The late ‘50s saw the first major boom of Italian genre cinema with the emergence of Italian Gothic horror — films about witches, vampires, and ghosts, set in cobweb-choked castles — but these titles by directors like Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti, and Mario Caiano, were not the only ones from the period to focus on monsters, horror, or the supernatural. At the same time, the sword-and-sandal film or peplum took off, and as Italian Gothic horror acts as something of a precursor to the giallo film, the peplum has a similar relationship with the spaghetti western; essentially action-fantasy films, these historical epics were generally set in ancient times and tend to follow a similar formula. Their toga-clad, muscle-bound protagonists were unnaturally — often supernaturally — strong and had to face off against diabolical kings and rescue beautiful women. With its cinematic origins in the ‘10s and ‘20s in Italian silent adventure films, the peplum borrowed primary from Greco-Roman myth (and sometimes history) and, as a result, many of the stock protagonists — like Hercules, Maciste, or Samson — are pitted against some spectacular monsters.
In Robert Curti’s Italian Gothic Horror Films, he wrote that Italian Gothic cinema “was born from the thrill of transgression” and was a reaction against the neorealism popularized in the immediate postwar years (15). Both Gothic and the peplum were essentially escapist genres with their roots in fantasy, monsters, the mythic, and the supernatural. Curti wrote, “Both threads had in common the pen of Ennio di Concini, one of the primary architects of the sword-and-sandal’s success: Di Conchini co-scripted Bava’s Black Sunday, as well as Freda’ peplum/Gothic hybrid The Witch’s Curse, which at times looks just like a bastardized remake of Bava’s film. The sword-and-sandal was the Gothic’s opulent and luckier twin: many more films were produced, more substantial box office takings were achieved, richer production values were employed” (16). And it is this intersection that I’m going to explore, the rare crossover that can best be described as the Gothic peplum, where fantasy-adventure and horror themes converged in a handful of films: Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), Sergio Corbucci and Giacomo Gentilomo’s Goliath and the Vampires (1961), and Riccardo Freda’s The Witch’s Curse (1962).
For whatever reason, Greco-Roman mythology hasn’t really been mined by genre directors — outside of a handful of films like Hammer’s The Gorgon (1964) or George Lazopoulos’s Medousa (1998) — which is baffling as it’s rife with horror elements: witches, monsters, human transformation, sacrifice, arcane rituals, some absolutely horrific sexual violence, and numerous descents into the underworld. Known as katabasis (literally a “descent” whether psychological, spiritual, supernatural, or military), this journey into the underworld is a common feature of comparative mythology and is a critical element of the heroic quest. Some of the more famous examples include Ovid’s descriptions in the Metamorphoses of Juno, Ceres, and Hercules all descending to the underworld; it is also a feature of Virgil’s Aeneid, and Homer’s Odyssey. Generally these trips are taken to reclaim a loved one, to petition to the harpies for justice, or for council from the dead. They often involve the instruction of an oracle and some kind of sacrifice.
Homer’s recounting of Odysseus’ journey into hell is a fairly standard (and beautiful) example:
“When I had prayed sufficiently to the dead, I cut the throats of the two sheep and let the blood run into the trench, whereon the ghosts came trooping up from Erebus- brides, young bachelors, old men worn out with toil, maids who had been crossed in love, and brave men who had been killed in battle, with their armour still smirched with blood; they came from every quarter and flitted round the trench with a strange kind of screaming sound that made me turn pale with fear. When I saw them coming I told the men to be quick and flay the carcasses of the two dead sheep and make burnt offerings of them, and at the same time to repeat prayers to Hades and to Proserpine; but I sat where I was with my sword drawn and would not let the poor feckless ghosts come near the blood till Teiresias should have answered my questions” (Book XI, Samuel Butler’s translation).
But even the earliest example of what could be called Gothic peplum — Guido Brignone’s Maciste all’inferno (1925) aka Maciste in Hell — borrows far more from Dante and Christian mythology than it does from Homer, Virgil, or Ovid, as Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) is beset by devils hoping to goad him into committing a mortal sin and thus damning himself for all eternity. It seems possible then that Mario Bava’s early, underrated masterpiece, Ercole ai centra della terra (1961) aka Hercules in the Haunted World (though the title literally translates to Hercules at the Center of the Earth), is among the first genre films to depict an underworld of more pagan mythological origin (though it has an admittedly tenuous grasp on Greek myth).
The film follows Hercules (Reg Park), as he returns to the kingdom of Icalia and his betrothed, the Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo), to find that she’s suffering from some sort of catatonic illness and her uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee), has taken over as regent. Desperate to save her, Hercules visits the masked oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) and learns that he must journey into Hades and retrieve a magic stone. But on the way, he must steal the Golden Apple of the Hesperides, temporarily cast aside his immortality to enter the underworld, and contend with his brave but impetuous friend Theseus, who has the gall to fall in love with Persephone (Ida Galli), the daughter of Hades himself…
Meanwhile, it becomes clear that Lico himself is responsible for Deianira’s plight; he has cursed her in order to take her kingdom for himself. Lico’s actions — which have the faintest whiff of incestuous desire about them, as his plans seems to be killing her to resurrect and then marry her — combined with Theseus taking Persephone from the underworld, results in a concept that is a staple of Greek tragedy: miasma. Essentially meaning “pollution,” it refers to a sort of moral corruption that takes on physical proportions; it follows in the aftermath of familial murder and spiritual misdeeds and must be cleansed, often through sacrifice, otherwise it results in famine, disease, and divine violence. In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong wrote that the Greeks were, “preoccupied by tales of men and women who murdered their parents and abused their children. These unnatural deeds, even if committed unwillingly, contained a contagious power (miasma) that had an independent life of its own. Until it had been purged by the sacrificial death of the wrongdoer, society would be chronically infected by plague and catastrophe” (64).
The most well known example is probably from Aeschylus’s Oresteia about the doomed House of Atreus (itself adapted from a myth), where Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter at the behest of the gods in order to win a war, setting in motion a series of violence murders throughout the family; he is killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, and she is killed by their son, Orestes, who is then pursued by the Furies. In The Libation Bearers, the second of the plays, Aeschylus wrote:
“Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.
But there is a cure in the house, and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.”
This echoes the themes of divine retribution found in Hercules in the Haunted World, where Lico is clearly summoning dark gods to aid him in his vile work. Later in the film, he gives the William Blake-like intonation, “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.” Though this film suffers from extreme budget constraints, some wooden acting, and occasionally ill-placed humor, it expresses these themes of miasma and supernatural evil through the tremendous visual world Bava creates with some gorgeous matte paintings and his trademark lighting. This was his first color film and the palette is dazzling.
The title Hercules in the Haunted World takes on a literal meaning as Hercules is often steeped in Technicolored, hallucinatory beauty. Examples include a scene where Hercules and Theseus sail into the underworld against the backdrop of a blood red sky; in another, they fight a rock monster who is surprisingly gruesome despite the obviously cheap effects; he and Theseus climb a rope over a pit of glowing lava; and early on, Deianira, who has inexplicably been resting in a tomb, rises from it, vampire-like, in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Bava’s Black Sunday. The underworld includes bleeding trees and a variety of grotesquely suffering souls, and is lit by pools of eerie, glowing light that would reappear in Bava’s equally stunning Planet of the Vampires (1965). In general, the horror elements are presided over by a charismatic performance from Christopher Lee (upsettingly, his voice is dubbed over by another actor) — there is a particularly memorable shot of him reflected in a pool of blood — who engages in ritual sacrifice and summons up an army of the dead.
Hercules in the Haunted World was one in a series of films that followed Hercules (1958) and it was the second to star Reg Park after Hercules and the Captive Women (1961); and though many of the other films feature the eponymous hero fighting various monsters, this is really the only one to tackle horror themes. Like many other Italian cult directors — including Sergio Leone, Ruggero Deodato, and Antonio Margheriti — Bava did work in the peplum before making his mark there as a director: as a cinematographer on Hercules (1958) and its sequel, Hercules Unchained (1959), where he was allegedly responsible for some creepy Egyptian-themed scenes, as well as unusually violent historical peplum The Giant of Marathon (1959), where he unofficially co-directed beside Jacques Tourneur (!).
Hercules in the Haunted World’s theme that an army of zombies are unleashed by an evil ruler is also found in Sergio Corbucci and Giacomo Gentilomo’s Maciste contro il vampiro aka Goliath and the Vampires, also from 1961. As I already mentioned, there was a lot of genre crossover between directors during this period — particularly Bava, Freda, and Margheriti — though this was spaghetti western-master Corbucci’s only significant dalliance with the horror genre outside of Gothic horror film Castle of Blood (1963), which he co-directed with Margheriti. This use of the undead in peplum films stemmed from Hercules in the Haunted World, but reappeared a few times throughout the ‘60s. Robert Curti wrote, “The peplum displayed an enthusiastic easiness in staging monsters and figures pertaining to a horror-related imagery: examples are the flying zombies set off by Licos (Christopher Lee) in Hercules in the Haunted World, the faceless army under the command of Kormak the vampire (Jacques Sernas) in Goliath and the Vampires, the creatures designed by Carlo Rambaldi for Medusa Against the Son of Hercules (Perseo l’invincible, 1963, Alberto De Martino) and the legions of undead of Rome Against Rome (Roma contra Roma, 1964, Giuseppe Vari)” (16).
Zombies are not exactly a staple of Greco-Roman mythology, though there are some loose parallels: keres, female death spirits, who were later called tenebrae (“darkness” in Latin) by Cicero and are described as the daughters of Nyx, goddess of the night. Of them, Hesiod wrote, “Night gave birth to to hideous Moros and black Ker and then to Death and Sleep and to the brood of Dreams” (Theogony lines 211-212). Apparently they had a fondness for drinking human blood. A similar, if more subdued being are the Roman lemures, which St. Augustine describes in The City of God as “noxious demons made out of the souls of wicked men,” though they’re generally understood as vengeful spirits of the dead.
The creatures in Goliath and the Vampires are more like conventional zombies and they are essentially the same sort of violent, mindless, and seemingly indestructible horde that Hercules faces off against in Hercules in the Haunted World. Following a similar plot to Bava’s film, Goliath (Gordon Scott) returns home to find that all the women from his village, including his fiancee (Leonora Ruffo again), have disappeared. He learns that Kobrak (Guido Celano), a vampire, has taken over a nearby kingdom and is feeding off the women, while he turns men into zombies to join his army. Goliath teams up with inexplicably blue knights to fight Kobrak, but the evil ruler uses his powers to turn himself into Goliath, involving another mainstay of Gothic literature, the doppelgänger.
Less atmospheric than Hercules and the Haunted World — though Kobrak’s lair is an obvious nod to Bava’s underworld — this surprisingly violent entry is one of the weirdest in the annals of the peplum genre; it includes everything from a pirate ship to an arrow through the eye, and is replete with blood-letting. Peplum, as a rule, involved a lot of fisticuffs, sword-fighting, and feats of strength (such as the seemingly dozens of boulders thrown by Reg Park in Hercules in the Haunted World), but blood and gore was not a standard feature. I would also be remiss to leave out the fact that co-director Gentilomo went on to helm Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964), where the titular hero (here played by Alan Steele) has to banish evil aliens from the Moon who have conquered a city and are sacrificing local children.
The Gothic peplum would be attempted once again by Bava’s former mentor Riccardo Freda with Maciste all’inferno (1962) aka The Witch’s Curse (it translates to “Maciste in Hell,” though it has nothing at all to do with the silent film of the same name mentioned earlier). Freda had made one of the first Italian Gothic horror films, I, vampiri (1957), and also directed The Giants of Thessaly (1960), which features far more in the way of monsters than The Witch’s Curse, including a cyclops and a sorceress. Hilariously, Maciste (Kirk Morris, who had nearly all his dialogue taken away by Freda because of an allegedly poor performance) is somehow set against the curse of a medieval Scottish witch. When she is burned at the stake, she curses a village so that all its women will try to kill themselves. When her descendent (Vira Silenti) shows up decades later, the villagers decide to burn her at the stake too, just to be careful. Maciste arrives on the scene and tears up a tree that blooms whenever a woman commits suicide, which leads to the gateway to hell…
Like so many Gothic films, both American, Italian, and British, the moral of The Witch’s Curse seems to be that you should not ever move into a gloomy old castle owned by a mysterious ancestor. Sort of a peplum precursor to the following year’s The Haunted Palace, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, The Witch’s Curse utterly abandons any mythological influence. If you were ever wondering what it would look like if someone dropped a peplum hero into a nonsensical Gothic horror film about medieval witchcraft, here is the answer. Essentially Maciste has to go to hell, find, and then defeat the witch before her ancestor is also burned alive. As in Hercules in the Haunted World, there’s a scene where Maciste has to pass over a burning pit, but there’s also a strange moment where he has to regain his memory by staring into a pool in the underworld and of course he has flashbacks that are actually scenes from previous Maciste films — all of them set in the ancient world.
Giuseppe Vari’s Roma contra Roma (1964) aka Rome Against Rome, on the other hand, is a lot more coherent than Freda’s contribution and is another title obviously influenced by Hercules in the Haunted World, particularly in terms of atmosphere and visuals. A soldier (Ettore Manni) is sent to investigate violence in a remote village and finds an evil wizard (John Drew Barrymore) who worships a dark goddess is killing off Roman legions in order to drink their blood and resurrect them as sort of a zombie horde that he is planning to use to invade Rome itself. This one has some lovely set pieces — and plenty of scenery-chewing thanks to Barrymore and his use of black magic and blood rituals — but the low budget and lack of inventive effects don’t do the film a lot of favors.
A similar fate met Margheriti’s Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi (1964) aka Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (which actually translates to Ursus, Terror of the Kirghiz — I think the producers assumed that what little English-speaking audience the film might have wouldn’t know about Ursus, another peplum hero). The premise is fantastic and sounds like something that should involve Spanish genre star and director Paul Naschy: Hercules (Reg Park) must confront a diabolical sorceress (Mireille Granelli) who transforms him into a werewolf. With uncredited directorial work from Ruggero Deodato, this is fun in a silly way — Margheriti, after all, is the man who would go on to director Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1983) — but doesn’t approach the genuinely gorgeous atmosphere and creepy moments of Hercules in the Haunted World.
Hercules, Prisoner of Evil coincides with the decline of the peplum, which would give way to the spaghetti western by the mid-’60s, so it’s not a surprise that the last year or two of the subgenre produced some weaker efforts. It is interesting, though, to think that around this time, Ray Harryhausen was tackling similar material in Hollywood with far different results. His Jason and the Argonauts (1963) can in no way be considered a horror film, or even a Gothic peplum, but it conquers some overlapping territory (and it went on to fascinate many children destined to become future genre fans, including this one): the films boasts a skeleton army, a giant, harpies, and the hydra. Harryhausen would have similar success with the three Sinbad films, made between 1958 and 1977, and Clash of the Titans (1981), which reached new heights with the appearance of both the Kraken and Medusa.
Despite these few titles, Greco-Roman mythology remains strangely neglected within horror, though there are dozens of myths ripe for the retelling: everything from tales of harpies and some particularly brutal instances of divine justice to very unusual monsters, lots of divine bestiality, various chthonic and labyrinth myths, blood-thirsty Dionysian revelry (which was actually the basis of a season of True Blood), and Roman mystery cults. Ancient Roman religion was one of the few to be inclusive, in the sense that it honored both local and national religious practices — mostly focused on shrines, augury, ritual cleansing, and sacrifice — but as a rule included any beliefs and deities of conquered lands, resulting in some strange overlaps. They not only incorporated Greek and Etruscan beliefs, but also belief systems stretching from one end of the empire to the other, from British to Egyptian practices. Animal sacrifice to all types of deities was a daily occurrence and even, on occasion, human sacrifice, and the Dionysian and Orphic mystery cults in particular seem subjects that would still be particularly fertile for genre cinema, as many of their rites dealt with arcane forms of divine invocation, ecstatic inebriation, and — of course — metaphorical descents into the underworld.