Mario Bava might be best known for his giallos and his gothic horror films but it could be argued that the genre for which his baroque visual style was most suited was the peplum. His 1961 outing in this genre, Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra), is a case in point.
Without Bava’s distinctive visual signature this would have been a fairly routine peplum. Not that there’s anything wrong with that - I love this genre and even a pretty average example will generally provide plenty of entertainment. But the Bava touch gives this one the feel of a story that really does take place in a different world, a world of gods and magic and larger-than-life heroes.
Hercules returns from a quest to find that the Princess Deianira, his betrothed, has suffered a terrible affliction. She has become totally detached from reality, inhabiting a world of madness. Hercules is unaware that Lico (Christopher Lee), whose task it had been to protect Deianira and to ensure that she would succeed to the throne after her father’s death, is in fact plotting to gain the kingdom for himself.
To restore the princess to her right mind Hercules will need to descend into the underworld to find a magical stone. No-one has ever gone down into Hades alive and returned to tell the tale but Hercules and his buddy and fellow hero Theseus are undaunted.
Unfortunately, apart from the kinds of hazards you’d expect to encounter on such a dangerous quest, Theseus runs into an even graver danger. He falls in love with a woman he meets in Hades, and he bring her back to the upper world with him. The woman is Persephone, not just a goddess but the wife of the king of Hades. The king of the land of the dead is understandably not well pleased by this development and unleashes his vengeance on the world of the living. Hercules must persuade his friend to give her up but Theseus has made it clear he will die first. Hercules is formidable when he can rely on his immense strength but he’s not quite so impressive when he has to use his wits and that’s what he’s going to have to do in this case.
English bodybuilder Reg Park plays Hercules this time. Actors were cast in this role in peplums on the basis of their ability to look the part rather than on their acting ability but Park is adequate. Christopher Lee is suitably malevolent as Lico. Leonora Ruffo’s acting talents aren’t exactly stretched by her role as Deianira but she looks the way princesses are supposed to look in these kinds of movies.
It’s Bava who is the real star of course. He was responsible for the cinematography as well as directing and it has the classic Bava look. Amazing use of colour and an extraordinary ability to stretch a very limited budget to produce a movie with a genuinely epic feel to it.
Even if you’re not a particular fan of sword and sandal movies this one is a must-see just for the visuals, and it’s a fun little movie as well.