Thursday, June 23, 2011

REVIEW: Hercules in the Haunted World

Hercules in the Haunted World
Director: Mario Bava
Year 1961

Hercules in the Haunted World is a visually intense Peplum that relishes in the vibrant and fantasy infused colors, concocted by the one and only Mario Bava. The film centers around two muscle bound characters, Hercules and Theseus, as they venture into the underworld in order to awaken Hercules' love Princess Deianira from a hypnotic trance that threatens to claim her life and strip her of the throne. Can Hercules and Theseus survive the horrors of the underworld, or will their good intentions unleash something far more disastrous unto the world? Either way be prepared for a wild ride.

See they're laughing, they're having a good time.

Fantastically directed by Mario Bava, the legendary italian director most known for his iconic horror films like Black Sunday, The Whip and the Body, Black Sabbath, Kill Baby, Kill, and Blood and Black Lace, Hercules in the Haunted World showcases a plethora of mythological elements all fabricated and bathed under a kaleidoscope of colors. Filmed to perfection by the accomplished italian filmmaker, it's hard to imagine what the film would have looked like in any other directors hands. It's safe to say that Bava had a style all of his own and he let that splendid eye for imagery dictate the atmosphere of Hercules world, both in the realm of the living and the world of the dead.

The striking distinction between the two habitats is like night and day, but he still manages to balance both locations enabling the cast of characters to feel at home in both worlds no matter how diverse the living situations. It's classically done and even though we are bombarded with some rather supernatural and fanciful things, we never feel out of place in this euphoric plain, making it all the more clearer that Bava is what makes this film truly unique and a beast of its own.

Christopher Lee, you naughty little monkey.

Of course Bava had a great deal of help from his cast, first and foremost Reg Park as Hercules. Not only did he have the physique for the role, but he also carried a great deal of charisma that helped mold him into a more sympathetic character. What could have been a hollow, muscle-bound, and wooden performance, is instead transformed into a conscious and selfless representation of Hercules by Mr. Park. I really enjoyed his interpretation of the larger then life character and I felt that he gave the role a certain amount of weight that might not have been present if someone else had taken the reigns. Watching as the goliath Hercules struggles with moral decisions while at the same time battle with such determination through the terrors of the underworld, made for a highly entertaining ride that was a whole hell of a lot of fun. Reg Park was able to tackles both sides of the coin and should be commended for such a feat.

Everyone loves Hercules.

God I hate this haunted world.

Also the role of Theseus, Hercules' companion, brought another yet different quality to the film. More of a womanizer and scoundrel, George Ardisson's Theseus provided more of a mischievous nature to the story. When we first meet Theseus, he is literally rolling in the hay with a recently unengaged woman without a care in the world, that is until he is ambushed by a group of men hired to take out both himself and Hercules. With a great deal of show Theseus thwarts the attack, sending his assailants crashing to the ground as he seems to thrive on the action of the moment. Ardisson almost plays him as an action junky, always looking for his next test of strength or conquest in both the battlefield and the bedroom. He makes for the perfect partner to Hercules, who is more of a focused warrior only looking for a resolution to the problem and never seeking it out for the sheer thrill of it.

The undeniable contrasts of Theseus' passion for the spontaneous and Hercules' sensible approach to both love and life, comes crashing to a head in the second half of the film, providing a very memorable moment between the two friends. Ardisson's role in portraying that other half of the friendship is key to making it believable to the audience. The energy he brought to the role matches the passion that flows through Theseus' veins and that's really all you can ask in such an important supporting character and actor.

Last one up is a monkey's uncle!

I'm getting to old for this shit.

The antagonist for this fearsome duo is a power hungry and deceptive man named King Lico, played by the one and only Christopher Lee. Blinded by his lust for power, Lico entraps his niece in a hypnotic stupor, thwarting her from taking the throne and ruling the kingdom. As usual Lee is wonderful, giving that subtle yet overpowering performance that has permeated throughout his career and created more memorable characters then one can count. His presence is always intense and he carries it beautifully, leaving the viewer with a foreboding notion that this man is a walking talking poison guided only by his quest for the throne. I loved every minute he was on the screen, including his final confrontation with Hercules as they battle on top of a mist covered and moonlit hilltop ruin. The sequence is mesmerizing and it beautifully caps off this wonderful film.

You want me to do what?!?!

Oh Hercules... I can't stay mad at you.

The real meat and potatoes of this film is in the exquisite set design and model work. Never has the world of the underworld been so haunting and vividly reconstructed, capturing that creepy atmosphere and archaic wonder that really propels this film above and beyond its fellow Peplum companions. It's such a vivid portrayal too that one can't help but get swept up in the fantasy of it all. From the gnarled and twisted tree that Hercules has to scale, to the blood vine forest, to the lava filled caverns of the underworld, this film really does pack a visual punch. Even outside of the haunted realm of the underworld, Bava manages to spruce up the color and make it visually pleasing.

This is most prevalent during the night time scenes where we are given a surreal color scheme of purples, greens, and blues, that light the corridors and pillars of the palace. It's the most unnatural look one could imagine, but placed within the context of Bava's already established world, it works and works wonders. If there's one thing you can say and come away with, it's that this film is one of the most visually striking Peplums to ever be created.

Where in the hell am I?

I have the POWER!!!!

Hercules in the Haunted World is an imaginative film full of wonderful sets, glorious imagery, and interesting characters. The world is alive and full of life, made in part by the awe-inspiring design of the production team and the always appreciated cinematography of Mario Bava. Reg Park incapsulates the heart and soul of Hercules, giving the character a larger range then most give the icon credit for, while George Ardisson thrives as Theseus. To top it off you have the always consistent and highly engaging Christopher Lee as the main villain, who absolutely elevates the severity of Hercules' quest. All in all this film showcases the epitome of Peplum films, giving us the familiar staples of the genre, but adding a little twist to the proceedings that breathes new life into the formula. I highly recommend this film to Peplum fans and any followers of the late great italian master Mario Bava. 

5 out of 5 stars       Mario Bava's Peplum Masterpiece!


  1. This is one of my favorite sword and sandal movies and if you wanted to see what this film would look like in another directors hands, Riccardo Freda did THE WITCH'S CURSE aka MACISTE IN HELL in 1962. There were a handful of other fusto and gladiatorial horror movies like GOLIATH & THE VAMPIRES (1961), HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (1964), HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN (1964) and WAR OF THE ZOMBIES (1964) aka ROME AGAINST ROME.

  2. Nice, thanks for the recommendations. If there's a person to recommend some good peplum films it's definitely you Venom. I'll have to check those flicks out for sure. The only one out of the group that I've seen before is Rome Against Rome and the version that I watched was kind of beat up. I enjoyed it, but I wish it looked a little bit better. Any decent editions of that film anywhere?

  3. The one I have isn't so much beat up, it's just kind of dark and partial widescreen. There might be a DVD out somewhere in either Italy, Germany, or Spain. I haven't come across one yet, though. Of those ones I recommended the best are GOLIATH & THE VAMPIRES and HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN.