Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)
Directed by: Mario Bava
Written by: Duccio Tessari, Franco Prosperi, Mario Bava, Sandro Continenza
Starring: Christopher Lee, George Ardisson, Leonora Ruffo, Reg Park
AKA ERCOLE AL CENTRO DELLA TERRA, HERCULES IN THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, HERCULES VS THE VAMPIRES
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 83 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Hercules returns to Greece after many adventures and immediately has to rescue his friend Theseus from attackers sent by the evil King Lico. He then learns that his betrothed, Princess Deianara of Icalia, has become stricken with an illness where she loses her senses and is slowly dying. Consulting Medea the Oracle, he’s told that a special stone found in Hades the Underworld is the only thing that can save her, but that also needs a golden apple to see him through Hades. Accompanied by Theseus and their friend Telemachus, Hercules sets off on his quest, not knowing that it’s Lico, Deinara’s guardian, who put the spell on Deianara so he can possess her soul and become a god [I think….it’s not really clear what he’s trying to do]….
Hercules And The Haunted World is generally regarded as one of the best of the peplums [named after a tunic worn by many of the extras] that flooded out of Italy in the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s. These low budget historical romps, usually set in ancient times and often starring bodybuilders as legendary heroes, were hugely popular for some time and most got theatrical releases outside Italy though were eventually supplanted by the spaghetti westerns. Though the above-reviewed Ulysses started the whole thing off, it was Hercules [a version of the story told much better in Jason And The Argonauts] that really began the boom four years later. Unfortunately, many of these films don’t hold up too well when seen now, coming across as a bit dull and lacking in much of the fun and excitement you would expect, though there are good examples here and there, and this is one of them, which mixes typical peplum elements with touches of the horror movie. Bava’s first colour film, it’s a simply gorgeous-looking, even slightly psychedelic piece full of atmosphere, not to mention ingenuity considering it was an incredibly cheap production shot largely on one set, or, should I say, part of a set. Full of the themes that you find in Bava’s work, I, after being slightly disappointed by Ulysses, enjoyed Hercules In The Haunted World far more.
Bava had just enjoyed considerable international success with Black Sunday, but, not really liking being in the limelight, went on to do the special effects for two films [Hercules And The Captive Women, The Wonders Of Aladdin] and cinematography for another [Esther And The King]. It was Achille Piazzi, producer of the Hercules picture, who hired Bava to direct a peplum for him. By now Reg Park had taken over the role of Hercules from Steeve Reeves, though the individual films of the series tended to be unrelated anyway. Said Bava:
“For this film, I made a bet with myself, that I could shoot the entire picture using only one segmented wall containing doors and windows, and four movable columns”.
Aside from a few location shots, including some on that Anzio beach which would soon become Bava’s favourite location, it seems that Bava wasn’t lying, while elsewhere the production almost entirely consisted of hand-me-downs from other films shot at Cinecitta. It was shot under the working title of Ercole contro I vampire [Hercules Vs. The Vampires], and retained that title for most territories except for Italy, the US and the UK. The latter saw the film as Hercules In The Centre Of The Earth, a direct transalation of the Italian title, but the US release, handled by the Woolner Brothers after AIP passed [mostly because of trouble with Piazzi on another film], was renamed Hercules In The Haunted World and slightly altered, with a pre-title scene with Christopher Lee added, new main titles, and one scene – Hercules returning from Hades – removed. The film did well though remains one of Bava’s more obscure titles.
Now as you probably know, nearly all Italian films back then were shot silent and then dubbed in various languages, and usually not by the actual cast members. Therefore, the Italian language versions are often not definitive – no versions are. However, Hercules In The Haunted World, even if you’re watching the un-altered version, really has to be seen in its Italian language dub, because the English dub not only slightly alters the story but is very frivolous and almost tries to turn the movie into a spoof! I switched from the English to the Italian soundtrack about ten minutes in and it was immediately a far better experience in what is, for the most part, a serious film, the exception being the character of Telemachus [yes, this film isn’t directly based on a Greek myth but steals names from many of them!], who is intended as light relief but just comes across as annoying. We get a bit of action – Hercules saving Theseus from some bad guys – immediately, then have a memorable first scene for Lee’s King Lico, tempting a failed servant with gold before spears magically impale him from all sides. Then we see him summon Deianara from a coffin, and we are now definitely in Bava Land with stunning lighting and moody atmosphere!
It’s not long before Hercules, Theseus and, unfortunately, Telemachus set off for the Underworld, and things really get interesting and even trippy. They sail against a blood red sky against which a black formation gets bigger and bigger.This was probably done with paint splodges, but does it matter? Then we get a whole assortment of trials for our heroes including having to obtain a magic apple from the Garden Of The Hesperides [yes, that was actually part of Hercules’ eleventh labour!], fight a rock monster [who looks quite good, but is dispatched far too quickly] who either stretches or dismembers victims to fit a bed [again, a variation of a different tale], and make their way over a pit of lava. This is all very exciting, but once we leave Hades and its gorgeous pools of green, blue and red light around half way through, the pace really grounds to a halt and the film just stalls a bit until the climax where Hercules has to battle a load of zombies. We get one of the best zombie ‘rising from the grave’ scenes ever, and even better, these zombies run too. A shame that the scene repeats a few shots, but then this was a very low budget film. More disappointing is how too much of the action consists of Hercules throwing large boulders.
It’s sometimes obvious that the same things are being moved around so they look like different places, and certain shots, like Hercules and Theseus jumping off a ledge, do look poor, but Bava’s achievement with this film is still quite considerable, and he gives us some simply amazing shots, like Medea the Oracle being bathed in red and green. This is with a script that is often quite poor, the romance of the womanising Theseus and Persephone, the Underworld Princess with whom he falls in love, coming across as especially forced and unconvincing, though it’s interesting, if hardly accurate, to see a more thoughtful Hercules than normal. At least Bava’s contributing to the screenplay means that we get the familiar themes of the shattered family, appearances being deceptive, and just a slight element of incest! Even though this probably wouldn’t trouble anyone over the age of 12 today, it’s still pretty dark for a kiddie adventure, which is what most of these peplums, despite the large amount of female glamour [which you get in spades with this particular film – there’s even a naked female temptress chained to a rock] they tended to contain, were marketed as.
I guess not everyone will say agree that this was a good thing, but it was watching this film that gave a 14-year old Arnold Schwarzenegger the idea to become both a bodybuilder and an actor. When he first entered the Mr. Universe competition in 1970, it was Park whom he beat. Park does okay as Hercules, evoking some brain as well as brawn, though Bava is clearly more interested in Lee, given some striking entrances where he sometimes seems to come out of the shadows, and I’m still not sure he was too interested in the peplum even though he certainly tried to do what he could with this film. There’s a strong score by Armando Trovajoli, with some eerie sonorities for Hades and more typical peplum pomp and romance elsewhere, but it’s a nice mix. Hercules And The Haunted World shouldn’t be considered as a great or major Bava film, but the man’s genius is still evident and you can really imagine him, day after day, trying to do the best with the meagre resources he was given and attempting to elevate the already somewhat tired peplum subgenre along the way. I’ll leave the last word to Bava’s grandson Roy:
“He was setting up a shot with columns, and he only had three or four of them; he needed another column for the foreground, to balance the shot. So he asked if anyone had a match, and he took the matchstick and stood it upright in a wad of chewing gum placed in front of the camera. On film, the matchstick became the extra column!”