DVD: Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

May 7, 2015 | By


HerculesHauntedWorldFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label: Fantoma

Region: 0 (NSTC)

Released:  July 29, 2003

Genre:  Sword & Sandal / Hercules / Fantasy / Adventure

Synopsis: Hercules must descent to the centre of the Earth and retrieve a golden apple in order to free his beloved princess from a coma and her kingdom from an eeevil uncle.

Special Features:  Liner notes by Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas / Stills Gallery.




Biographer Tim Lucas provides much-needed contextual liner notes for Mario Bava’s second movie as credited director, a work that may be his greatest effort in transcending a non-existent budget that allowed a few exterior locations, and a large interior set comprised of one wall, four columns, and hand-me-down props from other productions.

The success of Black Sunday (1960) for American studio AIP and his special effects work on Hercules and the Captive Women (1961) in Italy led to Bava being hired to helm a new Hercules film with a three week production schedule. Lucky for Bava, the franchise mandated colour and ‘scope cinematography, making Hercules in the Haunted World / aka Hercules in the Center of the Earth / aka Hercules vs. the Vampires his first directorial effort in colour.

The story is a melange of myths and a little but of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth tossed in as an evil scheming ruler named Lyco (Christopher Lee, dubbed in both English & Italian versions by other actors) seeks to usurp the supreme and eternal power of his comatose niece Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). With Hercules (Reg Park) being his only obstacle, he sends the muscleman to Hades in search of a golden apple which should cure Deianira, Hercules’ love.

Joining in the quest is best buddy Thesus (George Ardisson) and sidekick / perfunctory comic relief klutz Telemachus (Franco Giacobini), who travel by sea to a hippy-trippy red-stained locale where the ocean parts and sucks up the vessel. When the trio awaken, they’re in the underworld lair of the Hesperides, a clan of women who may harbor a taste for male flesh. Other encounters include a rock monster, a valley of lava, and the daughter of Pluto who becomes a major liability when illicit love develops between herself and Thesus.

Bava’s photography adds more gloss and dimension to the super-limited sets, whereas clever trick effects expand the physical depth and scope in both elaborate and compressed shots, especially the network of underground tunnels and caverns that were built on obvious, flat stages. Bava doesn’t waste a single part of the widescreen image, and he keeps the camera moving to ensure the film maintains a brisk pace.

When saddled with ponderous dialogue, it’s the ornate pastel lighting scheme that keeps scenes interesting, or objects that often flow in front of the camera lens. Great examples of creating depth and tension from a handful of props include branches and vines and perpetual mist, and shimmering metallic streams that create diffused colour blobs in a moody scene where Hercules seeks advice from a white-masked oracle. (This faux 3-D effect, of seemingly placing the audience on the edge of a shot recalls Josef von Sternberg’s technique in several Marlene Dietrich films.)

Being a Bava film, the humour is often quite black – at one point the leader of the Hesperides apologizes nonchalantly to Hercules for feeding his buddies to the rock monster – and Christopher Lee is deliciously evil, deepening an otherwise cliched villain with attitude and a smarmy physical performance.

The quest storyline also allowed Bava to have fun with a pair of eerie sequences: the best sequence has Hercules climbing a massive tree to acquire the golden apple (the angles, colours, and action are incredibly engrossing, and one can trace stylistic similarities in a tower climbing sequence in Danger: Diabolik); and a mass of fast-moving cadavers chasing Hercules to a hill kind of foreshadows the zombies which swarm characters in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).

When released in America by the Woolner brothers (the same pair who handled the distribution of Blood and Black Lace), Bava’s film was cut down and the dubbing altered. Fantoma’s DVD comes with a striking anamorphic transfer of the original European version spliced between the more familiar (and highly rudimentary U.S. credits), and viewers can choose between the English and original Italian dub tracks (with the latter accompanied by subtitles). The mono sound mix is pretty straightforward, and fans of the film might want to check out DigitMovies’ soundtrack CD which features a number of cues not in the film, and tracks that run much longer than the final edited sequences.

While a regal treatment of Bava’s film, the Fantoma disc sports a transfer from 2002, making this a prime candidate for restoration and a Blu-ray special edition. Bava’s use of pastel colours and various gradations of green and red are really beautiful, and while this remains the definitive DVD presentation, it’s time for an upgrade with a full Tim Lucas commentary, some interviews, and an isolated music track showcasing Armando Trovajoli’s orchestral score.

Bava also directed the myth-flavoured Viking film Erik the Conqueror / Gli Invasori (1961) with Cameron Mitchell, and reunited with the actor for their second historical actioner, I Coltelli del vendicatoreKnives of the Avenger (1966) and the proto-slasher Blood and Black Lace (1964).

Hercules in the Haunted World followed Reg Park ‘s debut in Hercules and the Captive Women. The British-born muscleman reprised the role in Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964) and Hercules the Avenger (1965) before putting away his dusty sandals. George Ardisson (Thesus) also appeared in Bava’s Erik the Conqueror, whereas Christopher Lee would star in Bava’s twisted The Whip and the Body (1963).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack AlbumAlbum ReviewComposer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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