For decades the Italian film industry often emulated the successful films of the United States. Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the popularity of such Hollywood films as The Ten Commandments and Spartacus, this often took the form of Biblical epics and stories set in the Greco-Roman period. Critics, with some derision in their voices, called these films peplum (using the Latin word for the Roman style tunics worn in such films) or sword-and-sandal movies. Fans have reconstituted those slags into something more positive. In the early part of this movement, Hercules was by and far the most popular character for these types of films. Between 1958 and 1965, some 19 Hercules films were made in Italy with at least ten different actors portraying the mythic legend.
After the success of Black Sunday, Mario Bava was recruited to make the second Hercules film starring bodybuilder Reg Park. Depending on how you count them, it was Bava’s second film as the credited director (though he helped direct several other films and even took over when the primary director dropped out on a couple of films, so it really does depend on how you want to count them) and his first in full color. It feels like the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans made on a classic Doctor Who budget. Bava reused some old sets, rented a few others for what must have been a day or two, made good use of mirrors to make things look bigger than they actually were, and flooded the sets with fog to add a mysterious air. The script is passable and the acting almost universally bad, and yet I think I kind of loved it.
Bava started out as a cinematographer (he did dual duty as both cinematographer and director on this film and almost every film he made hereafter) and he had a master's eye for creating interesting images on all his movies. Working with color on this film for the first time, he went all out, blasting the eye with beautiful and bold primary colors. He uses his limited budget and borrowed sets to great effect, creating something that will be beloved by kids and admired by adults.
Returning home from his many adventures (as seen in Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis), Hercules (Reg Park) finds that his one true love, Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo) has gone mad. The royal caretaker (or possibly interim King, the script doesn’t make it clear as to his official title) Lico (Christopher Lee) informs Hercules that she has been this way since her father, the King, died and she was without him to take comfort. Hercules consults the oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) who tells him to seek the Stone of Forgetfulness which lies in the depths of Hades.
Hercules, along with his trusted friend Theseus (George Ardisson) and comic relief Telemachus (Franco Giacobini), set off for the stone which will hopefully save Deianira. First, they must find a magic apple in the Garden Of The Hesperides. This means climbing a tree that doesn’t want to be climbed (Hercules, genius that he is, eventually decides to throw a boulder at it - something we will see him to far too many times in this film). The apple, once obtained, enables them entry into Hades where they must dive into a lake of fire, climb a rope above a river of lava, and battle a rock monster. Once the stone is obtained, the three head home only to find it was Lico all along who was poisoning the princess, working with the forces of darkness in order to rule the world. He has the power of Hades to raise the dead creating an army of zombies that Hercules must destroy (by throwing large, stone Roman columns at them).
It is all a bit silly, but tons of fun and Bava manages to make nearly every moment of it a visual feast. The blending of sword and sandals epic with classic horror elements was a new thing. It doesn't always work, but it did manage to start its own mini-genre proving once again how far ahead of his time Mario Bava was.
Reg Park is certainly muscle-bound, and amiable, but there is a reason he’s remembered as a bodybuilder rather than an actor. The rest of his friends do a reasonably good job and the women aren’t asked to do anything more than look beautiful, and they do that well. Christopher Lee is given the best entrances, lighting, and lines. He’s always great and he seems to be enjoying himself here.
Kino Lorber presents the film with a brand new 2K restoration with a 1080p transfer and a 2.35: aspect ratio. Extras include an interview with George Ardisson and a very informative audio commentary by the always great Tim Lucas.
It also includes three versions of the film on two disks. The first disk contains the U.S. and Italian releases. The video for both these versions is the same but the audio is in English and Italian respectively. As I always mention with these types of films, Italian cinema often included multi-national actors, allowing them to speak their native language onset and then overdubbed the dialogue in post-production. In this version, the two translations are significantly different with the U.S. dialogue being more comical in nature and the Italian version being serious throughout. Strangely enough, Christopher Lee has his voice dubbed in the U.S. version but he dubbed his own voice in Italian. The second disk contains the U.K. release of the film which added in some animated opening titles, changed the dialogue somewhat, and added in an extra expository scene (by looping in a Medea talking which was easy to sync as she wears a mask the entire time).
Hercules in the Haunted World is a movie I would have loved as a kid. It has action and humor, monsters and pretty girls. As an adult, I can enjoy the goofy adventure story, but truly relish the fantastic world that ario Bava managed to create on a meager budget and limited set pieces. I can very much recommend it to anyone, but especially Bava fans.