Synopsis: Hercules (Reg Park) mus fight a monster made of stone, retrieve a golden apple from the tree of Hesperides, and brave the horrors of Hades to rescue his beloved from the clutches of the evil Lyco (Christopher Lee). Oracles, witches, and vampires abound in this delirious blend of sword and sandal adventure, horror, and psychedelia. Maestro Mario Bava’s first color film is awash in a sea of primary hues, creepy atmosphere, and eye-popping imagery.
eyelights: its scope. its visual flair.
eyesores: its lack of thrills. its convoluted plot.
“You know, I didn’t think Hades would be anything like this.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Hercules was a prominent figure in cinema. Oh, sure, a few films came out of late but, these days, we have superheroes to look up to – what’s a demigod strongman compared to Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Ironman and Wonder Woman?
However, for nearly a decade, Italian cinema was infected with “sword and sandal” adventures starring “Hercules”: beginning with the immense success of 1957’s ‘Le fatiche di Ercole’, filmmakers made a total of 19 motion pictures loosely based on the Greek mythological figure.
‘Ercole al centro della terra’ is the sixth.
Released in 1961, the motion picture was Mario Bava’s sophomore directorial effort after ‘La maschera del demonio‘. A direct sequel to ‘Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide’, it stars British bodybuilder Ray Parks as Hercules, the fourth actor to earn the lead role thus far.
Frankly it’s hard to know which Hercules productions are related and which ones are copycats or knock-offs. As we would soon discover with the spaghetti westerns and Eurospy films, Italian low budget filmmakers tended to.. ahem… “borrow” from popular properties and even each other.
Case-in-point, the ‘Django’ series, which has only two official entries but more than two dozen copies.
In any event, these movies were made on very little money and were essentially designed to turn an easy profit – they were the equivalent of straight-to-video fare. Directors had few resources to work with and just had to cobble together the best movie that they could with nothing.
Mario Bava, thankfully, was a filmmaker more interested in solving technical problems than in storytelling, so for him this was a welcome challenge. Forget the fact that he only had three weeks to make an epic film. Or that almost all the sets, costumes and props were recycled.
He was up to the task.
‘Ercole al centro della terra’ is by no means a great movie. It really isn’t. It’s the kind of fodder that would be at home on the boob tube on a lazy Sunday morning, while eating cereal and trying to figure out what your friends are up to, and would be completely out of place anywhere else.
It’s got Hercules. It’s got fights. It’s got large-scale sets. It’s got fantasy sequences. It’s got alluring romantic interests. It’s got villainous threats. But it doesn’t have thrills. It doesn’t have heart. It doesn’t have brains. And it certainly doesn’t stimulate one’s imagination.
It stimulate the senses, though: for years before becoming a director, Bava was a cinematographer and a special effects engineer and he made use of his skills with this picture. Though he had very little to work with, he used every ounce of creativity to make the film pop on the screen.
A perfect example of this is how he only had four columns to work with and needed a fifth one to make a scene work, so he proceeded to stick a matchstick near the camera with a piece of bubble gum and, voilà, he had a fifth column in the foreground! His ingenuity knew no bounds.
Despite the crappy production, it’s surprising how good this film looks. Sure, the sets couldn’t possibly look less realistic, but I’ve seen comparable films produced on much bigger budgets. And there are unforgettable scenes, like Hercules’ psychedelic seafaring voyage to Hades.
The plot this time around revolves around Hercules’ beloved, Deianira, being spellbound and hidden away by her uncle Lyco under the pretext that she is ill – and he’s sitting on the throne in her absence. The only way to release her is for Hercules to get the Stone of Forgetfulness.
But, to enter Hades, he needs to get the Golden Apple from the Garden of Hesperides. And there will be trials along the way. And traps. And even after bringing the Stone to Deianira, then Hercules has to content with Pluto’s discontent and prevent Lyco from drinking his niece’s blood.
Hercules has a lot on his hands.
But, thankfully, he’s got his lascivious sidekick Theseus with him to provide assistance – though he also inadvertently causes trouble as well by seducing women that he shouldn’t. And he’s got laughs a plenty on his hands with the bargain-bin Joe Pesci comic relief of Egle.
I guess, for me, the greatest weakness of the picture is that I’d have wanted to see Hercules use his strength in incredible ways more. He chucks a large cart at the beginning of the picture, but the rest of the time he just wanders about, mostly using his body builder’s frame for show.
Yawn. Demigod my !@#$.
My favourite Hercules moment comes when he’s told by the gods that he must protect Deianira from Lyco, but instead goes to confront Theseus. It’s only when Sybil agrees to leave and reminds him that he needs to protect Deianira that the big galoot goes to save the day – barely on time.
(And they’re not even married yet! Wait til he gets his hands on the remote control!)
But I’m guessing that people who like these sword and sandal type films might enjoy it to some degree; it’s certainly of equal measure with the other Hercules films that I’ve seen. And fans of Mario Bava will certainly want to see the legend “MacGyver” his way to semi-coherence.
I’m not saying that ‘Ercole al centro della terra’ is grand cinema, obviously, but there are people who will likely get something out of it; it’s actually not awful. And yet it has every right to be. If Bava wasn’t the genius that he was, it’s likely that this would have been a Labour.
Even Hercules wouldn’t have made it through.
Nota bene: As was the tradition back in the day, the picture was heavily re-edited for the North American market. Thankfully, the uncut European version has been released on home video with both the original Italian dub and the English dub – which are different enough to change the story.
After checking out both, I settled on the Italian version.
Date of viewing: June 11, 2017