Starring: Reg Park, George Ardisson, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, Franco Giacobini, and Ida Galli
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
When Hercules (Park) and his best friend Theseus (Ardisson) return home after another extended bout of adventuring, they find Hercules' betrothed, Deianira (Ruffo), in the throes of a strange illness and her kingdom governed by a sinister regent, Lico (Lee). The pair embark on a new quest for the one magical artifact that will cure Deianira that will take them into the very depths of Hades, land of the dead. Successfully restoring Deinira isn't the end of Hercules troubles, as Lico isn't just sinister-looking... he's bent on obtaining immortality at the expense of the lives of Hercules and his lady-love!
"Hercules in the Haunted World" is a gorgeous-looking, well-acted fantasy epic. Although the constraints of a low budget are almost painfully evident at times, and the Underworld and most of the sets have that very plastic, very 1960s feel to them, the great camerawork and creative lighting very much makes up for the shortcomings. There are times when the film takes on an almost dreamlike, fairytale quality that conveys the mood of the never-neverland of heroes and gods-walking-the-land is is so necessary for a film like this to succeed and which is so often absent in fantasy films.
Story-wise, the use of Greek mythology, the traditional structure of Hercules' quest to save Deianira (as well the various components of that quest), and many truly suspenseful and chilling sequences--such as when Hercules is set upon by dozens of undead in the service of Lico-- combine to tell a tale that has the feel of the ancient adventure stories that inspired this movie.
This is not to say the film is not without some serious flaws. Without fail, Bava draws out lead-ins to action and establishing shots to the film to the point where the viewer becomes annoyed and bored when he should be pulled deeper into the film. The worst of these is the above-mentioned battle between Hercules and the undead. Bava SHOULD have established that they're emerging from their graves and then moved onto the excellently done fight sequence, but instead he establishes the dead emerging again and again and again and again. Meanwhile, Hercules stands there and looks back and forth, to and fro, like an idiot, instead of taking action. The movie grinds to a complete halt here instead of leaping forward into the action that follows.
As always with a Mario Bava film, the visuals are stunning and there is true artistry in the composition of every shot, with Bava's background as an artist and a cinematographer serving him and the audience to great effect. It's the story-telling that he has trouble with. This was, however, only is second directorial effort (the first being "Black Sunday," which I review here.)
The movie also suffers from the standard affliction of fantasy movies made on shoestring budgets: It's got a Big Monster that's supposed to be scary looking, but is just goofy. Here's it's some sort of demon made of stone. To make matters worse, the scene in which it appears devolves into something that comes across as a parody of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears". There's underlying horror in the scene, but the stupid-looking creature (with its mouth hanging open as if it rode the short bus to its underground lair) and its blathering about short and long beds make the scene unintentionally comic. (I have to pause to wonder if kids might find the sequence scary; I'm not the audience for this film, so maybe I'm just not "getting it"?)
Finally, the film suffers from the fact that every time Christopher Lee opens his mouth, is it not the deep, resonant voice we movie lovers have grown use to over the years, but instead one that is far more high-pitched. Like all Italian movies of this vintage, it was shot silently and then dubbed into numerous languages later--and they obviously didn't hire Lee to loop his own voice, and the film is less for it.
For all its problems, however, "Hercules and the Haunted World" is one of the few decent fantasy films that have been made... and it's a film that even lovers of monster movies will be able to enjoy. It's not a masterpiece, but it's also not a bad way to waste some time.