Written by: Mario Bava, Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi, and Duccio Tessari
Directed by: Mario Bava
Starring: Reg Park, Christopher Lee, and George Ardisson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Oh god of evil, the great dragon has swallowed the moon. And now my destiny shall be fulfilled. The blood of Deianira shall be my blood. Eternal shall be my reign in thy name. Eternal shall be the sorrow of Hercules. And eternal shall be the night for the woman he loves."
Itís fair to say that Mario Bava didnít become Mario Bava as we know him until around 1963. Even with Black Sunday already under his belt, it was the one-two punch of The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Black Sabbath that truly crystalized the thematic and aesthetic preoccupations most strongly associated with him. In the brief interim, he explored other genres (and would continue to do so later in his career), most notably high fantasy. One product of this era is the especially noteworthy Hercules in the Haunted World, a horror-tinged tale that sends the Greek demigod straight to hell, where Bava transforms the underworld landscape into a primordial canvas for the signature garish style that would define much of his later work.
Technically a sequel to Hercules and the Captive Women (seen only by me in its riffed-upon MST3K form), Haunted World initially looks the part of any number of Hercules or similarly-themed sword-and-sandal B-movies of the day: the now renowned son of Zeus (Reg Park) has returned to his sunny homeland with jockish companion Theseus (George Ardisson) in tow. While the latter womanizes, Hercules only has thoughts of his own wife, Deianara (Leonardo Ruffo), who has been under the all-too-watchful eye of King Lico (Christopher Lee). A conniving sorcerer, Lico has conspired to turn Deianara into a virtual corpse in order to eventually resurrect and marry her, with the only cure for her condition resting within the Stone of Forgetfulness in Hades.
Considering that Bavaís career eventually became intertwined with the horror genre, itís no surprise that Hercules in the Haunted World comes to life in the underworld. The contrast is a bit staggering: gone is the swinging, sun-splashed adventure tone, here replaced by an unholy sandbox full of demons, witches, and ghastly seductresses. Itís an incredibly otherworldly transition, soaked in Bavaís indelible hues: the almost crimson-tinted orange clashing with those deep, bruising blues to affect a Technicolor dreamscape. In his first outing with color, Bava impressively establishes an almost fully-formed aesthetic that would come to serve him throughout his career. Along with Roger Cormanís AIP output, itís a look that also came to define an era, as itís virtually inseparable from the Gothic horror films of the age.
Melding it with this particular genre predictably makes for a bizarre mash-up. Notoriously cheap and often derided, these sword-and-sandal non-epics swept through Europe throughout the 50s and 60s in the wake of popular Hollywood films like Ben-Hur and Spartacus, with Hercules featuring in nearly twenty of them alone. Iím guessing few are as bizarre as this one, though, and, from what I can gather, few were as sturdily produced (itís certainly an improvement over its immediate predecessor at any rate). While itís true that the film is mostly an exercise in style and production design, it at least excels in this mode, even when Park is blasting through Styrofoam walls and hurling papery boulders around. The underworld is an especially atmospheric tapestry, and it doesnít feel like a stretch to assume that Bava feels most comfortable with the horror elements since they make for the filmís most memorable sequences.
Hercules in the Haunted World almost feels like a precursor to Planet of the Vampires but on an even smaller scale, as Hercules and Theseus wander the Land of the Dead and encounter its rather imaginative inhabitantsóthereís not a whole lot of narrative verve to it (the film isnít the most robustly plotted), but itís just cool as shit, and that approach practically became Bavaís M.O. When the duo reemerges on Earth, the film hits a snag until Licoís villainy is fully revealed. Perhaps in an attempt to capitalize on Leeís turn as Dracula, Lico is damn near vampiric: he holds his prey in a tomb, and the vacant Deianara could be mistaken as one of the bloodsuckerís brides. Then again, I donít recall Dracula ever having the ability to summon zombies to ward off his enemies.
This oneís definitely a trip at times, and itís those eccentric flourishes that elevate itóitís basically Hercules Walked With a Zombie with a sort of compelling subplot involving Theseusís ill-fated love for an underworld dweller that turns the friends against each other. The actors donít do much to infuse this with much drama, as Park is playing a one-note, virtuous Hercules rather than the Lotharian asshole he often was in the original mythology, while Ardisson treads on the line of being kind of jerky but loyal. Despite his signature, booming voice being overdubbed, Lee is a delight, as always: his Lico is more slimy and sniveling than outright predatory like Dracula.
But Hercules in the Haunted World wasnít ever likely to remain indelible for its plot or drama but rather itís pure pulp and bursts of artistry. Bavaís threadbare resources donít keep him from conjuring up off-the-wall stuff like a kid in a sandbox, and it makes for a cool little curiosity by providing an unlikely glimpse into his future oeuvre. Between the filmís moody, painterly cinematography and otherworldly special effects, one finds the directorís patented mixture of the dreamy, the ghastly, and the macabre. Long known in America only in its edited form, the film was restored to its glory by Fantomaís DVD, which features a brilliant anamorphic transfer of Bavaís original cut with optional Italian or English soundtracks. Some informative liner notes by Tim Lucas accompany the filmís trailer, some rare stills, and poster art. Truly, this is the only acceptable way to experience Hercules in the Haunted World, a film where style is substance. Rent it!
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