Mario Bava's second film as credited director is more interesting for his blazing use of Technicolor than the actual story, itself a typically juvenile adventure limited by a very tight budget.
Bava's photography adds more gloss and dimension to the limited sets that were built for the production, and some trick effects that expand the physical depth and scope in many shots, including the underground tunnels and caverns that were built on obvious, flat stages. Bava doesn't waste a single part of the widescreen image, but whenever actors are forced to stand and deliver banal dialogue, he's trapped with an immovable camera, and forced to have the actors occasionally move about to keep the frame's content interesting. It's a common problem that plagued early ‘scope films, but one Bava managed to avoid in his gorgeously composed visuals for I Vampiri.
Even when the camera's idle, Bava's lighting is truly magical, as exotic colours highlight every object and surface, and the actors are frequently bathed in wavering swathes of pastel colours. When Hercules seeks advice from the white-masked oracle, the initial shots are draped with shimmering metallic streamers, evoking the textural visuals in Josef von Sternberg's classic and visually indulgent films.
By relying on key mythic devices – basically the acquisition of magical doodads to free Hercules' beloved from an evil lord – the screenplay is basically a familiar journey adventure, but it's all pretty ridiculous, with oversexed buddy Thesus and goofball sidekick Telemachus at one point threatened by a stalagmite monster, bearing a moniker pattered after the pseudo-Latin captions that enhanced the Coyote-Roadrunner cartoons.
The humour is often quite black – at one point the leader of a coven of cursed women apologizes nonchalantly to Hercules for feeding his buddies to the rock monster – and Christopher Lee (dubbed by another actor in the English dub track) is deliciously evil as the film's meanie in his handful of above-ground scenes, but the film loses its tempo when scenes start to drag, and actors spend a bit too much time wandering around foggy sets.
The best sequence has Hercules climbing a massive tree to acquire a golden apple possessing the power of invisibility, and one has to marvel at Bava's brilliant compositions and trick effects, which often combine actions from polar focal points within singular shots. The angles, colours, and action are incredibly engrossing, and one can trace stylistic similarities between the film's most kinetic sequences with those found in Danger: Diabolik (particularly Diabolik's climbing of the turret, with surfaces sprawling across the widescreen image).
Fantoma's DVD comes with a pristine transfer of the original European version, coupled with Italian and English dub tracks. Fans should also check out the soundtrack album from DigitMovies, which features a number of cues not in the film, and tracks that run much longer than the final edited sequences.
Bava also directed the Viking-flavoured Gli Invasori / Erik the Conqueror in 1961 with Cameron Mitchell, and reunited with the actor for their second historical actioner, I Coltelli del vendicatore / Knives of the Avenger in 1966.
Hercules in the Haunted World followed Reg Park 's debut in Hercules and the Captive Women. The British-born muscleman reprised the role in Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964) and Hercules the Avenger (1965) before putting away his dusty sandals. George Ardisson (Thesus) subsequently appeared in Bava's Erik the Conqueror.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan