Ercole al Centro della Terra, aka Hercules in the Haunted World
Director: Mario Bava
Screenwriters: Duccio Tessari, Francesco Prosperi, Alessandro Continenza, Mario Bava
By Roderick Heath
Mario Bava is beloved by cineastes as the filmmaker who helped define the modern concept of horror and thriller cinema, as well as the founder of the giallo style that would shape both. But like most Italian directorial talents of the time, including rivals like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, who were not lucky enough to be counted amongst the anointed guard of art filmmakers, Bava dipped a toe in the other genres that were mainstays of the Italian film industry: spaghetti westerns and peplum. Peplum films, a genre more usually known outside Italy as “sword and sandal” (the word “peplum” refers to a type of Greco-Roman toga), told stories based in classical history and mythology, and had been a mainstay of Italian film since early spectacles like Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914). Thanks in large part to the appeal of imported American champion body builder Steve Reeves, 1957’s Hercules, directed by Pietro Francisci and produced by then-major Italian studio Titanus, proved a huge hit and sparked a general explosion in the genre. The once-parochial brand found an international audience amidst fans of zippy, simple thrills, kids delighting in straightforward action fantasy, weightlifting freaks, and aficionados of campy delights.
Once Reeves bowed out of the role, Titanus went through several more beefcake heroes, including Jayne Mansfield’s husband Mickey Hargitay and Leeds-born former Mr. Britain, Reg Park. Bava had served as cinematographer and special effects whiz on Francisci’s hit. After years gaining a reputation not just as an expert film technician but also as a sure hand at rescuing film productions, including mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956) and the ambitious peplum drama The Giant of Marathon (1959), Bava finally made his proper directing debut with La Maschera del Demonio (1960). It was only natural that at some point, the new filmmaking star would be hired to handle an entry in the Titanus Hercules series, and Hercules in the Centre of the Earth was it. Bava’s forays into the western mode are generally considered his weakest work, but his historical action films are defiantly oddball and striking, in part because he displayed a propensity for mixing genres.
On Hercules in the Centre of the Earth Bava injected a powerful strain of his gothic horror style, and later, in the face of stringent circumstances, blended western plot rhythms with a distant historical setting on Knives of the Avenger (1966). Bava, belated as his recognition was, is today seen as vital in his influence on later filmmakers, including John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Ridley Scott, and others. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth is particularly compelling in this regard as a nexus for several later cinematic strands. At first glance, Bava’s lush, baroque, eerie sense of style would hardly seem well-suited to the aesthetics of peplum, usually shot in the sun-dappled climes of Spain and replete with oily guys in loin cloths sparring and chariots trundling across the landscape and releasing basso profundo laughter. But with Hercules in the Centre of the Earth, Bava, who shared writing credits with Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi, and Duccio Tessari, created a work that taps into the deepest wellsprings of the fantastic in spite of his low budget, cramped production, and the regulation tropes of peplum inimical to his dark and anarchic storytelling spirit.
That brings up an interesting query: what films do actually channel the feeling of mythology best? Most movie fans are used to the grandiosity of spectacular takes on mythology, from The Ten Commandments (1956) to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films and other CGI-riddled recent fare, or the less expensive, but intricately manufactured works of Ray Harryhausen, whose Jason and the Argonauts (1963) shares some of its strongest aspects with Bava’s film. Art cinema stalwarts might let their minds drift to no-less-stylised, but considerably more allusive, purposefully fragmented and estranged assimilations of legendary tales like Pier Paolo Pasolini on Medea (1969), or Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964). Such films evoke the often very surreal aspect of mythic storytelling, encompassing the ritualistic and theoretical motives behind them in their relationship to the cultures that birth them, glimpsed as broken frescoes in glittering fragments, if also neglecting their usually strong, orally based narrative values.
Hercules in the Centre of the Earth tends closer to the former, and accepts the general rules of the peplum genre, a style generally governed by very strict rules of firm morality and clean-cut heroes. But it also successfully blends a quality of the otherworldly, verging on the hallucinatory, in its evocations of the comic-booklike storytelling essentials of classical heroic myths, to conjure a work that takes place entirely in a cordoned reality. The film’s opening sees Hercules meeting up with friend and fellow monster-slaying mythic hero Theseus (George Ardisson) somewhere in the Achaean countryside. Hercules is heading to the city of Hercalia after a legendary journey to see his fiancée, the Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). Theseus, ever the ladies’ man, is too busy making out with Princess Jocasta (Ely Dracò) to notice a gang of hired assassins sneaking up on them, and a wild melee breaks out as Hercules and Theseus fight off the bad guys, climaxing in Hercules picking up a wagon and sending the assassins skittling.
Hercules continues on his way to Hercalia, but he finds the city beset by famine and pestilence, the populace deeply unhappy and believing the gods have cursed them. Deianira herself seems to be under an evil influence, wandering the corridors of the royal palace in a dissociated stupor murmuring Shakespearean odes to Hercules, whom she can’t recognise and instead believes drowned at sea. What Hercules doesn’t know is that Deianira’s uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee), serving as regent during her illness, is actually a black magician who has made a pact with the dark pagan gods which used to reign in the region. He also hired the defeated band of assassins. One of them reports their failure to Lico but still demands to be paid. Lico seems happy to do so, only to lure the unfortunate goon into a trap that guards his treasure horde, causing hidden spears to spring out and impale the would-be killer like a pin cushion and leaving him dangling in gruesome rictus.
This kind of clever-nasty gimmick harks back to silent serials and anticipates the flavour of the James Bond films, although that series was still a year away. Lico’s evil designs are made apparent to the viewer, although Hercules remains oblivious to them for a long time to come. Lico keeps the mesmerised Deianira installed in a sarcophagus in the labyrinth below the palace, intending for her to join the populace of zombielike ghouls already sleeping there. Bava here nods to Nosferatu (1922) as Lico calls Deianira to life, and she stands up from the sarcophagus stiff as a board, and then moves toward the camera in an eerie glide, a flourish Bava would later recycle for a more famous variation in I Tre Volti della Paura (1963). Hercules is warned about the evil befalling the land by Chamberlain Keros (Mino Doro) and decides to speak to the Oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) and delve into the mystery.
Medea consults in a stylised chamber of glittering Grecian decor and saturated colours, and delivers her prophecies in a carefully stylised blend of recitation and dance, face hidden by an Eastern-style mask. She warns Hercules that Deianira is under the influence of powerful, baleful forces, and that he must pay a heavy toll if he wants to proceed with any attempt to save her. He volunteers to Zeus to give up his immortality, and once it seems this offering it is accepted by a crack of thunder, the Oracle tells Hercules the only way to break the spell upon his intended is to venture into the realm of Hades and retrieve a totemic stone kept there which can ward off the evil spirits. This mission means penetrating the immutable veil between the living and the dead, and the only way to do that is to sail to the Garden of the Hesperides and fetch a totemic golden apple growing in the branches of a colossal, black tree.
Park was having his second turn as Hercules here. It’s hard to assess his performing skills as he was dubbed first into Italian and then with an American voice in the English-language version (as was costar Lee, amusingly), and many dismissed him as a big lunk in comparison to Reeves. But I find him a strong screen presence, armed with suggestions of delicate humour (as when he picks up one character between two fingers and moves him aside ever so gently), dashes of romanticism (as when he’s reunited with Deianira), and good humour with his fellow actors, even if his job is mostly to stand around showing his pecs, each about the size of Jerry Lewis. Bava’s gifts for employing colour and composition to create a dense, enfolding atmosphere, the essence of his art as a maker of horror films, gives Hercules in the Centre of the Earth a weird and oneiric quality that distinguishes it from a lot of fantasy cinema, particularly of the time, and steers it very close to Bava’s more familiar genre stomping grounds.
This approach suits a storyline erected as a pretext to explore the mystical, incantatory corners of ancient Greek mythology, improvising freely on some of its essential themes whilst also checking off some of Hercules’ less well-known labours, particularly his hunt for the golden apple. Most peplum films minimised the fantastical, emphasising instead muscle, brains, and guts as the essentials tools for forging civilisation. The darker side of the source legends, in which Hercules was frequently beset by curses and maladies and his own chaotic nature, underline the prototypical hero as an essentially ordinary man striving to do good and blessed with great natural attributes, but under the sway of malignant forces that serve as metaphors for the pressures that befall all people, trapped eternally between a presumed divine nature and the chaotic impulses of existence and fate.
Peplum heroes were rarely so complicated. Bava’s film exemplifies peplum as a genre on some levels, particularly in the emphasis on legitimate and illegitimate governments, with Hercules presented as the embodiment of right as might, an unquestionably decent and gutsy individual blessed with an outsized strength inseparable from his moral compass. I’ve often wondered if peplum’s obsession with this narrative pattern reflected Italy’s postwar identity crisis as much as any Antonioni alienation fest, with Hercules, Maciste, Ursus and manifold other hunky heroes all posited as wandering, selfless fighters for the oppressed and dispossessed, and combaters of corrupt regimes. They were stringent antitheses to the trend toward antiheroes that would start in the next few years and that still permeate pop culture.
Bava maintains the series pattern in making Hercules a simple, good-natured man, but critiques it noticeably as Hercules’ trusting nature blinds him to Lico’s evil, obvious to the audience, just because of who’s playing him, and uses Theseus instead as a figure who invokes wayward impulses and ultimately self-consuming emotional impulses. His womanising at the start is mere frivolous fun, but eventually causes other people great evil when he steals Persephone (Ida Galli) away from Hades. The journey to the underworld sees Hercules returning to enlist Theseus’s aid, with the intention of commandeering a “magic” ship built by Sunis (Aldo Pedinotti), the only craft that can stand a chance of traversing the sea and reaching Hades. They’re joined by Telemachus (Franco Giacobini), an inept princeling engaged to Jocasta who came looking for her and, confronted by Theseus as a rival suitor, became friends with him instead. (The character’s name is taken from Odysseus’ son, but like several other characters here, only seems to have been named for general mythical association.)
Telemachus volunteers to convince Sunis to give them his ship, but instead he finishes up almost drawn and quartered because Sunis wants to punish him for seducing his wife. Hercules intervenes and save Telemachus, and they take the ship whilst Sunis chases after him. On the mystic sea, the ship is assailed by storms, swirling clouds above, and schisms opening in the water, sweeping the ship and its crew onto the shores of the Hesperides. This is a place of perpetual night at the fringe of the underworld, and the Hesperides nymphs are held in check by dark powers, doomed to deliver up anyone who comes to them to the monstrous denizen of Hades’ gateway, Procrustes. Whilst Hercules as a son of Zeus is untouchable, the nymphs send Theseus and Telemachus to sleep in a chamber that serves as the lobby of Hades, where Procrustes lurks.
An implicit faith of peplum films is that few problems can’t be solved by throwing heavy objects around, and that’s still true here, although Bava emphasises how Hercules uses his strength in conjunction with intelligence. Defeated by the height of the tree on which the golden apple hangs and the furious divine storm that shakes it, Hercules instead makes a giant slingshot with a boulder and uses it to dislodge the apple. Hercules’ success breaks the spell forcing the Hesperides to enact Hades’ will, and their leader, Arethusa (Marisa Belli), warns Hercules he has to save his friends from the monster. The mythic Procrustes was a villainous son of Poseidon whom Theseus defeated; here he’s a demonic figure made of solid rock, impervious to Theseus’s sword blows. But Bava stays true to the gleefully nasty modus operandi of the mythical villain, with Theseus and Telemachus tied down on two beds, one too long and the other two short, with Procrustes intending to fit each to the bed by appropriately brutal means. Bava’s Procrustes, a lumbering but unstoppable creature, is a creation charged with peculiar creepiness, perhaps because of its odd, robotic-sounding voice as well as the sadistic simplicity of its intentions.
An interesting note sounds here, in spite of the sequence’s brevity, for fans of Bava and horror cinema in general. Bava takes on a purely symbolic brand of evil in a film that captures the aura of Greek mythology as a realm where the entire apparatus of narrative is psychological and symbolic. As Leone would in his westerns, Bava introduced this blank, atavistic sense of dramatic function sourced in myth to his following horror films, helping to give birth to the image of the masked, implacable, infernally motivated alien threat that would drive the slasher film. What is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) if not a much longer version of this same scene, down to the motifs of betrayed hospitality and the weird logic of a certain brand of cruelty? Fortunately, Hercules arrives before it can damage his friends lastingly, and with his aforementioned talent for hefting boulders around, Hercules grasps that Procrustes can be broken against other stone. He hurls the monster against a cave wall, smashing his body to rubble and breaking open the last barrier to entering Hades. After sending Telemachus to guard the ship and the golden apple, once in the underworld, Hercules and Theseus contend with illusory guardians and threats.
Hercules in the Center of the Earth was Bava’s first colour feature for which he was the unquestioned creative agent, making his instant mastery of deploying it all the more striking. Bava’s eye provides a constant stream of visual delights after Hercules and company set sail: the towering, shaking black trees of the Garden and Arethusa appearing out of ether, the surging, lysergic hues of the clouds as the ship is buffeted by a storm, the glittering tones of Procrustes’ abode, the surreal textures of Tartarus, the surveys of swooning Ruffo, all touched with hints of psychedelia several years before its official arrival as well as the dust of fairytale mystique. Hercules and Theseus’ adventures in the underworld meanwhile look forward to Indiana Jones’ ventures into caves of mystery and danger, with the added threat of illusion and supernatural forces. They negotiate seas of flame and boiling mud to reach the living stone, and slash their way through entangling tree roots that release grotesque screams and wails, which, they realise in a ghoulish flourish, emanate from the souls of the damned trapped in the roots.
So often Bava would prove obsessed with damned people clinging onto places and existence, their dark dreams and desires never fulfilled but also never escapable, whilst Greek myth insisted on moral order enforced by overtly totemic, ironic means. These ideas converge here with particularly unsettling import, especially in the truly surreal image of the bleeding vines. Hercules uses some of these to make a rope to cross the last chasm before the resting place of the icon, but Theseus falls into the seething matter below and Hercules thinks him dead. Theseus is, however, rescued by Persephone (Ida Galli), daughter of Hades, who falls for him instantly and lets him take her out of the underworld. Hercules braves physical agony retrieving the living stone, and he meets up with Theseus and Telemachus on the way out. Theseus keeps Persephone hidden from his friends and obeys her advice to throw the golden apple overboard to the smooth angry waters on their way out of the magical realms.
This act saves their lives, and they manage to reach Hercalia, where Hercules uses the stone to awaken Deianira from her trance. But a new sickness begins to grip the city at large, and when Hercules consults Medea, again she tells him Hades has cursed the city because Theseus is sheltering Persephone there. Theseus has become so obsessed with his new lover that the clashing demands on him become maddeningly self-consuming to the point where, unable to renounce her, he instead starts goading Hercules into killing him. This makes for a very Bava plot motif, desire and obsession as forces that defy all limits of mortality and nature, and it can only be reconciled when Persephone chooses to leave for all their sakes. She takes the living stone back to the underworld, but not before telling Hercules who’s responsible for the threat to Deianira and that Lico plans to sacrifice her during a lunar eclipse to gain eternal life and control over the land.
Bava’s flow of visual invention continues even in the relative normality of the palace, which becomes an eerie and insidious place out of silent films, where murder happens in the halls and walls split open revealing secret passages, and builds the memorable image of Deianira glimpsing Lico’s face reflected in a pool of blood leaking from the throat of her slaughtered handmaiden. The finale lets Bava slip his nightmarish imagery and shift fully into horror movie territory, as Hercules chases Lico into the underground labyrinth littered with statues of arcane eastern gods and then up to a pagan stone circle on the hill above Hercalia where he intends to stage his sacrifice of the princess. Lico releases his force of enslaved, flying zombies to hold off Hercules, and in a spellbinding sequence that counts amongst the purest of Bava’s vignettes of gothic style, the lids of sarcophagi shudder and lift, gnarled hands reach out swathed in cobwebs, all painted in Bava’s favourite clashing lighting patterns, drenching reds, greens, and blues.
Fortunately, once more Hercules’ gift for lugging big rocks saves the day, but in a genuinely dramatic fashion, as he rips up the stone circle one monolith at a time and uses them first to pinion Lico and then to fend off the zombies. Finally, the moment of eclipse passes, and Lico, his power broken, bursts into flames whilst his zombies disintegrate. The madcap invention of this climax suggests another nascent genre, crossbreeding action with fantastical motifs in a manner that wouldn’t really flower until the 1980s. Hercules and Deianira are safe at last when the end credits roll, even though in the original Hercules myths, Deianira eventually brought about Hercules’ death through magic and sexual jealousy. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth is hardly a perfect film, and enjoying it demands a certain tolerance for the tropes of peplum as a whole and a specific tolerance for Telemachus’ comic relief. But it stands effortlessly tall as a reminder that the essence of the fantastic, even in its grandest fictional corners, can still be captured with imagination and skill without enormous resources.