Hercules in the Haunted World (Mario Bava, Franco Prosperi 1961)
To be fair the problem that Hercules has to face in this fun little fantasy flick is hardly simple. Returning home Hercules discovers the love of his life has grown distant and that her long-term sanity is at risk. Hercules must travel to Hades to retrieve a magical stone that will restore her unaware that Christopher Lee's King Lico is manipulating them both to fulfil his own devious agenda.
Hercules attacks this quest with his usual brute strength and with the help of two companions; Theseus and Telemachus. Theseus is a mucky bugger and is perpetually rolling in the hay with a woman he has seduced. Telemachus is the comic relief and is an awful blight on an otherwise wonderful film. His grating presence is thankfully minimal and he provides very little help to the heroes and even less to the narrative.
These characters are generally there to give Hercules someone to converse with as the main bulk of the film is taken up with his own brand of problem solving. To this end he fights off raiders by throwing a wagon at them, pulls four horses by hand, creates a slingshot out of a boulder and rope and single-handedly holds a closing walls trap at bay. When his friend his attacked by an awesome rock monster with S&M tendencies Herc simply picks him up and throws him into another pile of rocks. even his final confrontation with Lico is resolved in a satisfyingly efficient way rather than with any careful strategising.
The fantasy of brute strength solving all is not actually the movies main draw. Since it was co-directed by the amazing Mario Bava its main selling point is that it is packed pull of atmosphere, production design and clever special effects. The external locations are lush and vast, with every inch filled with detail while internal sets are sparse yet make use of rich lighting. Hades in particular looks spectacular.
Bava is no stranger to horror and it is no surprise that Hercules in the Haunted World features some fairly eerie moments. There is a scene involving mud that, although not an idea that is inherently scary, creates an image that would have terrified me as a child. It is the finale, however, that features the most overt use of horror imagery. As Herc finally tracks down Lico he is set upon by flying zombies. This may sound absurd, and it is, yet the way they crawl from their coffins is extremely creepy and even the presence of clearly visible strings doesn't stop the images of them hurtling out of the mist from being powerful.
The ending promotes a slightly odd morality. Hercules and his love are re-untied on a lovely beach. Unfortunately it appears Telemachus has survived the quest too. Rather than assault us with his own brand of comedy/terrorism, though, he reveals he is to be married. Before we have time to pity his fiancée Theseus arrives, promptly steals her and runs off, presumably to touch her up behind a bush or something. Telemachus lies on the floor humiliated and betrayed while Hercules laughs heartily and says "As long as Theseus steals other mens girls I have nothing to worry about!" That is the final line of the movie. In any other context this would ask me to question whether these characters are quite as heroic as they are made out to be. Since the victim is Telemachus, however, I can't say it bothered me that much. In fact I'd have been happier if they'd kicked him a little bit before the credits rolled.
Hercules and the Haunted World is a wonderful little film. It looks gorgeous, is rich with imagination and zooms by at a perfect pace. I can't recommend it enough.