Friday, November 2, 2007

Hercules in the Haunted World

This is a rather curious entry into Mario Bava’s filmography. Mostly known for being Italy’s premiere horror director of the 60s and early 70s, this was an early effort in his career at helming one of a series of films about Hercules that were popular in Italy at the time. Before he had made his breakthrough as a director, he had done FX work on the first couple Hercules films with Steve Reeves, so I suppose this was his attempt to reconnect with his roots or some such nonsense.

There are two immediate flaws with the film, one major and one minor. The minor one is in how it follows the then-standard Italian method of dealing with international casts by having all the actors speak their dialogue in their native language and then overdubbing it all into whatever language the country its being shown in speaks. This means that everyone’s voices are pretty poor, even poor Christopher Lee, despite being English himself. The more important flaw is that, due to this being an ongoing series of films Bava otherwise had nothing to do with, he had to change his own style of directing to fit in with the series. While a number of his standard flourishes and stylistic devices are still in effect, the film has an inherent lightness and goofiness to it that is completely at odds with the bulk of Bava’s work, and you can sense he’s not entirely certain how to deal with it. You can tell from the plot, of Hercules and his friend Theseus going to the Underworld to rescue Hercules’s girlfriend Princess Deianira, that he did want to try to blend the Hercules series with his own horror films, but it’s an uneven fit.

The main problem with the attempt at blending the two is the unrelenting cheerfulness of the film. Despite them roaming around the Underworld, surrounded by theoretical dangers, and menaced by Christopher Lee back in the human world, it’s pretty much impossible to feel any worry for them at all. There’s a really clumsy attempt at a wacky sidekick with Telemachus, who goes stumbling through the landscape like he’s doing battle with the Three Stooges, and he really brings down every scene he’s in. The film’s main saving grace comes at the climax. Even when directing one of his weakest efforts, Bava still knows to close out the film with a bang, as Hercules winds up having to fight off an army of the undead commanded by Lee. Only here does Bava really show off all his visual skills, creating a nicely nightmarish vision that partially makes up for the poor writing.

As sword and sandal films go, I guess this one is at least as good as the majority, though it falls pretty far from the top films in the genre like the Sinbad movies (and, as should seem obvious, the FX in this are nowhere close to Harryhausen's). Bava throws in enough flair to keep it perfectly watchable, but it doesn’t transcend its genre enough to do more than that.

Rating: * ½

No comments: