If you’re in the market for some heavy atmosphere, heavy questing, and heavy pecs, Mario Bava and Franco Prosperi’s 1961 addition to the Hercules sub-genre has you covered. Hercules in the Haunted World is one of the shining moments (arguably the best following Pietro Francisci’s 1958 original and its follow up, Hercules Unchained) in the Hercules series. Bava’s film provides fans of the loveable Herc with the good natured heroic-humor (hands on hips, head to sky, deep belly laugher), straight forward morality, and feats of strength they expect while adding a new dimension of intense visual fantasy.
Hercules in the Haunted World finds the Herc-ster entering Hades in search of a golden apple which can break the curse which has befallen his beloved and the people of her city. With the aid of Theseus and a third buffoon who’s along for the ride and comic relief, the questers descend into hades, the land of the dead and eternal night. While there, Herc kicks ass, gets the apple, and turns the lights back on. But it’s not that simple—Herc was charged with his quest by none other than Christopher Lee. The stately screen villain brings his usual malefic dignity to his role as a scheming pretender to the throne that’s looking to kick Herc to the curb. It’s a showdown between Drac and Herc. Place your bets!
Italian cinema’s Hercules has origins in the Italianized Maciste, a character who appeared as early as Pastrone’s Cabiria. Maciste was a staple of Italian film during the silent era and, in fact, Hercules in the Haunted World does not represent Maciste’s first trip to the underworld. Guido Brigone’s 1925 silent, Maciste in Hell, has the hero going head to head with another one of cinema’s earliest figures, the noseless one himself—SATAN. In the late 50s Maciste returned to the screen in Pietro Francisci’s wonderfully entertaining Hercules. A lot of Herc followed, some good, some bad, but most of it, at the very least, entertaining and oily. Hercules in the Haunted World is the darkest and most beautiful of these works of fantastic adventure. Bava uses large splashes of color and dreamily abstract vistas to create a world that seems inexhaustibly deep. It is a breathtaking example of the ability of cinema to construct worlds before our eyes that invite our minds to enter and wander.