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Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava
Story and screenplay: Mario Bava, Duccio Tessai, Alessandro Continenza, and Franco Prosperi
Camera Operator: Ubaldo Terzano
Editing: Mario Serandrei
Music: Armando Trovajoli
Main players: Reg Park (Hercules); Christopher Lee (King Lico); Leonora Ruffo (Deianira); Giorgio Ardisson (Theseus); Franco Giacobini (Telemachus); Ida Galli (Persephone)
Alternate titles: Hercules at the Centre of the Earth; Hercules in the Haunted World; Hercules vs. the Vampires; With Hercules to the Centre of the Earth; The Vampires vs. Hercules
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Released in America as HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, the film details the muscle man's attempts to retrieve a golden apple from the Land of the Hesperides. His quest takes him into the underworld, where he encounters a plethora of bloodhtirsty ghouls and demons. The real villain of the piece is Lico, an amoral nobleman bent on sacrificing Hercules' lover Deinira so that he can attain immortality.

Upon his return to Icalia, Hercules is greeted with the news that Deianira has lost her senses. He visits her, and is crushed to discover that she no longer recognizes him. Lico, posing as the concerned uncle, sends Hercules to the oracle Medea for advice.

It is Medea who tells hercules that, in order to save deinira, he will have to retrieve the stone of forgetfulness from Hades. However, to gain access to the underworld, he will first have to retrieve the golden apple from the Land of the Hesperides. As a sign of his complete devotion to Deianira, Hercules returns his gift of immortality to the gods; in this way, he is forced to fight for her as a man, and not with any unfair advantage.

Hercules sets out immediately on his quest, stopping first to enlist the aid of his friend Theseus. Unfortunately, this point also marks the entrance of Telemachus, a comical character whose humor seems unduly forced and heavy-handed. The fiancÚ of one of Thesius' many lovers, Telemachus volunteers to join in on the quest for the golden apple, though he proves to be more of a hindrance than a help. By naming this character after the strong, dependable son of Odsseus, the protagonist of Homer's THE ODYSSEY, Bava seems to be deconstructing mythical heroic conceptions.

With the beginning of the long and arduous journey to Hades, the film becomes much more sure-footed; not even the occasional flat joke involving Telemachus can damage these scenes. The first step of the trip (by boat) finds Hercules and his cohorts in a vast seascape, set against a blood-red sky. Suddenly the men become sleepy, and when they awake, they find that they have reached the Land of the Hesperides. This "kingdom of eternal night" is populated by the cursed women of the Hesperides who, like Katia in LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, are being punished for the sins of their ancestors. Hercules retrieves the golden apple, thus freeing the women from their curse.

Yet, before the mission can continue, Hercules is faced with yet another challenge: Procrustes, a bloodthirsty stone demon who has enslaved the women of the island and has been forcing them to sacrifice all intruders to him, has captured Thesius and Telemachus. Using his intellect to find a way of stopping the monster ("By stone you are made, and by stone you shall be destroyed!") and his prodigious strength to actualy execute his plan, Hercules grabs the demon and hurls it into an enormous stone wall, smashing it to pieces. Luckily, the wall collapses, thus revealing the pathway to Hades.

In little time, Hercules and Theseus -- who have left Telemachus to guard the golden apple -- locate the stone which is the object of their quest. In retrieving it, however, Thesius is apparently killed in a pit of boiling lava. This proves to be another deception, as Thesius is rescued by the beautiful Persephone, who has been imprisoned in Hades by her father, the god Pluto. Thesius falls madly in love with his savior and vows to smuggle her out unnoticed.

Deinira responds quickly to the curative powers of the stone, and when Lico attempts to carry on with his plans he is unmasked by Hercules. A battle for Deianira's life ensues, and Lico seals himself and the girl into a secret chamber and begins to perform the appropriate ceremony. To stave off his nemesis, Lico calls forth an army of the dead. Yet the zombies are no match for Hercules, whose eventual triumph over Lico is a foregone conclusion.


Saddled with a terrible script and a ludicrously low budget, Bava nevertheless manages to make ERCOLE into a film of great visual power which transcends all others in its genre. Bava's first film to be photographed in color, ERCOLE benefits enormously from his painterly use of the medium; the vibrant primary colors and striking, surrealistic contrasts of vivid blue/red lighting results in a film of often hallucinatory beauty. Likewise, the skillful use of widescreen gives the film an "epic" look which belies its low-budget origins.

Like so many of the peplum films that filtered out of Italy during the 50s and early 60s, ERCOLE owes a tremendous debt to Homer's epic saga THE ODYSSEY. The rules of the epic, mythical saga as established in Homer's poem are followed to the letter: the hero (Hercules is simply Odysseus re-christened), in the effort to rescue and/or be reuinted with a loved one, is forced to undergo a series of adventures/tests of strength (physical and mental), during which he is tempted by alluring females and beseiged by unspeakable monsters. The adventurer with guile and strength enough to complete these tasks is utimately rewarded with the obligatory happy ending. There is more to the story than that, of course, but this is the basic outline. What sets this film apart from so many others of its ilk is Bava's decision to incorporate one of the most memorable passages of the saga of Odysseus: amely, the hero's descent into the underworld. In Homer, this spectral netherworld is neither Heaven nor Hell. It is the land of the shadows, where the spirits of the dead are forced to exist. Bava's take on the story, most probably influenced by Dante, strips the netherworld of all ambiguity: it is most definitely Hell, or more accurately, as per the film's dialogue, Hades. In visualizing this nightmarish universe, Bava lets his fertile imagination run freely. Bold, vivid pools of contrasting colors emphasize the otherworldly aspects, and the craggy, desolate landscapes team with threatening visions and life forms.

The most interesting aspect of Bava's approach, though, is his emphasis on Hercules' intelligence and humanity. A comparrison between the characters of Hercules and Odysseus is helpful here. The character of Odysseus, at least in Homer, is frequently self-centered and unremorseful. A perfect illustration of this is when Odysseus forces several of his men to accompany him to the Cyclops' cave, knowing full well the dangers that they will encounter, simply to satisfy his curiosity (9.251-59). Consequently, though he survives, he shows no real remorse when his friends are summarily slaughtered. By contrast, Bava's Hercules is a man of principle, integrity and strength. Yet, rather than present the character as a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out, Bava gives the character some real emotional substance. His devotion to Deianira is so complete that he puts his life on the line in order to help her. Additionally, he does everything in his power to protect his friends. Yet, more importantly, Bava's Hercules is more than a man of brawn. The typical homo-erotic spectacle of the scantily-clad male flexing his muscles and acting tough is deemphasized here, and Hercules, like Odysseus (who is a mere mortal), is forced to fend for himself by using his wits.

A theme that constantly re-emerges in this film, as in so many Bava films, is the deceptive nature of appearances. The oracle Medea explicates this notion when she warns Hercules not to trust what he "thinks he sees." Illusions of all sorts are scattered throughout the story: the apparently benign Lico turns out to be the villain; the vines that block the entrance to Hades are more than vines: they act as a vessel for the souls of the damned; Thesius' apparent death is a trick; and so on. Though Hercules' intelligence enables him to see through most of these illusions (for example, the chain-clad naked woman who entices Thesisu) he is still vulnerable, like the viewer, to make a few mstakes. Chief among these is his failure to recognize Lico's true nature. Bava has fun with the medium in this regard. To the viewer, Lico is transparently villainous, especially as played by Christopher Lee. The final "revelation" of his real intentions comes as no surprise at all, nor is it intended to. Bava takes the viewer into his confidence, as it were, by exposing Lico's villainy right up front. In this way, the viewer has the satisfaction of being one step ahead of Hercules, whose essential kindness prevents him from seeing Lico as a threat. In this short-coming, Hercules endangers the lives of Deianira and his friends, though it is not born out of mere stubbornness. The ability to see, to discern, and to know is a typically Bavian obsession. In OPERAZIONE PAURA, the seemingly angelic little girl in white is actually a vengeful spirit; in DIABOLIK, the titular character constantly assumes disguises to hide his identity from the police; in LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, the innocent Katia is practically indistinguishable from the evil Katia; and so on. The danger of taking things at face value is always a risky and unwise move for Bava's characters, yet, as in real life, they continue to do so. In his failure to recognize Lico's real nature, Hercules is not alone. He is merely the latest in a long line of fallible characters who are trapped in an ambiguous and uncertain universe.

ERCOLE is a film of surprising depth and maturity. As usual for the director, Bava plays by the rules by delivering what the audience expects to see -- but only to a point. The average action movie fan is tided over with a few well-staged action set-pieces, but Bava cannot resist the temptation of exploring some of his favorite themes. The film's level of accomplishment is all the more remarkable when one considers all of the factors that surely worked against it: a bad script, low budget, etc. The pressure to deliver a good film with precious little resources is fairly constant throughout Bava's directorial career, but here he has an additional stumbling block to avoid. Quite simply, it is very hard to make a decent peplum/sword-and-sandal film. More often than not, the Italian peplum films are strictly juvenile affairs: cheap, clumsy, and generally insufferabe. The fact that this film works so well is a solid testimony to Bava's genius and innovation; though not without flaws, ERCOLE stands out as one of the finest and most imaginative fantasy films of all time.

Review © Troy Howarth

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