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A "Hercules vs. Vampires" Primer, Part 2: Director Mario Bava

Filmmaker Mario Bava at the cameraFilmmaker Mario Bava

The peplum genre was the proving ground for generations of Italian filmmakers. Just like Stanley Kubrick paid his dues on Spartacus, Sergio Leone honed his craft on The Colossus of Rhodes, an otherwise routine peplum that displays several signature camera compositions that he later made famous in spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Mario Bava (1914-1980) was no different, responsible for lighting, camera and special effects on films like Hercules Unchained before going on to direct low-budget B-movie fare that would have profound influence on future generations of filmmakers worldwide.

Barbara Steele in "Black Sunday"Barbara Steele in Black Sunday

His Barbara Steele vehicle Black Sunday (1960) was widely imitated in its striking use of light and shadow. But he was more famous for “painting with light”—using colored spots to throw psychedelic, garish hues onto both backgrounds and the actors in front of them in such classics as Black Sabbath (1963) with Boris Karloff. His 1965 space opera Planet of the Vampires was a significant influence on surrealist artist H.R. Giger’s work in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien. Bava’s pioneering films The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) are among the elite of that uniquely Italian genre of gory thrillers known as giallo. The 1971 shocker Twitch of the Death Nerve helped set the groundwork for the 1980s slasher boom (led by films like Friday the 13th) and his 1966 classic Kill, Baby… Kill! influenced the 1990s “J-Horror” explosion in Japan.

Blood and Black Lace

Hercules in the Haunted World (a.k.a. Hercules vs. Vampires, Hercules at the Center of the Earth and numerous other titles depending on where you might be watching it) is arguably the most visually striking of the peplum genre due to the distinct “Bava lighting” present throughout. Watch for ultra-vivid greens and purples thrown onto rocky backdrops while actors bathed in blue and orange cross into other complimentary lighting hues as they move.

Persephone in Hades, in a scene from "Hercules in the Haunted World"

In a scene from Hercules in the Haunted World, Persephone (the impossibly beautiful Ida Galli)
glides through an exquisite world created by Mario Bava's imaginative lighting.

And then, cast as the film’s villain, there’s multi-genre legend Christopher Lee, whose imposing stature and distinctive bass voice made him unforgettable in films such as Hammer’s Dracula series, the Lord of the Rings series and the Star Wars prequel trilogy, among many others. His performances here and in a subsequent collaboration with Bava, The Whip and the Body, suffer because another actor’s voice—not his—is heard in the English-dubbed prints of these films. British bodybuilding champion Reg Park, the Steve Reeves stand-in du jour, made a total of four pepla, including the recommendable Hercules and the Captive Women (as seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000). He would serve as a mentor and inspiration to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would actually play the mythological hero himself in the 1979 comedy Hercules in New York before going on to his breakthrough role as Conan.

In today’s digital era, the miniatures and practical effects present in Hercules vs. Vampires may elicit a chuckle at times. Try instead to celebrate Bava’s ambition, with special effects scenes that far, far, far outreached his meager budget; a lesser craftsman wouldn’t have even tried to fly so close to the sun. The final battle between Hercules and the swooping zombie/vampire ghouls is remarkably well shot and edited, and illustrates a brilliant filmmaker sharpening his sword for future glory. It can be tempting for modern audiences of revival cinema to get caught up in a “so-bad-it’s-good” mentality for old movies. But as in most Saturday matinee, grindhouse, creature feature, late show, drive-in and schlock-cinema fare, there are grains of brilliance at the centers of these pearls of the past.

In addition to working a dozen years in graphic design for LA Opera, lifelong “Monster Kid” Keith J. Rainville is the publisher of pioneering lucha libre and Mexican cinema magazine From Parts Unknown, the author of Zombi Mexicano, screenwriter of the Fox-Azteca feature Los Campeones de la Lucha Libre and designer of the Rondo Award-nominated book The Outer Limits at 50. He hasn’t had this much fun at the opera since The Fly.

A "Hercules vs. Vampires" Primer, Part 1: Peplum Aplenty

Let’s talk about Italy’s staggeringly popular “peplum” film genre, a.k.a “sword-and-sandal” and “sword-and-sinew” cinema or, as Peter Graves described them in Airplane, “gladiator movies.”

The word refers to the simple Greek-style tunic common in the costuming of everything from biblical tales to down and dirty monster-vs.-muscleman late-show/drive-in fare. The first era of peplum in Italian cinema saw brawny folk hero Machiste battle evil warlords and supernatural creatures in a string of over two dozen hugely popular silent-era fantasies from 1914 to 1927. That strongman made a comeback in the 1950s, coinciding with Hollywood’s biblical epic boom, but it was another hero, drawn from classical mythology, who came to define Italian peplum: Hercules.

Kirk Douglas in "Ulysses"Kirk Douglas in Ulysses

Italy didn’t do period films best, but they did do them most. Rome’s movie moguls made their fortunes exploiting Hollywood hits like strip miners, identifying a hit film’s core genre components and replicating them ad nauseam. The 1954 Kirk Douglas vehicle Ulysses would serve as such a model for success: find a story from mythology or folklore that you don’t have to pay royalties for; import a foreign star (preferably American) for the marquee; load up on special effects, weird creatures, damsels in distress and femme fatales; and do it all as inexpensively as possible.

The 1959 breakout film Hercules, starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves, was the result. Twenty and or so sequels followed, starring a variety of shirtless and oiled-up heroes: from former Tarzans like Gordon Scott and Mickey Hargitay (husband of Jayne Mansfield and father to Law & Order’s Mariska Hargitay) to Peter Lupus of Mission: Impossible fame. They played Hercules or any of his myriad spawn—like Ursus—as well as other warriors of myth and legend like Samson, Atlas and Goliath.

Steve Reeves as Hercules

It also didn’t hurt to have a monster in the title of the movie, as evidenced by hits like Hercules vs. the Moon Men, Hercules vs. the Hydra, Goliath and the Dragon, Mole Men vs. the Son of Hercules, Colossus and the Headhunters, and so many more wherein the likes of Medusa and the Cyclops fall victim to hurled styrofoam boulders and broken paper-mâché chains.

Goliath and the Dragon

But in 1964, sword-and-sandal cinema was slain almost overnight by a single man, a man with no name—more specifically, Clint Eastwood, the unnamed hero of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The explosive success of that film turned Rome’s studios and producers like a school of fish. Over the next decade, hundreds of “spaghetti westerns” were churned out, filmed in the same locations that just before had been dressed as the ancient world.

Westerns would dominate Italy’s film industry until the next big exploitation wave: Godfather-inspired gangster films, followed in the 1980s by a genre fragmentation that was a product of the home video revolution. Cheap Italian knock-offs of The Road Warrior and Dawn of the Dead filled grindhouse theaters and video store shelves with viral-like rapidity, but these genres were all dwarfed by the huge output of new fantasy flicks driven by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic portrayal of Conan the Barbarian and the John Boorman epic Excalibur. Films like Ator the Fighting Eagle, Conquest, Ironmaster and Yor: Hunter from the Future all used recycled props, sets and locations dusted off from the peplum craze of decades previous. There was even a Hercules reboot with TV’s Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno battling Star Wars-inspired robotic monsters.

And peplum has returned again recently, through Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and even two new Hercules films that came out as recently as last year: The Legend of Hercules, with Twilight’s Kellan Lutz, and Hercules, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Hercules and his ilk are truly immortal.

In addition to working a dozen years in graphic design for LA Opera, lifelong “Monster Kid” Keith J. Rainville is the publisher of pioneering lucha libre and Mexican cinema magazine From Parts Unknown, the author of Zombi Mexicano, screenwriter of the Fox-Azteca feature Los Campeones de la Lucha Libre and designer of the Rondo Award-nominated book The Outer Limits at 50. He hasn’t had this much fun at the opera since The Fly.

Zack Snyder's 300A scene from Zack Snyder's 300