aka Hercules in the Haunted World; Hercules Vs the Vampires
(Ercole al Centro Della Terra)
Director/Photography – Mario Bava, Screenplay – Mario Bava, Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi & Duccio Tessari, Producer – Achille Piazzi, Music – Armando Trovajoli, Art Direction – Franco Lolli. Production Company – Spa Cinematografica.
Reg Park (Hercules), George Ardisson (Theseus), Christopher Lee (Lico), Ida Galli (Persephone), Leonora Ruffo (Deianira)
Hercules goes to visit his beloved Deianira but finds her in a state of virtual zombiefication. He consults The Oracle who tells him that he must undergo a journey into Hades to save her. In order to enter and safely return from Hades, Hercules must obtain the Golden Apple of the Hesperides. And so Hercules recruits three friends and sets forth on a quest to find the Golden Apple.
In 1959, American distributor Joseph E. Levine took the Italian-made Hercules (1958) and turned it into an enormous success with the use of a massive promotional campaign. The Italians responded by making a huge cycle of similar musclemen epics, what was referred to as the peplum film or colloquially in English as the Sword and Sandal cycle – some 40 or so Hercules films, along with numerous copycat Samson, Atlas, Goliath and Ulysses films.
Most of these peplum films are dreary and unimaginative. Although these Hercules films are nominally based on Greek myth, the myths or any elements from them almost entirely fail to feature in any of the films, most of which involve American-bodybuilders going through pedestrian adventures, throwing their weight and others about, engaging in stolid romance and not much else. There is little in most of these films that is of fantastique content. No doubt due to the physicality demanded by their musclebound heroes, the complexity of Greek mythology was invariably brought down to a series of shabby lions or human opponents that the heroes had to wrestle with.
Hercules in the Center of the Earth is generally regarded as the best of the 1960s Italian muscleman films. It has a considerable (if maybe overrated) reputation. This is largely due to the presence of Italian director Mario Bava. Bava became a cult director on the basis of the extraordinarily stylish Black Sunday/The Mask of the Demon/The Revenge of the Vampire Woman (1960), made just the year before and would go onto a substantial body of other genre films. (See below for Mario Bava’s other films).
Hercules in the Center of the Earth is the best of all the muscleman films due to the fact that Mario Bava transcends the stolid physicality of the genre to create a genuinely fantastique world. Bava creates a wonderful sense of the otherworldly with visions like the Oracle in a beaten-metal mask and flowing arms as she delivers portents; the journey to Hades on a sea below a sky of boiling red; the monster Procrustes (one of the few occasions where the peplum cycle took direct from Greek mythology) trying to stretch and shorten people upon its beds; vines of bleeding and screaming souls; a climactic battle with flying vampires. Bava, a former cinematographer, had a mastery of lighting schemes and the world is lit up in beautiful scarlet reds and indigo blues, while he also shoots the sets with an eye that transforms them into far more than they look.
On the other hand, Mario Bava fails to leave enough of the muscleman cycle behind to create a film that is as remarkably fantastic as say The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) or as otherworldly as his earlier Black Sunday. There are also the usual problems of these films. The dubbing is poor. Reg Park is laughably wooden as Hercules and the women are all pretty but vacant. Only an underused Christopher Lee adds a solid professionalism. The effects are poor. The stunt work falls flat for the most part and Bava lacks a good hand when it comes to choreographing action scenes. Despite itself though, Hercules in the Center of the Earth remains a triumph of atmosphere over the averageness of its production quality.
Despite the title, one might note that Hercules never does get to go to the centre of the earth. It seems merely a case of the filmmakers having decided to exploit the then recent success of 20th Century Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959).
Mario Bava’s other genre films are:- uncredited co-direction of Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957) and Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959); the Gothic classic Black Sunday/The Mask of the Demon/The Revenge of the Vampire Woman (1960); the giallo The Evil Eye (1962); the Gothic horror anthology Black Sabbath (1963); the Gothic horror Night is the Phantom/The Whip and the Body/What? (1963); the giallo Blood and Black Lace (1964) the Gothic Kill Baby … Kill/Curse of the Dead/Curse of the Living Dead/Operation Fear (1965); the sf/horror film Planet of the Vampires (1965); the spy comedy Dr Goldfoot and the Girls Bombs (1966), Bava’s worst film; the masked super-thief film Danger Diabolik (1967); the giallo Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970); the giallo Hatchet for a Honeymoon/Blood Brides (1971); the giallo Twitch of the Death Nerve/Bloodbath/A Bay of Blood/Carnage/Ecology for a Crime (1971); the Gothic Baron Blood (1972); the giallo/haunted house film Lisa and the Devil/House of Exorcism (1972); and the possession film Schock/Beyond the Door II (1977).
Full film available online here:-