'Hercules in the Haunted World' review by MartialHorror
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HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD(1961)
(Directed by Mario Bava)
"A mythical warrior fights zombies, spectres and demons. HOW IS THAT NOT THE COOLEST THING EVER?!"- Signed by MartialHorror.
Plot: Hercules must travel to Hades to bring back an item that will save his beloved. Also known as “Hercules at the Center of the Earth”, “Hercules Vs the Vampires”, “Sword and Sandal”, “With Hercules to the Center of the Earth”, and “Ercole al centro della terra”.
The Italians really knew how to exploit popularity of various movies and turn them into their own kind of unique genre. They are the only country who managed to make a cannibal genre after all. More famously, they’re known for their spaghetti westerns, started by Sergio Leone’s “Fistful of Dollars”, and (arguably) perfected by Sergio Corbucci’s “Django”. On the lesser respectable but equally profitable side, they also created the “Peplum” films, also known as “Sword and Sandal” films. This began with the success of the 1957 Steve Reeves vehicle, “Hercules”. The genre would take many twists and turns, being revitalized with “Maciste” in 1960, and its last run was probably after the success of “Conan the Barbarian”, but that was a ways away. Generally, these films tended to be gladiator films, biblical films, Roman films or mythical films. Many filmmakers got their start there, including Sergio Leone’s only bad film, “The Colossus of Rhodes”. These films were also quite generic, usually having the same stories, same styles, and similar actors(usually bodybuilders) that would hopefully churn a small profit. Enter Mario Bava, whose only credit as sole director was “Black Sunday”. At this point, Bava’s career wasn’t beaming with success, so his budget was minimal. So what was Bava to do? Well, the answer was to make what is arguably the best of the Hercules movies, as well as invent the trademark Bava style.
If you really want to enjoy “Hercules in the Haunted World”, you must be aware of a few things. You must accept that this film is about style and atmosphere, not script. The film begins with our favorite musclebound hero, Hercules(Park) and his sidekick who will screw any girl in sight, Theseus(Ardisson). They are attacked by a bunch of henchman sent by their supposed ally, King Lico(Lee). They never really say why he does it. I guess the dark forces told him too, although why would he think normal mercenaries would do anything? The ambiguously gay duo(I couldn’t help myself) defeat the henchies and go back to their Kingdom, so Hercules can be reunited with his love, Princess Deianira(Ruffo). However, Lico has placed her under a spell so that she is oblivious to anything around her. Lico tells Hercules that there is a cure in Hades. Hercules, not being the brightest light in the Kingdom, doesn’t realize that this is Christopher Lee who he’s talking too and trusts him. What follows is an episodic adventure of Hercules and Theseus looking for the key to get into Hades(without dying), then traveling through Hades(without dying), and finally confronting Lico himself. As I said, don’t expect much in terms of story.
You would also need to accept that little-to-no emphasis is given to character development or relationships. The main problem is Theseus, who will fall in love with any attractive woman. In Hades, he meets a girl with a deep, dark secret and takes her home with him. When that girl brings calamity to their Kingdom, Theseus decides to forsake his Kingdom and even tries to kill Hercules for interfering. Seriously? These are best friends? Theseus is not the type of guy I’d want to hang out with. They also throw in some random comic relief character for no reason, other to be comic relief. Oh well, at least he’s not that annoying…..So as I said, don’t expect much with these connect-the-dot relationships or these shallow characters.
But what you can expect is some of the most breathtaking visuals to ever come out of a low budget Italian film. In terms of atmosphere, “Hercules in the Haunted World” shares the most similarities with “Planet of the Vampires”. Bava doesn’t just create atmospheric settings, he creates atmospheric worlds. The sky is blotchy orange, with blackness that seems to overtake it. He doesn’t stop there, using eerie mists and creepy looking crypts that you see throughout all his horror films. “Hercules in the Haunted World” benefits from looking like a horror film in the same way Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” did, while never being an actual horror film. How many Hercules films can boast that? That is what I love about Bava. He is one of the few filmmakers I know that is bolt enough to come up with these ideas.
Reg Park(Hercules) isn’t really a good actor, but I liked him anyway. He seemed to fit in his role, showing kindness yet ferocious anger. He also has charisma, which always helps. George Ardisson(Thesius) does fine, but I didn’t always like the character. Christopher Lee(Lico) is always cool. It’s a shame that’s not his real voice, but whoever dubbed him does pretty good. The acting overall is passable.
Sure, there are other problems in “Hercules in the Haunted World”. There are some blatant continuity errors(one girl is thrown in the water, but comes out dry). Sometimes the super low budget becomes apparent, from that lame looking rock monster to some rubbery boulders. Furthermore, most of the fighting consists of Hercules throwing things at people. But when I see this movie, I see the macabre imagery and the nightmarish atmosphere. I see the colorful visuals, its aesthetic values and its haunting climax where Hercules must fight specters and zombies. ZOMBIES!. All the films problems just seem to vanish for me when compared to the strengths. But will you feel the same way? I don’t know. This is actually the first ‘true’ Bava film. As much as I love “Black Sunday”, any talented director could’ve done that. Bava’s color template lighting and atmosphere began with “Hercules in the Haunted World”, and it would only get better.
Violence: Some of the zombie makeup is fairly disturbing. There is some blood, but nothing too far out.
Nudity: All the women wear little clothing, but nothing explicit.
Overall: “Hercules in the Haunted World” might be a case of style over substance, but what style! If you get caught up in the aesthetics, you should like this. If not, you won’t. Sadly, my Bava run is about to end, as “Shock” is the only movie of his that I’ve yet to see.
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