Well, life got a little away from me for a bit there. Here I am on the other side, trying, somewhat dazedly, to finish what I started.
Last time, we dealt with Italian cinema’s flirtations with Dante Alighieri’s Inferno – understandable, given the poet’s importance to Italian culture – and, as mentioned, I had intended to cover three movies, until I realized I was going to have to expand it to four. We’ll get into why in a bit, but for right now we had better get started before events jerk the rug out from under me again.
The next logical movie after L’Inferno and Maciste in Hell, I thought, would be Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, or as this particular copy would have it, Hercules in the Center of the Earth.
Hercules (Reg Park) is, as usual traveling back after some adventures to the love of his life – this time it’s the princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). He and his traveling companion, the womanizing Theseus (George Ardisson) are set upon by some thugs, who would normally be chased away by Hercules employing his party trick, hurling styrofoam boulders at them, but as this is a special Bond-style opening, he instead throws a whole damn wagon. We will eventually find that the thugs were sent by Deianira’s guardian, the regent Lico (Christopher Lee), who neglected to tell his bully boys that the target was Hercules. This seems like mission critical information to me, but what do I know, I’m not an evil regent.
Hercules is shocked to find that Deianira is now somewhat insane, supposedly driven to distraction by the belief that her absent lover has died at sea (no extra points will be awarded for guessing that Lico and his magic are at the root of this problem). Hercules consults the Oracle (a masked Gaia Germani), who cannot reveal too much, due to the “forces of darkness”, but when Hercules sacrifices his immortality to Zeus, the Big Guy allows her to tell Herc that the Stone of Forgetfulness will cure his love. The main problem there is the Stone is deep in the realm of Hades.
Hercules gathers up Theseus and gets saddled with an Odious Comic Relief who is so unfunny I was pretty sure his name was Odioso, but it turns out to be Telemachus (Franco Giacobini). This is a terrible use of the name of Odysseus’s son – Telemachus here is the supposed fiance of the woman Theseus is always snogging (Marisa Bellia), but now hangs around Theseus as, I suppose, the Ultimate Cuck, to use the current idiot jargon.
These three journey to the island of the Hesperides – usually some nymphs who tend a garden, but here a bunch of ladies under a curse. Herc needs their Golden Apple, which will insure that he can come back from Hades, but it’s at the top of a tree with more deathtraps than a cave leading to the Holy Grail. Hercules, naturally, throws a styrofoam boulder at the apple, knocking it down, and freeing the Hesperides from their curse.
Theseus and Odioso, meantime, have been offered to the rock monster Procrustes (whom Theseus actually fought and vanquished, according to mythology, but here merely breaks his sword on the monster). Hercules arrives in the proverbial nick, throwing Procrustes into a wall, which conveniently enough, was covering the entrance to Hades.
This sequence is where Bava works his usual magic with a very limited budget, starting with a lovely siren chained to a pillar, an obvious trap for horndog Theseus. They walk through a forest in which is trapped the souls of the damned (thanks Dante!), as they find when Theseus attempts to hack through with his magically restored sword, and the branches bleed while the trees wail. Herc still whacks off enough vines to make a rope that he stretches over a lake of lava (by attaching it to a hurled styrofoam boulder) to get to the Stone. Theseus will try to follow Herc on the rope, but fail, as he is not a demigod, and falls into the lava (another pretty good effect).
Just when we’re trying to figure out how to get Odioso down there to also fall in Hell’s soup bowl, we find that Theseus has somehow miraculously gone through the lake of fire unharmed, and he is being mooned over by some honey (Ida Galli) and, being Theseus, he decides to sneak the girl out of Hell without telling Hercules.
Hercules is glad to see his friend alive, the sap, and the unknown babe hiding in the ship’s hold tells Theseus the only way to get out of the sudden storm buffeting the ship is to toss the Golden Apple overboard. How does she know about stuff like this? It’s because she’s actually Persephone – in Maciste in Hell, “Pluto’s Second Wife”. In this Americanized version, “Pluto’s favorite daughter”. Did the Italian version thus whitewash the whole abduction of Persephone fable, or was it just for us prudish Yanks? Anyway, Pluto ain’t happy, and now there’s a curse upon the land, which kind of harshes Hercules’ buzz when Deianira is cured by the Stone. Lico is equally put out until his pals with the Forces of Darkness assure him all he has to do is drink Deianira’s blood during the upcoming eclipse and he can be evil for eternity.
So Herc has to convince Theseus to give up Persephone and rescue Deianira yet again when Lico abducts her to a nearby hill with a handy sacrificial altar, leaving a bunch of zombies behind to slow Hercules’ roll. Hercules finally catches up, and though you might think he would drop a styrofoam boulder on Lico, he figures nope, I’m not taking chances with Christopher Lee and drops a whole damned standing stone from the surrounding pseudo-Stonehenge on him instead. Fortunately, there are many more Styrofoam stones around for Herc to throw on the approaching herds of zombies until the eclipse is over.
Still not quite the end, as Persephone used the power of the Stone of Forgetfulness to erase her memory from Theseus’ mind, so he goes back to snogging Odioso’s girlfriend, and Odioso throws himself into the ocean to drown, to the cheers of the audience, and the laughter of Hercules and Deianira, the jerks.
Mario Bava had worked as lighting and cinematographer in the two movies that started the peplum boom, Hercules and Hercules Unchained, so he was working in familiar territory here, but it still has to be granted that the movie profits magnificently from the addition of Bava’s visual sense and overall fascination with gothic imagery. The scene of the zombies rising from stone sarcophagi is so horror movie effective you might think you accidentally switched to another movie. There’s a reason it features so prominently in the trailer below.
You expect Bava’s usual vibrant use of color, but few directors ever got so much variety of use from plain old fog. Haunted World‘s low budget is often achingly obvious – Reg Park probably experienced some deja vu when Bava recycled sets from Park’s previous Hercules flick, Captive Women – but the results are rarely less than gorgeous to look at. The vibrant colors even make some iffy miniatures look good.
When you saw that scene cropped for 4×3 TVs, you never realized that Bava perfectly set up the hill with the standing stones and altar, over to the left.
Speaking of Reg Park, he makes for a terrific Hercules. At the peak of his bodybuilding form, he’s handsome, affable, certainly looks the part, and is a good enough actor to look like he’s putting real effort into hurling those styrofoam boulders. Lico is the sort of role Christopher Lee could have done in his sleep, but as ever, he is completely serious and gives the role more than its due. Now, I know that the studios at Cinecittà were so noisy that all the movies were shot without sound and dubbed later, but I still really resent it when Lee is dubbed by another actor, one without his presence or gravitas, and who was likely being rushed by the ADR director to get it done in one morning, because Godzilla vs the Thing had the studio that afternoon.
That would have wrapped up my original article, but there was something bothering me. I had thought I had seen various parts of Haunted World in my youth (as I said, my mother watched these religiously on the afternoon movie in those pre-Dr. Phil days), and expected a much lengthier trip to the Underworld. When that didn’t materialize, I realized I had seen pieces of a different movie entirely, and there was only one real candidate for that, and it was, ironically enough, Riccardo Freda’s 1962 remake of Maciste in Hell, re-titled, for Maciste-deprived Americans, The Witch’s Curse.
With uncharacteristic swiftness, we get right down to the title fulfillment, as a witch is burned in 1555 Scotland. Marta Gant claims that the Justice condemning her is doing so simply because she turned him down when she was young, and curses the entire village. One hundred years later, the curse is in full effect, women going mad and attempting to commit suicide, usually at a huge dead tree that only flowers when someone succumbs to the curse.
Now, let’s meet a couple of newlyweds, Charlie (Angelo Zanolli) and Marta (Vira Silenti). Marta is a direct descendant of the witch from the first scene – she even has the same name – and as a wedding present, Charlie has bought the old family castle for her. This proves that one should always do one’s due diligence when buying real estate, because the superstitious villagers immediately storm the castle and attempt to lynch Marta while yelling about burning her. Stupid villagers.
Enter – twenty minutes into his own movie – Maciste (Kirk Morris) – who, despite being in 17th century Scotland, is clad in his taditional loincloth and sandals, and probably freezing his nipples off. He saves Marta from the mob, who are probably more cowed by this half-naked madman who can bend iron bars than anything else.
Marta’s ancestor is a real witch-with-a-b because she makes a bible burst into flames when Marta touches it at a trial, guaranteeing she’ll be burned at the stake. The more rational town doctor (Charles Fawcett) shows Maciste the cursed tree, and the muscleman naturally pushes it over and climbs down the well-lit hole into Hell to seek out the witch and save Marta’s life.
The credits helpfully inform you that Hell is being played by the caves of Castellana in Italy, and they are beautiful and quite spacious; after playing tourist for a while and observing a small army of extras being tormented by the occasional day player in a mask (with the required homages to Gustav Doré), Maciste sets to his task of finding the witch. He will be aided in this by Fania (Hélène Chanel), a beautiful woman who, to the surprise of nobody, is actually the witch she is looking for. No getting turned into a demonic sex toy for this Maciste, he is instead hit with a spell of forgetfulness while Fania gets kidnapped by Goliath so Maciste can throw styrofoam boulders at him.
It seems Maciste was never given an origin to explain his great strength, and this portrayal seems to weigh against any sort of divine descent like Hercules, as Morris has to really strain during his feats of strength, like bending bars or picking up boulders to protect him from sparks falling from above. Normally, I’d say this is for tension, for reinforcing Maciste’s heroism and determination to aid the helpless and overcome all obstacles that rise in his way. Actually, it’s just to pad the running time of the movie, which becomes tediously obvious as we go along.
Luckily for Marta – whose execution date is fast approaching, Maciste eventually stumbles upon Prometheus, who in accordance with legend, is chained to a rock so a vulture can eat his liver for all eternity (this was because Prometheus gave fire to mankind, in case you had forgotten that the gods are dicks). Prometheus tells Maciste to look into a nearby pool where he sees scenes from his last two movies (Il Trionfo de Maciste and Maciste in the Valley of Woe) and then the beginning of this movie, fer gawd’s sake, to restore his memory. I told you the padding got obvious.
(It was, incidentally, the scene with Prometheus that I remembered from my youth and was hoping to see in Hercules in the Haunted World. I would have liked it better in Bava’s movie, where it likely wouldn’t have been thrown in to reach the 90 minute mark)
Well, Fania of course falls in love with Maciste’s innate goodness and lifts the curse, Marta is saved, the whole village praises Maciste and asks him to stay, but he must move on the to the next improbable time period and locale to fight evil. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu. You’d think the villagers would have at least bought him a shirt or something, though.
Now, any peplum movie is going to suffer by being seen after something shot by one of the premier genre directors of the period, but I suspect Witch’s Curse would seemed pretty sub-par even as a stand-alone. I’m willing to embrace the concept of Maciste as a sort of cosmic Lone Ranger, journeying from what appears to be Ancient Egypt to Khanate Mongolia to Puritan Scotland, but give me some attempt to reconcile the appearance of a half-dressed madman in the middle of a Mayflower pageant!
We’re really here to see Hell, aren’t we? The scenes in Castellana are wonderful to look at, and feature some truly fantastic pyro work. But past the time-wasting grunting scenes, there is also a surprisingly diverse cross-section of wildlife in Hell, and all of them want to wrestle with Maciste. A lion(ess with a bad wig), a couple of snakes, Prometheus’ vulture, a herd of bulls for crying out loud. Most of the times the puppets are pretty well-matched in the close shots, but the snake scene has some of the most egregious grab-the-animal-and-pull-it-to-you attacks I’d seen since Deadly Eyes. This is all underlined by the ancient witch and her similarly damned would-be lover Parris are always looking on, talking about how no one can defeat the Devil, but then the Devil just opens another cage from Hell’s Petting Zoo.
Kirk Morris was about the only actually Italian bodybuilders in the peplum boom (real name Adriano Bellini), and reportedly Freda didn’t think much of him as an actor – Maciste doesn’t get a single line until he descends into Hell – but he does pretty well, even when asked to really streeeeeeeeeetch out those lifting scenes. He made a bunch of Maciste movies, and even played Hercules several times, including one of my favorites, Hercules, Samson and Ulysses. Here he’s still got a fair amount of youthful charm – think Fabian as a muscleman – and I would probably would have liked him more if the driector hadn’t disliked him. Or he was in a better movie.
Now to put this to bed because a fifth movie is reaaaally tempting me.