MILL CREEK NIGHTMARE WORLDS: Maciste in Hell (1925)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Upton is an American (non-werewolf) writer/editor in London. She currently works as a freelance ghostwriter of personal memoirs and writes for several blogs on topics as diverse as film history, punk rock, women’s issues, and international politics. For links to her work, please visit https://www.jennuptonwriter.com or send her a Tweet @Jennxldn

Maciste, played by Bartolomeo Pagano, was first introduced as a supporting character in the early Italian silent film, Cabiria (1914.) Muscular Pagano (a.k.a. Ernesto Pagani) stole the show and soon, the onetime working-class dock worker found himself earning 750,000 Lire per year as the star of the popular Maciste franchise that lasted over a decade into the 1920s and was later revived in the ‘50s and ‘60s as part of the popular sword and sandal epics of that era. Similar to Hercules in Greek mythology, Maciste is an enormously vigorous champion with an equally powerful sense of morals. In Maciste in Hell, considered the best of 26 films and, our hard-bodied hero travels down to the bowels of Hell. 

Although it runs one hour and 37 minutes, the 2019 tinted restoration scored with the often-used Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz will probably take film buffs and historians almost twice as long to get through given the many opportunities to hit “pause” and study the gorgeous visuals. Everything in this film is worthy of scrutiny. When combined, the costumes and makeup, sets, props and in-camera effects (including facial regeneration) serve not only as an excellent example of what could be accomplished technically in the silent era of Italian cinema, but also as a moody foundation for the weird and wonderful mise-en-scéne seen in future generations of Italian cinema maestros including Margheriti, Bava, Freda and Argento. Not to mention Fellini, who saw this film in his first outing to the cinema as a young boy.

The story is quite complicated, mixing Catholic morality with ancient Roman and Greek mythology. We’ve got King Pluto, his wife and daughter and a bunch of demons in the underworld. There’s a troublesome devil named Barbariccia who comes to earth to cause trouble and capture Maciste, who thwarts him, saves babies and reforms a playboy deadbeat dad named Giorgio and convinces him to go back to the lovely Graziella before finally being dragged to Hell. He’s only allowed to remain for 3 days lest he kiss a woman. Enter Prosperina, Pluto’s wife, to tempt him. Now in a furry devil’s uniform, Maciste has the strength of 10 lesser devils. Something no one considered. He sets about kicking minion ass, traps the treasonous Barbariccia during a coup against Pluto and frees the masses. For his help, Pluto sends him back home. On his to the river Styx to hitch a ride home, Proserpina captures him one final time. Our hero is once again a furry, tied to a mountain. 

A few years later, Graziella and Giorgio’s toddler prays for him (and the Pope) on Christmas night. The boy’s prayer frees Maciste, who finally heads home for the holidays. The film ends with a shot of an angel. There’s also a floating octopus and a dragon ride. I don’t know why but it really doesn’t matter. It’s the kind of film you just have to let wash over you in all its mad brilliance, tentacles, devils, angels and all.

You can watch this on YouTube.

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