Friday, January 3, 2014

The Friday Night Late Movie: Mario Bava Takes Hercules to Hell and Back

Most film buffs remember Mario Bava for his Italian horror films of the 1960s and 1970s--especially Black Sunday, his chilling black and white masterpiece about a vengeful witch. However, he spent much of his career photographing films for other directors. After completing a couple of movies without credit, he directed his first film, Black Sunday, in the age of 46. Its immediate success resulted in a busy decade for Bava, starting with his next film Hercules in the Haunted World (1961).

Bava was not new to the sword-and-sandal genre. He was the cinematographer on producer Joseph E. Levine's worldwide smash Hercules (1958) starring Steve Reeves. He had also worked on the sequel, Hercules Unchained, and Jacques Tourneur's The Giant of Marathon (both of which featured Reeves). With his first solo Hercules film, Bava was saddled with a much smaller budget. In lieu of Reeves, the title role went to British bodybuilder Reg Park, who also played the muscular Greek hero in the same year's Hercules and the Captive Women. Bava hit the jackpot, though, when Christopher Lee signed on to play the villainous Lico.

Deianira doesn't remember Hercules.
The film opens with Hercules returning from a quest to learn that his beloved princess, Deianira, has lost her memory. It can only be restored with the Stone of Forgetfulness--and that's bad news because said stone is located in Hades. Undaunted, Hercules, his skirt-chasing friend Thesus, and the buffoon Telemachus head to an island of darkness to retrieve a golden apple that will open the gates of Hades. Fire-dripping trees initially prevent Herc from getting the apple, but he uses a giant stone to break off one of the branches, get the apple, and make his way to Hades with Thesus. (Telemachus is left to guard the apple, which frankly worried me at the time.)

Surprisingly, Hercules has few difficulties navigating his way through Hades to retrieve the Stone of Forgetfulness (which is actually a crystal). He does appear to lose Thesus along the way when his friend falls into a sea of lava. However, Thesus is rescued by the lovely Persephone--with whom he falls instantly in love. She and Thesus rejoin Herc and Telemachus (who did a fine job guarding the apple after all!) and the four return to save Deianira. Alas, their troubles have just begun. The evil Lico (Lee) wants to sacrifice Deianira and an angry Pluto wants to get back Persephone, who turns out to be his favorite daughter.

One of Bava's night scenes; he was also cinematographer.
While the plot is serviceable, style trumps substance in Hercules in the Haunted World. Bava's nighttime landscapes are bathed in blue and purple with dark drifting leaves, spider webs, and whistling winds. When Hercules sails to the island of the golden apple, a red sky is swallowed up by black as he approaches the land of darkness. Bava "paints" Hades in vibrant shades of orange, red, blue, and green. The viewer can only agree when Thesus observes: "I didn't think Hades would be anything like this." However, the visual highlight in Hercules in the Haunted World occurs when Herc--trying to save Deianira from Lico--battles a horde of flying gray corpses against a dark blue nightscape.

It's difficult to fully assess the qualities of Bava's film. The print I saw was eight minutes shorter than the running time listed in some sources. The cast is mostly dubbed, even Christopher Lee in at least one version. And many prints, including the one I saw, cropped the widescreen image into a TV-friendly ratio. Fortunately for Bava purists, there is at least one DVD containing digitally remastered widescreen versions of both the Italian and English-language releases.

Incidentally, while Reg Park never became a film star, he gained much fame in the world of bodybuilding. He won three Mr. Universe titles, once as an amateur and twice as a pro. In the biography Arnold Schwarzenegger by Colleen A. Sexton, Arnold is quoted as saying: "That's what I wanted to be, ultimately: big. Reg Park was the epitome of that dream, the biggest, most powerful person in bodybuilding."


  1. I can't say I ever liked Hercules movies of that type, but the horde of gray corpses sounds pretty cool! Maybe this one would be fun to try. But I have to admit, I think body builders like Reg look really creepy -- too much bulk -- I like brains! LOL!

  2. I've got Fantoma's DVD, which I assume is the remastered one you mentioned. It's excellent. I strongly recommend seeing Bava's film only on that DVD. Reg Park is a very good Hercules and doesn't look "creepy." In real life, he was an influential bodybuilder and successful businessman.

  3. Nice post! I love Mario Bava's films and his cinematography. And Reg Park to me was a terrific Hercules, especially in the Captive Women movie. He played it with an easy sense of humor that made the character more human even though his strength was obviously superhuman! Yep, as far as I'm concerned, for Hercules it's a draw between Steve Reeves and Reg Park. Both are great in different ways, and indispensable in the role.

    Enjoyed your post about 7 things to know about "The Fugitive" too!