercules to kill a many-headed monster. Ardisson’s strong suit is a chiseled profile ideal for a Roman coin. The favorite pastime of this Teseo is smooching with Giocasta (Ely Drago), an Anytime-Annie playgirl actually engaged to Hercules’ other sidekick, the sad-sack comic relief clown Telemaco (Franco Giacobini). Having finished an important task, Hercules is heading home to marry Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo), heir to an entire kingdom. Alas, royal caretaker (or perhaps interim King) Lico (Christopher Lee, magnificent) has bad news — Deianira’s father has died and she has fallen sick with a malady that has robbed her of her will. She can no longer relate to others, not even her prospective husband. The cure, Lico says, can only be found in the Underworld. Although no man has gone to that mysterious kingdom and returned, Hercules and his buddies take up the challenge, securing a magic ship and seeking the help of a female tribe. This means defeating a giant, securing a magic apple from a tree and neutralizing a ‘rock monster’ called Procrustes. Hercules is advised not to believe what he sees, which helps when penetrating a sea of flames, but not when confronted by a chamber of molten goo. Although they emerge with the magic rock that will cure Deianira, the complications don’t let up. Teseo has fallen in love with a lonely Underworld goddess, and defies the Gods by taking her with him when they come home. And almost too late does Hercules discover what we’ve known all along — the two-faced Lico has tricked him as part of a satanic pact. His plan is to slay Deianira, become immortal and seize the throne — aided by a grotto of undead ghouls.

Critics of Mario Bava’s action-adventure movies often tell us to prepare for production shortcuts that don’t really appear — his Erik the Conqueror may not have giant ships, Norwegian fjords and real castles, but we never feel short-changed for spectacle or action. Likewise, if we take Bava’s horror and sci-fi pictures on their own terms, we realize that his notion of ‘production values’ often bests those of million-dollar epics. Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy is a huge super-epic, but Bava’s frequently inspired, expressive manipulation of images is often more cinematic.

This Hercules picture does cut corners, as the story relies more on horror movie atmosphere than standard action. There are no big battles, no giant sets and hardly any swordplay. Some thieves are roughed up and a few guards get bashed about. Reg Park’s laid-back Hercules is also something of a one-trick pony, repeatedly falling back on a single gimmick: he picks up heavy objects and throws them. Twice he puts a rock in a sling, to do things like knock down a branch of a magic tree that refuses to be climbed. Hercules defeats the majority of his foes with this ‘Toss-Rock-Kido’ martial art, which is just as effective against those creepy ghoul-things. The U.S. poster art depicts Herc Baby grappling with the film’s graphic title logo block. Maybe he’s going to toss it at the producer.

 

With the exception of Chris Lee’s nicely modulated villain, the acting is not the kind that inspires. But the visual pageantry is unconcerned with rounded performances. Another attraction is a half-dozen gorgeous Italo actresses, well costumed, coiffed and lit with those warm Technicolor hues that make every Bava siren from Michele Mercier to Marisa Mell look too good to be true. It takes an expert like Tim Lucas to keep their names straight (more on his commentary a bit later). He reports that one mysterious denizen of the underworld, a nude beauty chained to a tree (!), isn’t actually the actress billed, but her sister!

It’s Bava’s show all the way. His stock in trade is eye-catching, expressive visuals in which we only think we’re seeing expensive scenery. Foreground miniatures and bric-a brac either transform settings we’d otherwise recognize from other movies (that underground stone quarry-grotto), or create amazing illusions of large, elaborate sets (the oracle’s temple with its reflecting pool). The only not-so-hot set pieces are the kinds of things that show up in standard Peplum adventures, like the uninspiring coverage of the torture tables where the rubbery rock monster Procrustes threatens to kill Telemaco and Teseo. Does Hercules find some clever way of defeating the stone stalagmite-man?  No, he just falls back on his Toss-Rock-Kido reflexes.

 

Bava’s striking images and imaginative direction make all the difference, creating satisfying scenes even when we have no idea how our heroes get from one place to the next. His illusions — and the dramatic lighting especially — take the place of standard thriller filler material. We always have something arresting to soak up, such as the impressive sight of Reg Park holding back two teams of wild horses, one in each hand, using muscleman flex pose number 13. Several visuals stand out as particularly expressive. We don’t really see the slaying of a handmaiden, but Bava’s camera trucks from her slashed neck, across a pool of blood, to reveal Lico’s baleful reflection — it’s a classic portrait of murder. Elsewhere Bava and Christopher Lee affect a memorable ‘attack’ simply by having Lee uncoil from a semi-silhouette pose, and lean into Bava’s lens until he blots out the frame. The stylized shot makes unnecessary a lot of scenery-chewing — it’s so simple, it’s genius.

After this movie and Erik the Conqueror Mario Bava settled into non-anamorphic filmmaking — shooting with his personal toolbox of ‘hero’ flat lenses — zooms and wide angles — that he knew by heart. Many of his illusion-tricks rely on an exaggerated depth of field to keep everything in focus, even when some of the scenery is scaled-down miniatures, or flat artwork on glass mattes. But I think the Totalscope lenses gave him some trouble here, problems that he rectified for Erik the Conqueror. Master angles like the wide shot of the oracle’s temple pool are just amazingly sharp, but then a medium angle on some characters (the oracle, Teseo and the underworld princess) will be out of focus, as if he were betrayed by lenses that didn’t seat properly, or a bad assistant, or (?). In some shots only part of the frame will be soft. These moments are fleeting — maybe twenty seconds of material that may slip by unnoticed — but they’re not what we expect from Bava. I think some faulty Totalscope gear must have thrown him a curve.

 

One last stab at the effects: in this picture Bava does everything In The Camera — slow motion miniature water effects, landscapes faked with double exposures and difficult-to-detect foreground miniatures. In this ultra-sharp scan we can make better guesses than usual. Somebody told Tim Lucas that Bava had only four large rounded pillars at his disposal, but I see several shots where more are visible, and integrated with character action. A complex composite shot would be more trouble than physically faking an extra pillar one way or another. Maybe Bava found a way of substituting cut-out pillars here and there. It’s not at all unusual for witness reportage to contradict what we can see for ourselves. On his interview on this disc, George Ardisson tells us that Reg Park was a superman, and that the rocks he tosses around in the movie are real.

The bottom line is that Hercules in the Haunted World delivers a spectacle far more striking and imaginative than most sword & sandal epics. This show kept little kids (me, for one) pretty much on the edge of our seats. As an adult I still admire Bava’s fairytale atmosphere and his skill at lighting those gorgeous women. No wonder people wanted to work with him, and that directors like Fellini were inspired to emulate his work.


 

The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Hercules in the Haunted World is a two-disc set that gets … complicated. Unless you’re allergic to foreign languages (shame on you) the disc to pop in your player first is titled Hercules at the Center of the Earth. That’s the U.K. title, for a version that can be accessed in the extras menu choice. But you want to simply hit PLAY, which will give you Vampire gegen Herakles. This German print is the best and most complete version, and reportedly the same as original Italian Ercole al centro della Terra. The language track is the original Italian, a beautiful dub with clean dialogue and a nice score by Armando Trovajoli.

The image is nigh flawless. The disc says it’s a 2K restoration, and it’s gorgeous.

If you’re looking for the U.S. cut with the matinee dubbing we remember, it’s on the other disc labeled Hercules in the Haunted World. A different edit up front and here & there in the middle, it sports a great Woolner Brothers animated title sequence, and music substitutions care of Hugo Grimaldi, the film doctor responsible for U.S. version carve-ups ranging from Gigantis to Mill of the Stone Women to First Spaceship on Venus.

The ‘Haunted World’ disc otherwise contains only a trailer. The ‘Center of the World’ disc contains Tim Lucas’s much-awaited commentary, on the preferred Vampire gegen Herakles version. The extras menu has the U.K. version, the U.K. trailer, and a lengthy interview documentary that’s only partly with actor George Ardisson. He looks pretty good for his 89 years but his voice is wispy thin.

 

Tim Lucas is the reigning authority on Mario Bava (in the very best sense) and he once again delivers a smooth, easy-listening commentary long on insight and information. He unravels quite a few questions about the somewhat complicated storyline, in which Christopher Lee’s Lico is sometimes identified as a King but elsewhere more of a royal placeholder while the Princess is in hypnotic koo-koo land. Lucas brings up cogent information from official mythology, explaining how the script takes liberties with the schoolbook version. Tim finds various things to be vaguely defined: is the female tribe part of the underworld (they seem subject to its law) or just gate-keepers?  Lucas’s information on the personalities and actors involved is of course the result of a lifetime of research, and even he has some unanswered questions. His best guess as to the identity of the woman chained to that tree, is that she’s the sister of the billed but unseen actress Rosalba Neri. When Neri overbooked herself, she apparently sometimes sent her sister as a substitute.

I’m always intrigued by Tim’s skill with story analysis. He interprets narrative hiccups — such as the way Teseo and Telemaco are with Hercules, and suddenly not with him — to theorize that Mario Bava had to reshuffle some script events on the fly, or in editorial. What with the economizing already manifest in the film, we agree that Bava may have dropped material and covered the gaps with new expository dialogue planted, as Tim believes, on shots when Hercules’ back is to the camera. I can’t say I paid all that much attention to plot detail, but the inconsistencies Lucas points out are pretty amusing.

 

To my view Tim becomes a little more fanciful when critiquing the special effects. We all see the same doorway used every time a doorway anywhere is needed, and Tim points out additional scenery modules that were reconfigured to suggest different rooms. He even recognizes the shapes of fake rocks from other Bava pictures. To my eye, though, I don’t see Bava multiplying scenery pillars through process photography. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bava use rear projection at all, and process shots are easy to spot. However, the design of the impressive wide shot just above could indeed be a complicated multiple exposure. A mirror could provide a flopped repeat of the colonnade, a third exposure might float Chris Lee in the black area, and a fourth exposure could add the view of the hole in the ceiling. Maybe… it sounds like the kind of challenge Bava might set for himself.

It’s not like I’m an ultimate authority — I saw plenty of shots where I would really have to guess. I once showed a Bava matte shot that I couldn’t figure out to the professional expert Rocco Gioffre, and he didn’t want to commit himself to a definite explanation, either. I’ll vote with Tim that Bava makes heavy use of the mirror-trick Schüfftan Process, to place an image of Hercules in the middle of a miniature tree, for example. Now, how did he squeeze the extreme depth of field necessary for shots like that?  Cameramen back then hated anamorphic lenses, because they had such a narrow range of focus, even when stopped down.

In this movie and Erik the Conqueror the consummate camera expert Bava pulls off terrific shots with the anamorphic Totalscope lens system. The visual field shows little or no warpage, and in most shots the depth of focus is almost as good as with his flat lenses.

We were so happy twenty years ago to have any decent, reasonably complete Mario Bava feature on DVD… and now another ‘wow!’ HD Blu-ray like this one shows up every 18 months or so. What’s on the wish list?  The difficult stuff, naturally. A fabulously remastered Danger: Diabolik comes first, but it’s from Paramount, which won’t even put out arguably classic titles like Alfie. Next would be multiple-version sets of the original Hercules movies with Steve Reeves. Perhaps Studio Canal will acquire them and make such a thing possible — wouldn’t it be nice to see Diabolik in Italian?   Until then I’ll just pull out Sei donne per l’assassino once again, to savor Bava’s images and Tim Lucas’s wealth of research.

Oh yeah, the personal stuff. Readers claim to like it, although I suspect they’re humoring me. I’ve seen Hercules in the Haunted World on a screen twice. Parked for a few days with my grandmother in what was then the dusty highway stop town of Henderson, Nevada, south of Las Vegas, I wandered down to the tiny theater next to the Woolworths to see what was playing. Before enjoying the show, I remember seeing two trailers. Irma la Douce was okay but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea blew me away — I had missed that release completely. I came back the next day and saw an Elvis Presley movie. As this was 1963, I think it had to be It Happened at the World’s Fair. Then, in 2000, I was rounding up films to show a friend who had night access to a lab screening room. The Arizona film collector Mike Heenan drove all the way from Phoenix with his 35mm IB Tech print of Hercules in the Haunted World, which made for a great screening memory. The only thing better is Kino’s disc, which delivers the show in its original Italian language and cut.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Hercules in the Haunted World
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Three Versions: uncut European version Ercole al centro della Terra (entitled Vampire gegen Hercules), with Italian dialogue and optional English subs; Woolner Bros.’ U.S. release variant Hercules in the Haunted World; U.K. release variant Hercules at the Center of the Earth. Audio commentary by Tim Lucas; Interview with actor George Ardisson; U.S. and U.K. theatrical trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 8, 2019
(6103erco)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.