Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

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*. Speaking in reference to the films of action stud Victor Mature, Groucho Marx once remarked that he didn’t like movies where the man’s tits were bigger than the leading lady’s.
*. It’s hard not to think of that line when gazing at the busty physique of Reg Park. Muscles were perhaps the one essential ingredient of the swords-and-sandals or peplum genre, returning us to a day of mythological god-men who look like classical statuary come to life. Is it any coincidence that a young Arnold Schwarzenegger was inspired by Park, and took the role of Hercules in his first film role?
*. This may be one of the sources of charm for such films: seeing real-life monuments of special effects going up against studio trickery. When Hercules takes on the truly otherworldly, and even weirdly robotic figure of Procrustes in this film, Theseus warns him that the monster is made of stone! But this makes it a fair fight, as Park is even more sculpted, so what we see is one man of marble facing off against another. Until Hercules throws Procrustes into a pile of rocks while declaring “of stone you are made and by stone you will be destroyed!”
*. The shot of Hercules lifting a heavy object over his head, by the way, is a great pose but perhaps overused here. Bava should have found a way to get Park to go through a fuller routine.
*. Mario Bava’s directing, however, is still this film’s saving grace. He’d done a lot of work on the previous two Hercules films (Hercules and Hercules Unchained, starring Steve Reeves), but here he was finally on his own.
*. The results are unmistakeably Bava: from the kaleidoscopic colour wheel to the gothic-horror trappings of the plot. Even things like Christopher Lee’s face slowing looming in for a vampire’s kiss, or Lico’s plan to be resurrected through draining Deianira’s blood are just elements carried over from Black Sunday.
*. The story is careless (just how does Theseus survive falling into the pit of boiling lava?) and the mythology a total hash, but it has a garish, tacky beauty and Saturday-morning cartoon show sense of fun. What it really lacks is a few of Ray Harryhausen’s monsters to provide some highlight reel action. As it is, Park’s body is the only draw, and as big as his arms are he can’t do all the heavy lifting himself.

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