The sybil speaks.
Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo), the lover of the mighty Hercules (Reg Park), is inexplicably driven mad and her people are consequently miserable. The only thing that can restore her sanity is a stone found in Hades, Greek mythology's land of the dead, so Herc and his pals, priapic ladies' man Theseus (George Ardisson) and woefully unfunny comic relief Telemachus (Franco Giacobini) set off on a quest to snag the magic rock and save the princess. But what our heroes don't realize is that Deianira's madness has been orchestrated by her guardian, the evil Lico (Christopher Lee), who has used her insanity as an excuse to install himself as king of her land.
Christopher Lee as Lico. Not Dracula this time, but still evil as fuck.
Lico is in league with unspecified dark gods (presumably not of the Greek pantheon) and wields assorted baleful powers, so our heroes must first endure a number of potentially deadly trials in their quest for the stone before returning home to settle Lico's hash. And as if all of that wasn't enough to deal with, things are further complicated when the walking erection that is Thesues meets and instantly falls in love with a nameless beauty (Ida Galli) in the underworld and sneaks her out to make her his bride. Unfortunately for him, she turns out to be Persephone (look up her story in literally any book on Greek mythology), so Pluto, the unseen lord of the dead, is none too pleased by her departure, thus bringing the displeasure of one of the most powerful gods down upon Deianira's land in the form of crop and livestock blight and natural disasters. And as a coming eclipse looms, Lico must drink the blood of Deianira to ensure that he rules her kingdom for eternity. In other words, just another week at the office for Hercules.
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (originally titled HERCULES AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH in its native Italy) is one of the best-looking and most visually imaginative of the hundreds of tits & togas flicks released during the 1960's, and it overflows with mood and atmosphere. Writer/director/co-cinematographer/special effects artist Mario Bava was a legendary and prolific filmmaker who more or less codified the tropes of the peplum genre as we know it with the back-to-back international box office hits HERCULES (1957) and HERCULES UNCHAINED (1958) starring Steve Reeves, and those films spawned a slew of imitators that glutted the screen for the next decade. (I'd love to know exactly how many Italian peplum movies were released in the wake of the Reeves flicks, but good luck counting all of them. There have to be literally hundreds.) Bava's work on HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD was pretty much the last word when it came to genuine quality creative filmmaking for this sort of film during its heyday, and his other notable contributions to cinema form an impressive roster that includes genre-redefining classics such as THE MASK OF SATAN (1960), BLACK SABBATH (1963), BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965), and DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)
As for the movie itself, the true virtues of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD lie in its visual presentation. It's low on actual scares, but its depiction of the underworld is memorable and lit with colors that border on psychedelic. Reg Park, possibly the most physically jacked of the actors to essay the role of Hercules until Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, is himself a living special effect, looking like an animated slab of well-muscled beef, and therefore making a perfect Hercules.
Reg Park, kicking ass and hefting styrofoam boulders as Hercules.
The Hercules films of the peplum boom did not exactly require an Olivier or a Brando to portray the legendary hero, so Park's thespic chops were irrelevant when compared to his ability to look good in a one-strapped leather toga. And who cares if the guy can act when all that's really required is for him to take on the likes of rock monster Procrustes,
Procrustes, looking like a guest monster on LOST IN SPACE.
vines containing the souls of the dead that scream and bleed when cut, and a pack of web-encrusted flying zombies that crawl up from the tomb? And let me tell you that it's not every day when you get to see Hercules squash Christopher Lee to death with a huge styrofoam monolith, so what's not to love?
Just one of the sights found in the underworld.
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD is a fun way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon and is a must for all fans of Greek mythology-based movies, even though it plays fast and loose with the actual stories (which have been reinterpreted numerous times and with numerous variations for centuries, so why quibble?). Too bad Bava didn't rope Ray Harryhausen into the mix to provide some of his signature stop-motion animated monsters to add some more spice...
Poster from the American theatrical release.