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Retro Review: HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961)

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HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD
(Italy - 1961; US release 1964)

Directed by Mario Bava. Written by Alessandro Continenza, Mario Bava, Duccio Tessari and Franco Prosperi. Cast: Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, Giorgio Ardisson, Marisa Belli, Ida Galli, Franco Giacobini, Mino Doro, Ely Drago, Gaia Germani, Raf Baldassarre, Elisabetta Pavan, Aldo Pedinotti, Claudio Marzulli. (Unrated, 84 mins)

The global success of 1958's HERCULES, an Italian production starring American bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe Steve Reeves, led to countless peplum films coming out of Italy over the next several years. Stanley Kubrick's epic 1960 blockbuster SPARTACUS also had a hand in this exploding subgenre's immense popularity, and before long, muscle-bound guys like Reeves, former Tarzan Gordon Scott, Mark Forest, Brad Harris, Gordon Mitchell, Mickey Hargitay, "Alan Steel" (Sergio Ciani), "Kirk Morris" (Adriano Bellini), Dan Vadis, Ed Fury, and "Rock Stevens" (American actor Peter Lupus, who would later act under his real name when he was on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) were headlining dozens upon dozens of these things, playing heroes like Hercules, Samson, Ursus, Goliath, and Maciste (Reeves even played the son of Spartacus in 1962's THE SLAVE), though by the time many of these ended up dubbed in English and headed straight to syndicated TV, the hero could be a completely different character. British bodybuilder and three-time Mr. Universe Reg Park (1928-2007) had a very short-lived movie career courtesy of the post-HERCULES muscleman craze, starring in five films over a four-year period, starting with 1961's HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS, aka HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN.






Park made enough of an impression that he was immediately cast in another Hercules outing with the same year's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, directed by trailblazing Italian horror auteur Mario Bava, who served as the cinematographer on the initial HERCULES and was coming off his highly influential official directing debut with 1960's BLACK SUNDAY (Bava's mentor Riccardo Freda let him direct large chunks of 1957's I VAMPIRI and 1959's CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER, though only Freda was credited). One of the most innovative stylists and special effects craftsman of his day and a guy who could work phantasmagorical wonders on tight budgets using matte paintings and colorgasmically garish lighting techniques, Bava would seem to be the only choice for a horror peplum that sends Hercules into the bowels of Hell, and the end result is one of the subgenre's strongest entries. As explained in verbosely muddled detail by Medea (Gaia Germani), oracle, sorceress, and mythical Basil Exposition, Hercules, son of Zeus, must venture into the depths of Hades on a quest to recover the Stone of Forgetfulness in order to break a spell cast upon his true love Princess Dianara (Leonora Ruffo) by her uncle, the diabolical King Lico (Christopher Lee!), who is conspiring with the forces of darkness to rule Italia for all eternity and have Dianara for himself. Hercules is joined by his friend Theseus (Giorgio Ardisson) and a bumbling comic relief sidekick in Telemachus (Franco Giacobini) as the trio embark on a journey to retrieve the Stone, save Dianara's soul, and defeat the treacherous Lico.


Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in a stunning restoration with three different versions (distinctly unique US, UK, and Italian releases) because physical media is dead, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD is as hokey as any other peplum of this sort (it's no surprise that some of them became prime MST3K fodder). But Bava's visual flair and the effectively-executed horror elements make memorable impressions, whether it's Theseus being tortured on a stretching rack by a stone creature lumbering around like an ancient Frankenstein monster, Hercules and Theseus encountering obstructive vines that "imprison the souls of the damned" and bleed and emit cacophonous shrieks of agony as the two heroes hack their way through them, or an enraged Lico resurrecting the dead and forcing Hercules to battle on onslaught of zombies. Lico is also described as a "vampire," an obvious nod to Lee's notoriety from 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA and undoubtedly just another brick in the wall in his decades-long resentment of being typecast in horror roles. This was one of several films Lee made in Italy during this period, most of them taking advantage of his Dracula connection, including the 1959 spoof UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE and the 1963 Karnstein riff TERROR IN THE CRYPT. Lee's best film in his Italian sojourn was a reteaming with Bava on 1963's THE WHIP AND THE BODY, released in the US in 1965 as WHAT! The unfortunate downside of both of Lee's Bava films is that he didn't dub himself, and there's unquestionably something missing when an actor has a voice as distinctive as his. Nevertheless, Lee's presence--even though he's absent for a long stretch in the middle--is as vital a component in establishing HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD's horror bona fides as Bava's innovative directorial touches.


Reg Park and Christopher Lee
goofing off on the set
with Leonora Ruffo
The horror/peplum crossover worked, and inspired a few similar mash-ups, like Gordon Scott in 1961's GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES (Scott played Maciste, but became Goliath via dubbing), and Park battling werewolves in 1963's HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (filmed as URSUS: IL TERRORE DEL KIRGHISI, but again, magically transformed into a Hercules movie through its English dub). The Italian peplum fad died down by 1965, when everyone moved on to  spaghetti westerns and 007-inspired Eurospy knockoffs, and while some--Mitchell, Hargitay, Vadis, Lupus--shifted into journeyman actor mode, others called it a day and moved on. Reeves took a few years off and attempted a one-off non-peplum comeback with the 1968 spaghetti western A LONG RIDE FROM HELL before retiring from acting, while Park left the movie business altogether after starring in HERCULES THE AVENGER in 1965, the same year that he won his third and final Mr. Universe. He continued to be a staple in bodybuilding events well into his 40s, and at 42 and nearly two decades after winning his first Mr. Universe, he was the runner-up in the 1970 competition, with that year's title being the third straight for 23-year-old Austrian phenom Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has long cited Park as one of his heroes and inspirations. Park retired from bodybuilding by the mid-1970s, having already relocated with his South African-born wife to Johannesburg, where he opened a chain of successful gyms. He died in 2007 at 79 after a battle with metastatic melanoma.





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