When it comes to mythological heroes, none hold a candle to the great demi-god Hercules, or at least when put in the context of big-screen appearances as he’s appeared in dozens of films ranging from the low-budget Italian Sword & Sandal films to the big Hollywood films like Disney’s animated Hercules and the 2014 Hercules starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Today, we will be looking at an example of the former, and one of my personal favourite adventures featuring this proto-superhero, Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World.
When it comes to adapting Greek mythology to the big screen, filmmakers tend to play fast and loose with the source material, but over the centuries these myths have been told and retold in a variety of ways, this is an instance where I can be a little forgiving — though I do still want to see a Hercules movie where he is driven crazy by Hera and murders his family. In the case of Hercules in the Haunted World or as it’s more properly known, Hercules in the center of the Earth, we have the brilliant Mario Bava at the helm, a man who is a master of painting with light and colour. What is even more impressive is that this production was mostly shot with the use of just four columns and one wall with a door; everything else was achieved by models, optical effects and forced perspective and all done in-camera. Bava’s skills as a director are more than matched by his brilliance as a cameraman and cinematographer.
This particular adventure finds Hercules (Reg Park) heading home to marry his betrothed, the lovely Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo ), who also happens to be heir to the throne. Unfortunately, her father has recently died but instead of her assuming the mantle of Queen the throne has been usurped by her uncle Lico (Christopher Lee ). Lico sadly informs Hercules that this is due to Deianira having fallen sick, seemingly lost in a mindless haze where she can’t even recognize her beloved Hercules and that he has taken the throne and hidden her illness from the people so as not to cause a panic. Of course, this is complete bullshit, as he has allied himself with the forces of darkness to become an immortal ruler, and because Lico is being played by Christopher Lee, this alone should have tipped off Hercules to something shady going on.
Any proper hero has to have a good sidekick and in the case of Hercules in the Haunted World, everyone’s favourite demi-god is paired up with Theseus (George Ardisson ), a Greek hero in his own right and mythical founder of Athens, but who in this adventure serves more as Hercules’ horn-dog wingman than he does as a proper adventuring partner. We are first introduced to him as he is making out with the beautiful Jocasta (Ely Drago ), who herself was engaged to marry this film’s comic relief Telemachus (Franco Giacobini ), who doesn’t seem to mind that he is being cuckolded by Theseus. In fact, they become fast friends and he eagerly joins Hercules and Theseus on their adventure into the underworld for virtually no reason.
Lico suggests that Hercules should consult oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) to find a way to free Deianira from this crippling malady and it is from this oracle that Hercules learns that the only way to free his beloved’s mind is with the “Stone of Forgetfulness” which, unfortunately, is located deep within the Underworld. But worse is the fact that to get this information he had to offer up his immortality to Zeus as payment. Sadly, the screenwriters forgot this little exchange for at no point in the film does Hercules’ loss of immortality affect him one iota.
Mythological Side Note: Medea was a key player in the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts and is known in most stories as a sorceress, often depicted as a priestess of the goddess Hecate, and there is no mention of her having a sideline as an oracle.
However, to gain access to the underworld he will have to retrieve the mysterious golden apple from the Land of the Hesperides. Thus begins the film’s true adventure as our trio of “heroes” fight a psychotic brute who owns the magical ship they’ll need to reach Hesperides, climb the unclimbable tree to acquire the golden apple, then battle Procrustes (a bloodthirsty stone demon who had enslaved the women of the island on behalf of the god Pluto), cross a massive moat of bubbling lava to retrieve the Stone of Forgetfulness, than sail back through stormy seas — caused by a pissed off Pluto because Theseus had fallen madly in love with Persephone and smuggled her out aboard their boat — and then finally facing off against the now revealed villainy of Lico and his army of the dead.
As adventure films go, Hercules in the Haunted World is a very enjoyable and fun romp, with Reg Park giving us a very affable and charismatic version of the legendary Hercules, and when it comes to onscreen villainy you can’t find a greater example than that of the amazing Christopher Lee, who even when badly dubbed is still terrifying. The plot of the movie is the film’s only true failing as it’s clear that Mario Bava and the screenwriters were re-writing drafts while the film was being shot, this is most noticeable in such cases as our heroes needing the golden apple to reach the underworld safely, but the Land of the Hesperides looked to be very much within the underworld.
Theseus and Telemachus wander in and out of scenes as if looking for missing script pages and some of the “Labours of Hercules” depicted here make little to no sense. For example, the Stone of Forgetfulness is located on an island surrounded by molten lava, so Hercules tosses a line from the shore to the island so that he can go hand-over-hand to reach his goal, and when halfway across he declares this tactic safe and beckons Theseus to join him. And we are forced to ask the question “What the fuck for?” It’s a bloody island so there is no need for Theseus to come along, as once Hercules gains the stone he still has to return via that self-same rope bridge, but instead of doing the sensible thing and telling Hercules to “Get fucked,” he follows along and ends up falling into the bubbling lava below.
This was, of course, just to facilitate Theseus becoming separated from Hercules so that he could meet up with Persephone — who in the Italian version is now the favourite daughter of Pluto and not his wife — and yet this bizarre relationship between Theseus and Persephone also goes literally nowhere and is wrapped up by her making Theseus forget she ever existed. As they fell in love over a period of about thirty seconds, maybe that’s not all that bad, but then the movie has the balls to end with Theseus once again stealing Telemachus’ fiancée. What a complete dick!
Now, intricate plot structure and scintillating characterizations are not something one should expect from a typical Sword & Sandal flick, what fans want is some cool Herculean action, and in the case of Hercules in the Haunted World, we do get our fair share of that, though it does tend to revolve around Hercules throwing a rock.
• Can’t successfully climb the tree to retrieve the golden apple? Just throw a large rock at it instead.
• Need a way into the Underworld? Why not throw a rock monster through the cavern wall that will then reveal a passageway into Hades itself?
• The island holding the Stone of Forgetfulness is surrounded by a lava field, so why not throw a large rock to carry a cable across?
• The evil Lico is about to drain the blood of your betrothed, why not throw a large rock at him?
• The army of the dead is swarming out of the darkness, why not throw a lot of large rocks at them?
Of course, the real reason to watch Hercules in the Haunted World is for the gorgeous cinematography provided by Mario Bava and in that case, this film does not disappoint, as we are basically assaulted from frame one with the most eye-catching visuals, threadbare sets that are made to look amazing, and the stunning use of colour is incomparable by any standard. This may not be a perfect depiction of the legendary hero Hercules — him actually being more likable here than in the Greek myths — but as a beautiful fantasy “epic,” you could do a lot worse than Hercules in the Center of the Earth.
Hercules n the Haunted World (1961)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
As Sword & Sandal flicks go Hercules in the Haunted World may not be the most well-known but it is easily one of the best-looking examples of the genre, and if you are a fan of Christopher Lee or filmmaker Mario Bava this one is a must-see.