BAVA WEEK: Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

Using some of the same sets from Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis, Mario Bava (Blood and Black LaceBlack Sunday) created a masterpiece with this film. Featuring Reg Park (who appeared in four Hercules films and was considered a mentor to Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Christopher Lee (The Satanic Rites of DraculaThe Wicker Man, everything good and right about horror movies), this would influence every sword and sandal movie that would follow, as well as films like Flash Gordon.

Despite the size of the budget and the cheapness of the sets, Bava crafts a totally unique world, filled with rich colors and billowing smoke. And with Lee as King Lico, there’s finally a villain that feels worthy of Hercules’ bold heroics.

As Hercules returns from many adventures, he discovers that the love of his life,  Princess Deianira, has lost her memory. Unbeknownst to him, Lico is responsible. Working with the forces of the underworld, he wants her for himself (and Hercules out of the way). He sends Hercules, Theseus and Telemachus on a suicide mission to steal the Stone of Forgetfulness from a small island within a lake of fire. For love, Hercules will dare anything, diving headfirst into what normal men fear. 

Indulge me in hyperbole for a moment, but Bava could be seen as very much the same. He made a bet with himself on this film, “attempting to shoot it with one segmented wall containing doors and windows and four movable columns.” Facing down a challenge and attempting to outdo the past Steve Reeves Hercules films while crafting a visual style all his own — Bava exceeds expectations here.

To me, the heart of the film is the differences between Hercules and Theseus. Hercules is driven by duty, devotion and love, while Theseus is addicted to new experiences, whether they be violent or sexual. When he is turned against Hercules, you know that our hero will forgive him, no matter what. His strength goes beyond physical — it extends to his heart.

There’s a scene in the film where the Queen of the Hesperides tells Hercules this advice: “Believe only what you do, not what you think you see.” That’s a perfect thought for this film. You may see fake rocks, silly costumes and a goofy plot. Or you can enjoy this film’s simple pleasures, wild colors and otherworldly feel. 

There’s always a divide in how I see movies and how others do, which often leads me to not always want to share a film. Do you know what I mean? I honestly adore a film like Holy Mountain or The Beyond, but I know that by telling someone who isn’t willing to accept some of the faults, to simply see it as a dumb movie instead of a treasured story, I’m just going to get upset. This L.A. Weekly article sums it so well. Bava was operating on a small budget, with a small script, but delivered beyond measure. A story where one of the main characters must realize that in order to find true happiness for all, he must give up his own happiness? That’s deeper than the papier-mâché boulders and wooden performances here hint at.

Within the confines of what is expected, Bava is able to move us, to inspire us, to wow us, to take us to another, better world — one filled with smoke and lava and neon and beauty. We are limited now by the fact that every film must look perfect and clean and realistic. I’ll take one Hercules in the Haunted World over every movie that will play in moviehouses this year.

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