Hercules in the Haunted World Blu-ray Review
Kino Lorber (Kino Classics)
Blu-ray Release: October 8, 2019
Audio: Italian and English LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: (Three Cuts) 86/84/82 minutes
Director: Mario Bava
Hercules (Reg Park) and his companions Theseus (George Ardisson) descend into the depths of Hades to confront the villainous Lico (Christopher Lee) in hopes of returning Princess Deianira’s (Leonora Ruffo) lost memories.
Before giallo, before Eurocrime, before Italian horror, before even spaghetti westerns, there were peplum. Sometimes referred to as “sword & sandal” movies, these low-budget, high-concept muscleman epics set a precedent for the Italian film industry’s cycular trends. While there had been a history of biblical and Greco-Roman movies dating back to the silent era, pepla dominated the post-fascist Italian film landscape, due in large part to Hollywood productions shooting historical epics in the region, including Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1951) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). American studio financing funneled money into Italian production houses, creating large backlot sets and enough period-appropriate costumes to, well, to clothe an army. With great resources at their disposal at a fraction of the cost, a growing audience interest in the subject matter, an overseas market, and a handful of Italian/American co-productions – some directed by Italians – the pump was primed to flood the cinemas as quickly as possible, lest the well run dry. And, sure enough, it did, leading directly into the dominance of the aforementioned Eurocrime and spaghetti western booms.
Before it burned out, the hottest streak of this particular run of pepla was kickstarted by Pietro Francisci’s Hercules (Italian: Le fatiche di Ercole, lit. The Labors of Hercules, 1957), which starred bodybuilder Steve Reeves as the titular character. Not surprisingly, the future godfather of Italian horror and film giallo, Mario Bava, was there on Francisci’s set, working as a lighting and special effects technician. His responsibilities multiplied on the set of Francisci’s direct sequel, Hercules Unchained (Italian: Ercole e la regina di Lidia; lit: Hercules and the Queen of Lydia, 1959), including cinematographer/lighting director, special effects director, and uncredited co-director (mostly the aforementioned special effects sequences). The same year Hercules was released, Bava and Recardo Freda effectively invented true Italian horror co-directing I Vampiri (aka: The Devil's Commandment and Lust of the Vampire, 1957) and, shortly after, Bava put his personal stamp on Italian Gothic cinema with Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio; aka: Mask of Satan, 1960). Black Sunday was popular with audiences, but, arguably more importantly, it was popular with other filmmakers and opened the door to a more supernaturally-infused brand of pepla.
Hercules in the Haunted World (Italian: Ercole al centro della terra; working title Ercole contro il vampiro, lit: Hercules vs. the Vampire, 1961) is often overlooked during conversations of Bava’s career, in large part due to it not being a straight horror film or thriller. The peplum genre’s post-Mystery Science Theater 3000 reputation as so-bad-it’s-good entertainment doesn’t help either. Indeed, Hercules in the Haunted World doesn’t surpass its era and genre quite as spectacularly as something like Black Sunday or Blood and Black Lace (Italian: 6 donne per l'assassino, 1964), but it’s still some of the best Italian pepla had to offer and is an important stepping stone in the early days of Bava’s career as a creative lead. The screenplay, credited to Bava himself, Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi, and A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) co-writer Duccio Tessari, and follows a pretty traditional route, vaguely adapting actual Greco-Roman mythology and retelling scenes from more popular movies. In this case, additional inspiration likely extended back to one of the oldest surviving Italian horror movies, Guido Brignone’s Maciste in Hell (Italian: Maciste all'inferno, 1925). Brignone’s film basically retells of the Inferno chapter of Dante’s Divine Comedy with “Maciste” (the stage name of strongman actor Bartolomeo Pagano, who was portraying the character for the 25th time) replacing Dante’s self-insert narrator. Bava and company graft elements of the Hercules’ and Deianira’s legends, bits of The Odyssey, and other miscellaneous Greek mythologies onto a similar frame, leaving room for bodybuilder Reg Park (reprising the title role from Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis [Italian: Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide; aka: Hercules and the Captive Women, 1961]) to flex, Ida Galli to vamp, and Christopher Lee (who hadn’t yet reprised the title role of 1958’s Dracula) to chew some scenery.
Hercules in the Haunted World was Bava’s first full-color film as lead director. While he certainly recycled some tricks for his first color horror movie, Black Sabbath (Italian: I tre volti della paura; lit: The Three Faces of Fear, 1963), the cartoonishly Gothic sets and special effects actually are more like a practice run for his spectacular sci-fi/horror hybrid, Planet of the Vampires (Italian: Terrore nello Spazio; lit: Terror in Space, 1965). Even detractors who aren’t interested in his colorfully baroque photography have to be impressed with Bava’s resourceful production design. According to Bava biographer Tim Lucas (Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark; Video Watchdog, 2007), the director inherited a very limited number of set pieces and props, which he reused, redressed, moved, and relit ad nauseum to create a surprisingly convincing series of locations. As in the case of Planet of the Vampires, Bava’s highly stylized design choices protect the audience’s suspension of disbelief with thoroughly fictional environments. Moreover, also according to Lucas, Bava considered Hercules in the Haunted World a parody of the pepla. At the very least, it amplifies the campier qualities of the genre, though not quite to the gonzo levels of his later comic book comedies, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (Italian: Le spie vengono dal semifreddo, 1966) and Danger: Diabolik (Italian: Diabolik, 1968).
Hercules in the Haunted World also holds the more overlooked distinction of being the first Italian horror movie to feature zombies. Obviously, the definition of zombie is debatable – I Vampiri and Black Sunday deal with creatures brought back from the dead (though neither feature traditional vampires) – but, as far as our typified version of “zombie,” it fits the bill as no other movie would until Giuseppe Vari’s Rome Against Rome (Italian: Roma contro Roma) in 1964. What’s really extraordinary, though, is the clear inspiration that Godfather of Italian Gore Lucio Fulci drew from Hercules in the Haunted World for his groundbreaking flesh-eating epic, Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesheaters, 1979). Fulci stages sequences of the zombies breaking hand-first through the earth almost identically to Bava (and would again draw upon Bava’s work for his more esoteric Gothic horror movies) and Giannetto De Rossi’s “walking flower pot” make-up designs owe at least some debt to Renzo Francioni and Franco Palombi’s (the credited makeup artists) slimey, yet dusty living dead creatures. Arguably, Hercules in the Haunted World also predates the two most influential zombie movies of the era, John Gilling’s Hammer-produced Plague of the Zombies (1966) and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Bava’s history with peplum was rich and varied beyond the Hercules series. He acted as camera operator and may have been an uncredited co-director on Mario Camerini’s Ulysses (1954 – a Hollywood co-production starring Kirk Douglas), he was cinematographer/camera operator on Stefano Vanzina’s sword & sandal spoof Mio figlio Nerone (aka: My Son Nero and Nero’s Weekend, 1956), he painted mattes for Sergio Leone’s The Last Days of Pompeii (Italian: Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1959), he was director of photography, visual effects supervisor, and did more uncredited director work (with Bruno Vailati) on Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon (Italian: La battaglia di Maratona, 1959). He even worked on some of Ben-Hur’s special effects (without credit, of course). Outside of the Hercules duology, Bava’s biggest contribution to mainstream biblical epics was on Raoul Walsh’s hugely expensive, Joan Collins-starring epic Esther and the King (1960), where he was initially hired as cinematographer, but his role grew into co-director, as the maestro once again took on the responsibility of reshoots when (reportedly) the studio decided Walsh’s cut was too long and action-light. This isn’t even to mention Bava’s work as on a number of non-Greco-Roman period dramas. For example, he solo-directed twin Cameron Mitchell viking vehicles Erik the Conqueror (Italian: Gli Invasori; aka: The Invaders and Fury of the Vikings, 1961) and Knives of the Avenger (Italian: I coltelli del vendicatore, 1966) are more like peplum-adjacent historical action pictures.
Another Gothic horror peplum hybrid was Giacomo Gentilomo and Sergio Corbucci’s Goliath and the Vampires (Italian: Maciste contro il vampiro, 1961) was released the same year as Hercules in the Haunted World. As the title implies, it features a Hercules/Maciste-like hero (Goliath in English releases, Maciste himself in the Italian version) take on the undead, similar to the Mexican luchador folk hero Santo, who battled vampire women in Alfonso Corona Blake’s Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro (1962). It also featured matte paintings by Bava. In 1962, Riccardo Freda directed a mostly in-name-only remake of Brignone’s Maciste in Hell that was heavily indebted to both Black Sunday and Hercules in the Haunted World. Freda’s version (retitled The Witch’s Curse for its North American release) eventually morphs into a peplum-type horror show, but begins as a costume-drama-cum-witch-revenge movie that owes an enormous debt to the first acts of both Black Sunday and Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic adaptation of Antonio García Gutiérrez’s 1836 play, El trovador, titled Il Trovatore (The Troubadour, prem.: 1853). The aforementioned Rome Against Rome leaned so hard into its horror aspects that US distributor American International Pictures retitled it War of the Zombies.
Like most of the Italian pepla, Hercules in the Haunted World ended up on countless budget-label videotapes, but was surprisingly rare on DVD, at least in North America. The only official version came from California-based Fantoma Films. It was a pretty big deal at the time, because it was harder to find, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), and featured the longer UK cut under the title Hercules at the Center of the Earth (probably because Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth  had been a hit). The only previous Blu-ray was released via Koch Media in Germany. I do not have access to that disc directly, but DVDBeaver reviewed it some time back, complete with full size screen caps. Comparing those to my own, as well as noting both discs claim to feature a 2K restoration taken from the original camera negative, I think it’s safe to say that the two transfers more or less match. If you own Koch’s release, you probably don’t need to double dip, but if, like me, you didn’t have it, you aren’t missing anything (aside from some DVD-only extras). The one big advantage here is the presence of three cuts – the US theatrical cut (Hercules in the Haunted World), the UK cut (Hercules at the Center of the Earth), and the original Italian cut (though with the German language Vampire gegen Hercules title). As is almost always the case, Bava’s version is the superior product and, given the lack of good English dubbing options (see below), I would recommend against the other two versions. Aside from the title frames, I didn’t notice any difference in quality between the edits, which leads me to assume that they were assembled from the same 2K footage.
A quick note on how Kino has set up access to the different cuts: Disc one features the US version alone, while disc two features the Italian/German cut under the play menu and the UK cut under the extras menu.
I’ve included screen caps from the Fantomas DVD for illustrative purposes (they’re on the right side of the slider). There’s no comparison in terms of clarity and compression between the “new” 1080p, 2.35:1 image and its standard definition counterpart, but the DVD’s higher contrast levels and sharpening effects do show that the Blu-ray transfer could've used a bit of gamma/color balancing. I don’t prefer the edge haloes and crushed blacks, but the Blu-ray leans a smidge too far in the opposite direction, embracing the foggy quality of Bava’s photography without entirely accounting for the depth a bit more shadow could have offered. At the very least, I wish the black levels were stronger. When you get in real close, minor pixelation is also present along some of the softer edges as well. Otherwise, this is a solid upgrade in terms of framing, including more information on all sides of the frame and overall color quality. The DVD was certainly colorful, but the Blu-ray has richer hues and more graceful blends.
Hercules in the Haunted World is presented in English and Italian languages, both in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono. Because the various versions of the film are different lengths and included as completely separate movie files, audio options are tied to your choice in cut. As I mentioned above, you’ll want to opt for the US or Italian cuts, which still leaves you with two audio options. Like essentially all Italian films from the era, Hercules in the Haunted World was shot without synced on-set sound and all versions are dubbed. Many actors appear to be speaking English on set, but none dubbed themselves on the English track. In fact, both Park and Christopher Lee were dubbed by the same actor, Dan Sturkie. In perhaps a one of a kind twist, Lee then dubbed himself on the Italian track. Considering that the Italian cut is the superior and includes Lee’s unmistakable baritone, I suppose it’s the way to go. Audio quality is similar either way, though the English dubs tend to have slightly sharp/tinny dialogue and a bit more track damage. Armando Trovajoli’s music exhibits surprising depth for a single channel soundtrack and doesn’t exhibit much of the high-end distortion that typically goes along with older Italian releases.
Commentary with Bava biographer Tim Lucas – I assume that this commentary from the author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark is the same one that was originally recorded for use with the Koch Blu-ray. Lucas’ track is as educational as all of his other Bava tracks, as he unloads behind-the-scenes factoids, contextual information, and the histories of just about every cast & crew member on staff. There are even a couple of things here that you won’t find in his already info-packed book on the subject.
Theseus in the Haunted World (25:57, SD) – This interview with actor George Ardisson and film historian/critic Fabio Melelli was also originally recorded for the Koch release. Ardisson (who died not long after the interview was conducted) offers a few choice words about the production, while Melelli discusses the broader history of the pepla.
US and UK trailers
The images on this page are taken from the Kino Lorber BD and Fantomas DVD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.