Review: HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961)

Our hero rocks Hades in HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, a 1961 Italian adventure fantasy directed by Mario Bava. This outing is blessed with haunting visual style, with some sets from HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN doing double duty as supplements to a murky, intricate hellscape. Bava and Ubaldo Terzano handle the cinematography and press us through a world of distorted colours, horrid shadows and rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.

Reg Park returns as Hercules, everybody’s favourite champion. He’s living the life with the beautiful Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo) and hanging out with his buddies, including the womanizing Theseus (George Ardisson). The trouble begins when Deianira begins to suffer sensory loss and knocks on death’s door. Herc must head to the Underworld to recover a stone that’ll save his lady’s life, but he also requires a golden apple. The plot is set in motion by the evil King Lico (Christopher Lee).

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HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD has more life and visual interest than many of the other pictures in the series. Bava’s grip on the material is robust, even if the plot suffers from the usual complications. He renders a world of darkness and cold terror, with Lee’s character the infectious exclamation point. There are graphic references to vampirism, a fit that seems a little hokey at times but nevertheless spikes the antagonist right where it counts.

Park’s Hercules is a tough hero, with all the stilted resolve and jolting good-timey nature required of him. He’s offset by his allies and the movie sometimes feels like a buddy comedy, with Theseus trying to bed every woman he sees. This even gets him in trouble with the boss, who tries to deter him from the problem that is Persephone (Ida Galli). And this underlines the light feel of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, providing contrast to the doom and setting it apart as one of the finer entries in the canon. Bava’s picture still labours under budgetary limits and plot snags, but this trip to hell is almost divine.

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