Color, 1961, 82 mins. / Directed by Mario Bava / Starring Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, George Ardisson / Music by Armando Trovajoli / Produced by Achille Piazzi / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Though Black Sunday lifted the black and white horror film to new levels of visual artistry, Mario Bava wildly swerved into new territory the following year with Hercules in the Haunted World, a blazingly colorful mixture of gothic horror and peplum fantasy which stands as one of the most memorable entries in the often derided sword and sandal genre. A stylish concoction of luminous landscapes, ghoulish monsters, and eccentric plot twists, this is miles away from your standard Steve Reeves bodybuilding opus. And it has Christopher Lee as a villain, too!

After performing labors abroad, Hercules (Reg Park) is reunited with his best friend, the lothario Theseus (George Ardisson). Unfortunately Hercules' true love, Deianira (Leonora Ruffo), has passed into a strange trance and no longer recognizes the world around her. The shifty King Lico (Lee) advises Hercules to seek help from an oracle, who reveals that the only cure for Deianira lies in the underworld, specifically the powerful golden Apple of the Hesperides which provides access to the coveted Stone of Forgetfulness. Along with the bumbling Telemachus, Hercules (who has relinquished his immortality) and Theseus set off to the other side where they encounter a land of eternal night, filled with rock monsters, bubbling pools of lava, and deadly flying bloodsuckers. However, the greatest threat is yet to come...

Thanks to his extensive experience as a cinematographer, Bava brings a fully formed sensibility to his first color film and lays out the visual motifs which would latter reach full bloom in such classics as Planet of the Vampires. Using a minimal budget and limited sets to his advantage, Bava turns his soundstages and miniatures into delirious whirlpools of color and texture, pitting his actors against a seemingly endless array of imaginative obstacles. The heroes' climb over bubbling lava, for example, is an expertly rendered example of a special effects set piece created from the barest elements posssible, while the forest and tomb sequences bring the established environments of Black Sunday into a new context, splashed with unnatural waves of red and blue light. The actors can't help but pale against such settings, but Park makes for one of the more interesting and intelligent Italian muscelemen, while Lee as usual makes for an imposing figure despite his relatively limited screentime. A subplot involving Theseus' infatuation with Persephone, the mythical daughter of Pluto, is also imaginatively handled and fits in nicely with the doom-laden romances of Bava's subsequent work.

Most widely seen in a laughably dubbed U.S. version from Woolner Brothers which omits and reshuffles several chunks of footage, Hercules in the Haunted World finds much of its dignity restored with this long overdue, definitive treatment of the original, undoctored edition. Boasted the European English language title of Hercules at the Center of the Earth on the actual print, this transfer contains the original opening title sequence (against a stony tomb) and thankfully preserves both the dopey English dub track and the original Italian version which, while less faithful to the actors' actual lip movements, adds some desperately needed gravity to the potentially silly storyline. The optional English subtitles translate the Italian dialogue directly, which makes for a fascinating comparison against the more simplistic English dub.

Generations of bad prints and worse PD videotapes have offered only a hint of the visual glories to be found in Bava's second film; the DVD offers the original scope framing (or at least most of it-- the precise aspect ratio has been the subject of guesswork for years) as well as a wonderfully saturated color presentation which puts this up there with the finest of the Bava home video releases available. As with other European films of this vintage, the film stock betrays some signs of graininess and instability at times, but this is miles ahead of how the film has looked on television before. The disc also includes some nicely conversational liner notes by Tim Lucas (who pulls out some wonderfully odd trivia in the last paragraph), a ragged looking U.S. trailer, and an extensive photo and poster gallery. While Bava fanatics and fans of European horror will find this purchase a given, even those who avoid sword and sandal films should find this stellar entry more than worthwhile.

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