Kino Lorber. Region A.
Feature: 93 mins. Aspect ratio 2.35:1.
The Italian peplum films, also known as sword and the sandal subgenre, were cut-price historical epics made from 1958 to 1965. The seeds of this highly profitable subgenre were sown by films such as Ulysses (1954), which starred Kirk Douglas and was partially directed by an uncredited Mario Bava. Pietro Francisci’s Hercules (1958) was the catalyst for the explosion of the sword and sandal pictures. Professional bodybuilder Steve Reeves played the titular hero in a low budget film that essentially set the template for the peplums to follow, in which a Greco-Roman hero of antiquity (Hercules, Samson, etc.), often played by a bodybuilder or athlete, battles a series of monsters and a villainous ruler. Reeves also starred in the first sequel, Hercules Unchained (1959).
The third film in the series, Goliath and the Dragon (1960) began a revolving door for the role of Hercules, played in that movie by Brooklyn-born bodybuilder Mark Forest, who spoke fluent Italian and went on to play hero Maciste in several more peplums. The fifth film, Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis (1961), starred English bodybuilder and three-time holder of the Mr. Universe title, Reg Park. Which brings us to film number six, Hercules in the Haunted World, in which Park reprises the role of Hercules.
As directed by the maestro of the macabre Mario Bava, Hercules in the Haunted World crossbreeds the sword and sandal pictures with psychedelic horror. The story takes the warrior Hercules to Hades, where he embarks on a quest to find a cure for Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo), who has lost her memory through sorcery. Christopher Lee plays the bad guy, King Lico, who is secretly plotting to take the Princess as his bride. Hercules is accompanied on his journey to the underworld by his pals, the skirt-chasing Theseus (Giorgio Ardisson) and the goofy Telemachus (Franco Giacobini).
Bava’s visual ingenuity creates some striking compositions, using alchemy to transform a threadbare production into cinematic gold. A simple establishing shot of a temple on a hill in the opening passages of the film is turned into a vivid Technicolour painting, marble columns bathed in saturated blood-red. Bold symmetrical lines, seductive primary colors, and artfully placed shadows and dark permeate scene after scene, captured with Bava’s supernaturally mobile camera. This was my first viewing of Hercules in the Haunted World and, man, it is a sumptuous visual feast.
For such a short film, Hercules in the Haunted World has quite a dense mythology. To get into Hades, for example, Hercules must find a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides, “women condemned by the gods to live in darkness.” In Greek mythology, the Garden is the orchard of the goddess Hera. In the garden, Hercules must scale a massive tree with labyrinthine branches to get the apple. Hades itself is a trippy gothic fairground of mist-draped rocks and lava, inhabited by vines that bleed when hacked, and framed by dark, jagged peaks. All of this shot at the famed Cinecittà Studios in Rome is bathed in Bava’s trademark pools of lucid, primordial colors. Bava’s visual eloquence turns out to be a perfect complement to Greek myth.
The film’s third act folds gothic horror into the mix, with the undead rising up through the earth and from cobweb-encrusted tombs to attack Hercules. These scenes show the influence of The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, while visually anticipating key moments in Plague of the Zombies and Armando D’Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead.
Parks is a block of wood as Hercules, but is affable enough and has an appropriately stoic physical presence while injecting some humor. Christopher Lee makes a memorably sinister villain, providing a gravitas almost Shakespearean in nature. And this in spite of limited screen time and the actor’s voice being dubbed by a different voice performer in the English language version of the film.
Kino Lorber’s Blu ray includes the U.S. version (Hercules in the Haunted World), the European cut (Vampire Gegen Herakles, which includes a pre-title sequence and different main titles), and the UK release cut (Hercules in the Centre of the Earth).
The film has been turned into an opera of sorts. Patrick Morganelli composed a new score for the film, performed by singers and an orchestra live and synchronized with the movie, which is projected on stage behind the artistes. As Morganellis has observed, “the story is definitely operatic in scope, with love, sacrifice, hatred, vengeance, jealousy, incest…it really runs the gamut.”
Kino Lorber’s disc sports a 2K restoration from the original camera negative that shows off the full visual splendor of Bava’s colors and compositions.
Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, film historian and author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark – An incredibly knowledgeable commentary, as would be expected from Bava expert Lucas, who makes a case for this film is one of the most gorgeous-looking movies ever made.
Teseo in the Haunted World (25 mins.) – Features background information on the movie by film historian Fabio Melelli and an interview with actor Giorgio Ardisson, who played Theseus.
U.S. theatrical trailer
U.K. theatrical trailer
With three different versions of the film and a gorgeous transfer, Kino Lorber’s Blu ray of Mario Bava’s masterpiece of color and illusion makes for an essential purchase.