Hercules Unchained (1959)

In Italy, this movie is known as Ercole e la Regina di Lidia (Hercules and the Queen of Lydia) and it’s loosely based upon various Greek myths and the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, as envisioned by co-writers Ennio De Concini and Pietro Francisci, who also directed. It’s also the second — and last — Hercules movie with Steve Reeves in the lead.

Hercules has been brought in to settle the battle over who should rule Thebes between brothers Eteocles and Polynices. However, a magic spring looks so refreshing and Hercules is hypnotized by a harem girl and becomes the kept man of Queen Omphale of Lydia (Sylvia Lopez, who sadly died the same year this movie was made), who plans on sleeping with our hero until she gets bored and turns him into a statue.

Luckily, Ulysses is on hand to help him get his memory back, just in time to decimate three wild tigers in order to rescue his wife beloved Iole (Sylvia Koscina). Then, our hero realizes that he should just let the two brothers kill one another.

Wrestling fans will be happy to see Primo Carnera (he was also a boxer and known as the Ambling Alp) show up as Antaeus.

Mario Bava served as special effects supervisor on this film (he was the cinematographer for Hercules and Hercules Conquers Atlantis; he would then direct the incredible Hercules In the Haunted World), which you can definitely see in the foggy dream sequences.

While Reeves would leave the series to Reg Park, the two Hercules files he was in would be successful all over the world.

You can watch this on Tubi with Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffing or check out the original on YouTube.

Hercules (1958)

Joseph E. Levine was a genius. At the time of his death, he’s produced nearly 500 films. He did some pretty amazing things, like introduce the U.S. to Sophia Loren and Godzilla, while bringing foreign movies like Jack the Ripper and Attila: Scourge of God to America, renaming The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World to Licensed to Kill and producing and executive producing everything from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and The Graduate to Mad Monster PartyThey Call Me TrinityMagicThe Carpetbaggers and The Producers. He started the Embassy in AVCO Embassy.

But for the purposes of this story, he was the man who spent $1 million dollars* to make Steve Reeves a star all over the world with this movie. And by the time he did it, Reeves had already made four more movies ready to follow this one.

Unlike many actors who go to Italy to make a film, the former chiropractor and Mr. America of 1947, Mr. World of 1948 and Mr. Universe of 1950 became a huge deal over in Italy, ending his career on his own terms in 1968 after the western A Long Ride from Hell, which has the incredible alternate title I Live For Your Death!**

Funny enough, this is more the story of Jason and the Argonauts, yet with Hercules taking center stage. And from this movie, an entire industry of peblum movies was born.

Hercules joins the crew of Jason, along with Ulysses and his father Laertes, Argos, the twins Castor and Pollux, Orpheus and Aesculapius when Pelias, the King of Iolcus, sends Jason on a fool’s errand to take the Golden Fleece. That’s because Pelias has been warned that someday, Jason would take his throne. Meanwhile, Hercules is in love with the king’s daughter Princess Iole. Who can blame him? She’s played by Sylvia Koscina, who is also in Deadlier Than the Male and So Sweet, So Dead***.

Hercules battles ape men and Amazons when he isn’t fulfilling his labors, like fighting the Nemean Lion and the Cretan Bull. There’s even a dragon with the voice of Godzilla, which makes sense, as Levine owned the rights to that sound effect.

By the mid-60’s, 10% of all Italian films were sword and sandal movies. That’s how influential this one is. And speaking of importance to Italian film, the cinematographer for this movie suggested that Reeves grow a beard. His name? Mario Bava.

*Levine spent more money promoting this movie than it cost to make. He was ahead of his time, if today’s movies are any indication. He also introduced the concept of saturation booking by using over 600 prints of this film, which at the time was a huge number of prints to be struck, as most theaters only had one screen.

**Reeves had turned down A Fistful of Dollars because he felt that Italians couldn’t make a western out of a Japanese samurai film. He also turned down Dr. No — this could be apocryphal — because they could not afford his salary demands.

***Her maid is played by Luciana Paluzzi, who was Fiona Volpe in Thunderball, as well as appearing in The Green Slime, Jess Franco’s 99 Women and A Black Veil for Lisa.

You can watch this on YouTube.

Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell (1988)

The third of four Deathstalker movies, following Rick Hill as the hero in Deathstalker* and John Terlesky taking over in Deathstalker II, this installment finds John Allen Nelson (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) taking over as the Deathstalker.

Deathstalker once saved the wizard Nicias (Mexican telenovella actor Aarón Hernán) and as such, they now travel to villages where the old man tells the future. At one such place, a hooded woman reveals herself to be the Princess Carissa (Carla Sands, who was appointed the U.S. Ambrassador to Denmark in 2017), who knows of a magical stone that can combine with the one Nicias alrady has to reveal the secret city of Arandor. All they have to do is battle the evil sorcerer Troxartes (Thom Christopher, Hawk from Buck Rogers) to get it. That shouldn’t be so bad, right?

That’s when Makut and his men attack. Nicias teleports to safety while Deathstalker must battle his way out. Carissa? Yeah, she doesn’t make it. If you haven’t seen the other films, Deathstalker screws up spectacularly quite often, unlike Conan, whose movies he’s cashing in on. He heads off to the home country of Troxartes, meeting with Carissa’s twin Princess Elizena and being chased by Makut, who has brought back all of Deathstalker’s deceased enemies from beyond the grave.

Oh yeah — he also meets a local girl named Marinda who he beds in less time than it will take for you to read this review. There’s also an undead warrior named Gragas who remembers that he died honorably against Deathstalker (they can’t mean Oghris from the first movie, right? Why do I remember Deathstalker cannon better than the people who made these movies?) and reveals that all the dead souls are trapped doing the bidding of their master.

Of course, there are three stones needed, not just one. And yes, there’s no way Marinda or any of the bad guys are going to survive. You know who is? Deathstalker. He just gets on his horse and rides away after decimating the lives of everyone around him, like the Hyborian Jessica Fletcher.

It’s worth mentioning that unlike all of the other films in this series, this does not use stock footage of the other Deathstalker films. It does, however, take liberally from Corman’s The Raven. It also takes the soundtrack** from Battle Beyond the Stars, just like so many Corman productions. There’s even an IMDB list that has taken stock of all the movies Corman made that reuse bits and pieces of that film, so I guess he was a green filmmaker back before that was a thing.

This is the kind of junk food film that goes well on a cold and rainy Saturday. It was written by Howard R. Cohen, who also brought us The Unholy RollersSaturday the 14thSaturday the 14th Strikes BackStrykerBarbarian Queen II and episodes of both Rainbow Brite and The Care Bears.

You can watch the MST3K verson of this on Tubi or the unriffed version on YouTube.

*Hill would come back for the fourth movie, 1991’s Deathstalker IV: Match of Titans. It is my job to know these things.

**It also outright rips off Brian Eno’s prophecy theme from Dune.

Mill Creek Sci-Fi Invasion: The Wasp Woman (1959)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We originally posted this review on January 11, 2020.

Produced and directed by Roger Corman, this movie was originally a double feature with Beast from Haunted Cave. When it was released to TV two years later, a new prologue was added by director Jack Hill to add to its running time.

The musical score from this film may seem familiar, because it’s the same music from Corman’s A Bucket of Blood. It was written by Fred Katz, who sold Corman the same score was used for a total of seven films, including The Little Shop of Horrors and Creature from the Haunted Sea.

Janice Starlin is the founder and owner of a large cosmetics company,  (Susan Cabot). She starts losing money when the public begins to see that she is aging, so her scientists reverse the aging process by using the royal jelly of the queen wasp. It doesn’t work fast enough, so she breaks into her own company’s lab and injects herself multiple times.

So she gets twenty years younger over the weekend, but occasionally transforms into a wasp woman who kills people. At the end, when acid is thrown in her face, that scene was more real than it should have been. Someone had filled the breakaway bottle with water and it was so heavy that when hit her, she thought that her teeth had been knocked out. To make matters worse, the fake smoke used to simulate the acid also choked her. So after she fell through the window, she found herself unable to breathe. To save herself, she tore off her makeup as well as a good chunk of skin around her neck.

Things didn’t get much better in life for Susan Cabot. This was her last film and at the end of her life, she suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. The psychologist that she was seeing felt that she was so troubled that he could no longer see her and her home was filled with trash and rotting food.

After her mental health continued to worsen, Cabot’s 25-year-old son, Timothy Scott Roman, beat her to death with a weightlifting bar. While he would initially claim that a man in a ninja mask was the killer — thinking that no one would believe her struggles with mental illness — the truth was that she woke him screaming and attacked him with both a scalpel and the barbell. His defense attorneys claimed his aggressive reaction to his mother’s attack was due to the drugs he took to counteract his dwarfism and pituitary gland problems.

Prosecutors changed the charge to voluntary manslaughter at the end of the trial, as no evidence had been presented to support the premeditation required for a murder conviction. Roman, who had already spent two-and-a-half years in jail, was sentenced to three years’ probation.

Corman remade this with director Jim Wynorski for his Roger Corman Presents series on Showtime.

You can watch this on Tubi and Amazon Prime. You can also watch it with the Cinematic Titanic crew riffing on it on Tubi.

D.C. Cab (1983)

D.C. Cab was one of the first videos I ever rented from Prime Time Video as a kid and it’s got a great cast, which is probably what got me to grab it. Beyond Mr. T., you have Max Gail from Barney Miller as the owner of the cab company, Adam Baldwin as the son of his best friend who comes to help, Charlie Barnett (who actually won the SNL job over Eddie Murphy but was too nervous to come back for a follow-up; he sadly died of AIDS at the age of 41), Marsha Warfield from Night Court, a pre-Politically Incorrect Bill Maher, Gary Busey (speaking of politically incorrect, little to none of his dialogue could be in a movie made today), DeWayne Jessie (who literally became his Otis Day character and toured with that name), Paul Rodriguez, Whitman Mayo (Grady from Sanford and Son), the Barbarian Brothers (making this one of two Barbarian Brothers movies that Kino Lorber releases this month), Bob Zmuda,  Bloodsport director Newt Arnold, Jill Schoelen (the crush of all teen crushes), Timothy Carey as a maniac who calls himself the Angel of Death and Irene Cara as herself.

It’s directed by Joel Schumacher, who either does movies that are remembered for the right reasons like The Lost Boys or movies that are remembered for the wrong reasons like Batman and Robin.

This is the ultimate hijinks ensue movie, as each character gets a moment and a little story of their own. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly a fun one, which sometimes is even better. The story is as simple as the boys of D.C. Cab against the city government and the Emerald Cab Company. Seriously, that’s pretty much as deep as it gets, but these are the kind of movies that you find yourself watching every time they come on cable, right? Do they still come on cable?

I’m happy to have this movie in my collection. It’s a great reminder of the time when you could find something like this movie on the rental shelves.

You can get this from Kino Lorber, who has just released it on blu ray.

The Control (2018)

In order to keep space travelers safe and sane on long trips across the stars, a cutting-edge computer-brain interface must be created. Mike, the programmer, and Eric, a neurochemist, begin to work on the most sophisticated virtual reality system ever conceived.

However, they begin to argue about how to create that program and Mike’s muse gets trapped inside the program. Now, he must go through multiple infinite worlds to find her, places where reality does not always work. Can he bring reality back and save his world?

Made in Windsor, Ontario by Michael Stasko and Eric Schiller, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in this film, this is a meditation on the effects of manipulating reality. It’s definitely not a movie you can watch as background noise and must be paid attention to.

The budget is low while the concept is high. While it has a slow start, once those big ideas kick in, you’ll forgive its inexpensive origins and savor the big thinking. Or you’ll think it’s completely ridiculous claptrap. I belong to the former camp, but as I’ve known of films, your mileage may vary.

You can learn more on the official Facebook page and watch this on Amazon Prime.

They Came from the Swamp Arrow Video release overview

We’ve spent the last week going over the amazing William Gréfe box set that Arrow Video has just released. To say that this set is essential for drive-in and exploitation film fans is an understatement. This has it all, true believer — everything from jellyfish men, zombie witch doctors, murderous hippies and shark lovers to, of course, go-go dancers. All of these films are new to blu ray and, as always with Arrow, are packed to the, well, gills with extra features.

Here’s an overview of the movies in the set:

Whiskey Mountain: “This is a movie that has all real marijuana as props and a soundtrack by the Charlie Daniels Band, along with the exact kind of horrors you know await them yankees when they ask too many questions and push too hard. It’s also filled with Peckinpah-esque slow-motion — most effect with George is double firing shotguns — to go with a brutal scene where we only hear the assault on the girls and see still evidence as it develops on Polaroids. Also — it’s 1977 and technically a motorcycle movie. so that means that it also has a potential downer ending freeze frame.”

Sting of Death: “Sure there are plenty of movies where sea creatures rise to the beach to menace near-nude girls, but do any of them have Neil Sedaka belting out “Do the Jellyfish?””

Death Curse of Tartu: “If you didn’t have enough of teenagers in the Everglades screwing with forces they didn’t quite comprehend in Grefe’s Sting of Death — which was the other part of a double bill with this film — then good news! Four students on an archaeology assignment decide that it would be a great idea to have a shindig on the grave of Tartu, an ancient Native American medicine man.”

The Hooked Generation: “This time around, Grefé is telling us the story of a group of three drug pushers who are no longer content to kidnap people and assault women. No, they’re in for the big score, killing their Cuban drug suppliers, an act that puts them on a one-way ticket to the kind of horrible end that can only be found in a regional drive-in movie.”

The Psychedelic Priest: “Gréfe got paid $100,000 in trading stamps to make this movie that was never released until thirty years later because everyone felt it would be a bomb. As for Gréfe, he was now the president of Ivan Tors Films, making family movies, so he realized that “I didn’t want some wild hippie drug movie with my name as writer and director.””

The Naked Zoo: “Rita Hayworth playing Mrs. Golden, a rich woman who lives with her cockolder, wheelchair-bound husband Harry (Ford Rainey, Dr. Mixter from Halloween II!). She sleeps with an author named Terry Shaw (Steve Oliver from Peyton Place) and when her husband finds out — and tries to gun them down — Terry stops him, but despite the death of the old man being in self-defense, Mrs. Golden starts blackmailing him.”

Mako: Jaws of Death: “The Florida-based director William Grefe has brought many swamp-tinged bits of exploitation goodness — or badness — to the screen, such as Alligator AlleyThe Wild RebelsThe Hooked Generation and so many more. As one of the first films made to take advantage of the shark craze in the way of Spielberg’s success, this film’s sympathetic view of sharks as victims is a pretty unique take on the genre.”

They Came from the Swamp: “Honestly, if you have the smallest interest in exploitation film or if you’re an absolute maniac who thrills at the very mention of names like Barry Mahon and Crown International Pictures, then you absolutely must own this.”

Beyond the expected extras — trailers, commentary tracks with Gréfe and Frank Henenlotter, behind the scenes info — this set expands to include so much more, like the alternate Barry Mahon re-release cut of Naked Zoo, a history of teen and animal exploitation films, new introductions by Gréfe for each movie, a feature about the early spook show experiences of monster maker Doug Hobart, a collector’s book, a poster and new art for each movie by the Twins of Evil.

It’s an absolutely perfect release, filled with info for fans and films that are ripe for rediscovery. It has our absolute highest recommendation. You can get it from Arrow Video or from Diabolik DVD.

Mill Creek Sci-Fi Invasion: Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe (1990)

Editor’s Note: This review previous ran on May 14, 2020.

Writer and director Damian Lee also did Ski School, which I assume preps you for making science fiction action movies starring two of Arnold’s pals, Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Sven-Ole Thorsen. Plus, best of all — no, actually best doesn’t apply here — Jim Belushi shows up.

Abraxas (Ventura) and Secundus (Thorsen) are Space Cops called Finders who live for thousands of years and use an Answer Box to scan and communicate in the field. It’s also a weapon, as if a subject doesn’t contain the Anti-Life Equation, they are disintegrated.

If you just read that and got angry that Jack Kirby’s concepts were ripped off for this movie, good news. For me, at least. Because I thought I was going crazy.

Secundus goes bad, because he wants to live forever and needs to figure out that Anti-Life Equation to do so. His plan? Knock up the first woman he finds by rubbing his hand over her belly. That woman is Sonia Murray (Marjorie Bransfield, who was married to Belushi at the time, so that explains that) and she has a baby named Tommy in seconds. But Tommy is going to grow up to be the Culminator and solve that equation. Abraxas is supposed to kill the child and the mother, but he’s too nice and let’s her live. Her parents get mad that she had a baby and toss her out into the streets, except that you know, she somehow got pregnant and had the child in the very same day.

Five years later, Tommy is a mute child with superpowers. Well, his one power is the ability to make bullies piss their pants. So I guess that’s a power. And his principal at school is Jim Belushi, who brings back his role of Rick Latimer because we all demanded that. You know, I give Jim a lot of guff and the dude voted for Obama and has a pop-up cannabis shop, so maybe he’s not as bad as I’ve been led to believe.

What is bad is Abraxas, a movie that is kinda sorta The Terminator with no time travel. You can watch it for free on Amazon Prime and Tubi. Or, if you need some help, the Rifftrax version is also on Amazon Prime and Tubi, too.

Your primer for the Forgotten Gialli Volume 2 set

Vinegar Syndrome has just released this set, of which they’ve said, “With the giallo at its peak in the early 70s, it seemed that every filmmaker working in Italy was vying to make one and put their unique creative stamp on this highly popular genre. Presented here are a trio of early 70s gialli, all directed by filmmakers who had never made one before — or after — and all presenting wildly different approaches to the genre’s most prevalent trappings, ranging from deliriously sleazy, to high camp, to unwaveringly grim and sombre. All three films are presented in brand new and exclusive restorations of their original, uncensored, 35mm camera negatives. Vinegar Syndrome is proud to present the second entry in their Forgotten Gialli series.”

There are three movies on this set and we’ve already covered all of them. Click through any of the hyperlinks to read our full articles on each film!

The Girl in Room 2A: Mitchell Hillman wrote a great guest review for this, in which he said, “Both times I’ve watched this I thought this would be an amazing film to reboot, there’s much more of a horror aspect to it than the usual gore laden bloodbath. It’s got a great story at the heart of it and I’d just love to see it treated to a decent budget. Everyone is creepy,  it seems that only Margaret and Jack are on the level, but you can never be sure about anything.”

The French Sex Murders: “Rosabeli Neri (Lady Frankenstein), Anita Eckberg (Screaming Mimi) and Barbara Bouchet (Don’t Torture A Duckling) all in the same film? What did I do to deserve this, giallo gods? I realize this isn’t a great film. But it’s certainly not boring, what with hooded figures running around a brothel, decapitations and falls off important French landmarks.”

My Dear Killer: “An unsolved case of kidnapping and murder has led to a series of seemingly unconnected deaths that Inspector Peretti (Hilton) must put together. All he has to go by is a drawing that a little girl made, but giallo films have been solved with less clues.While this movie stays more on the police side of the equation than many giallo, it still has some kill scenes that stand out, such as a grisly circular saw murder.” Strangely enough, this was written by the same person who wrote Jodoworsky’s Santa Sangre, Roberto Leoni.

You can get this for yourself at Vinegar Syndrome, as well as the first volume, which has León Klimovsky’s TraumaKiller Is One of 13 and The Police Are Blundering in the Dark.

They Came from the Swamp (2016)

If you’ve been following along this week, you know exactly how much we love the films of William Gréfe. So this documentary — originally released by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures as a limited edition double disk (you can get it at Diabolik DVD) — is exactly the kind of thing that we devour, absorb and now, share with you.

Honestly, if you have the smallest interest in exploitation film or if you’re an absolute maniac who thrills at the very mention of names like Barry Mahon and Crown International Pictures, then you absolutely must own this. Luckily, if you buy the new He Came from the Swamp set, you get this film along with several of Gréfe’s films.

“If there were rules to making a movie, one indie director would break them all!” These are the kind of taglines that make me beyond overjoyed to watch a documentary and trust me, this one delivers.

As a Miami-based regional filmmaker, Gréfe transformed the Everglades into his own personal studio. This doc has everyone from Ross Hagen, Frank Henelotter, David F. Friedman and Fred Olen Ray to William Shatner, Herschell Gordon Lewis and many of the actors that worked with Gréfe on his many films all speaking about what it was like to be part of this magical time in low budget filmmaking.

If you’re the kind of person who obsesses about the extras on a DVD, then you’ve probably seen the work of director Daniel Griffith. It’s a real joy to see him expand his work to a full-length feature on one fascinating subject. I can’t wait to see his next movie, Celluloid Wizards in the Video Wasteland: The Saga of Empire Pictures.

The Arrow Video He Came from the Swamp box set is available at Diabolik DVD or from MVD. You can also learn more at the official site for the film.