Judge Neil Dorsett is here to help you get your Steves Reeved and Koscina your Sylvas for free.
"I'm so sleepy, I can't seem to keep my eyes open."
Bad times have fallen upon the city-state of Jolco! The king is sotted and ill, and under the influence of a dark vizier. His heir, Ephetus, leaves a little to be desired in the ruling department, as he is immature and brash, though physically strong. Ephetus's sister Iole (the truly beautiful young Sylva Koscina) is powerless to prevent her father's decay and that of his kingdom along with him. But the king has a plan. He has been warned by the Delphic oracle that an invader wearing only one sandal will supplant his reign; therefore, he must arrange for Ephetus to rule in his stead before this occurs. With Ephetus hardly ready to assume the throne, the King hires a personal trainer: the famous Theban hero, Hercules (Steve Reeves), AKA the Jack LaLanne of ancient Greece. Well, things don't go too well in that department, with the sum results of Hercules's training being that Ephetus feels even more like an ass and then gets himself killed trying to show up Hercules during Herc's first "labor," the defeat of the lion (here menacing the locals of Jolco rather than being a quest). Needless to say, the King isn't too pleased, and neither is Iole, for whom Herc has developed some degree of…ahem…affection. Herc goes off to bitch about his immortality to the Delphic, and she reveals a hitherto unknown oracular power: removing the immortality from demigods. Yes, Herc blames his immortality for his stupid mistakes and blows it off. And he's all the time blasting on about his intelligence, too. Does the guy really have to not be immortal in order to understand that other people aren't? Well, probably, 'cause the guy's a real lunk. Anyway, a few more of the labors are accounted for, and then the story turns into the tale of Jason and the Argonauts—all the way to Herc taking a back seat, although the plotline about the dark vizier continues. Jason arrives at Jolco wearing one sandal (ah ha, says the movie, zooming sharply into the shoe) and the quest for the Golden Fleece, somehow the only proof of fitness to rule, begins. The crew (including other notables such as Ulysses, played as a young comic relief character) runs afoul, or perhaps afeather, of the famous Amazons, who try to follow a large dance scene with their black widow number but are foiled by the adolescent Ulysses's immunity to their charms (this is the guy who thought of climbing into a horse and getting sucked into a whirlpool, so you can see how he's kind of sublimated his…never mind). Finally the fleece is located and Jason must fight a super-cheap dragon that emerges from a pile of leaves, and the whole thing is undercranked so it looks absolutely ridiculous. And there's your Hercules.
Flash forward a couple of years. The now-married Herc and Iole have taken Ulysses on as a sort of ward, and the three prepare to journey along the Mediterranean for the honeymoon. A leftover labor from the first movie, which had never bothered to codify the labors anyway, shows up in the form of Antaeus, child of the earth. Herc doesn't care too much about this, as he's in the middle of his naptime, until Antaeus tips him out of the wagon entirely. Now antagonized, Herc whups Antaeus—and if you don't know how by now, I'm not talkin'. There's some kind of warring city-state action going on too, with some cats named Polineces (on Herc's home team, the Thebans) and Eteocles. Hercules, ever the moron, drinks the waters of Lethe and forgets everything he knows, just in time for a battle in which poor Iole is captured as chattel. Ulysses helps Herc keep out of trouble, but the two fall into the hands of the sultry Queen Omphale, who has kind of a Bluebeard thing going on with her large series of husbands. The Queen takes a shine to Herc's assets and decides that maybe feeding the big slab on the waters that cause forgetfulness might lead her to a better life, so she keeps him. Her courtiers do their best to revive the dance numbers favored by the previous movie's Amazons, while Ulysses must pose as a deafmute servant to Hercules in an effort to free the big lug's self-described superior mind. Now Eteocles and Omphala must face a Hercules Unchained. Iole's also not there, so the title is twice true! So anyway, lots of trouble, Hercules has to hold a big spiked door open, some folks get killed, some folks commit suicide, and the Furies are happy about it all except for the fact that they didn't get to be in the movie.
Like its predecessor, which gave over the main plotline to Jason, the movie cedes its heroism to a supporting character—in this case Ulysses. The movie's largest single element concerns Ulysses's efforts to free Hercules from his Lethe-induced stupor, with the young Ithican posing as a deafmute servant. Sure, Herc's gonna kick some butt once he's out of the haze, but that's pretty much a given; it's like releasing the bulls. So the plot has to center around the conditions of the bulls' release rather than the bull itself. What does all this mean? Hell, I don't know. It's just nice to see that the big schmuck isn't always the center of attention. Iole also stands as something of a heroine this time, leading a slave revolt among the captives with which she's placed.
So are these good movies? Well, they are…what they are. Though they are campy, they are also in earnest, and they're Franco-Italian, and they're from the 1950s, and…well, it's Hercules, all right? Between all the beefcake and the cheesecake, it's pretty safe to say that the movies' enduring appeal lies somewhere in the sex appeal zone with a healthy dose of bad-movie contempt (with a small slice of legitimate fans, as with all such old weirdness). But they're not without good humor of their own, to say nothing of plenty of unintentional laughs—some caused by the bargain-basement dub job, but hardly all. The portrayal of Hercules as a bit of a jerk is also clearly intentional and related to his second-banana role in the larger plots—this is not only mythological accuracy, but satire, in its way, of heroes in general. The effects and sets are the work of Mario Bava and so bear a mysterious, dangerous—although cheap—flair. Not all the elements are cheap; the Argo is quite elaborate, as are several of the environs throughout both pictures. Other elements such as the dragon and overtly wacky or effeminate characters such as Ephetus (wacky) and Eteocles (effeminate) throw the whole thing into pure comedy territory. Intentional? Hell, I don't know, it's European, and it's dubbed on top of that, so really, who can tell? One thing's for sure, these movies have Hercules in them, and he's played by Steve Reeves. Whatever that's worth, you can't take it away from them. And let's be clear, these movies were a pretty big deal when they were new and in their own element, it is the voice of time that overrides theirs and makes them ridiculous. The dated effects, the dub, the horrible crop, and the ever-increasing American cultural urge toward gay stereotyping all contribute to the old Hercules series's cultural irrelevance. Add to that the fact that the movies were just kinda stiff and stilted in the first place, and you've got a research project, not a pair of movies meant to appeal at gut level today, although one may still enjoy Reeves or Koscina's physique on such a level, of course.
Alas, poor Hercules! VCI has saddled him once more with his same old not-even-panned-and-scanned television transfer—the same one used by Best Brains for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, right down to the shots that are damn near empty due to the incompetent crop job. This is true of both movies. A shame, really, since these are large-scale widescreen pictures, whatever their chintziness. Here we have another instance of VCI just plain getting in the way—either of someone ponying up for a new transfer, or of Rhino's MST3K releases, which often include the original film unaltered as a bonus. About the only thing I could say about these presentations relative to older VHS versions is that they have a slightly better color look—the resolution here is poor. All this being said, it's probably still head and shoulders over the Madacy discs of the same material.
As for extras: "Poster Gallery" features posters from all over the Italian sword and sandal map; both Hercules and peer Maciste (who has occasionally worn Herc's handle thanks to unscrupulous American dub squads) are represented in this presentation, which like most such "galleries" from VCI is a motion presentation. This time the posters line up and strut across the screen like a fashion show, to the tune of the love theme from Hercules, "By an Evening Star." The effect is better than on some other VCI discs, but it would still be preferable to just have them as stills. But the collection is pretty comprehensive; there's even a Dell comic book adaptation cover! Trailers are included for other VCI offerings: Blood and Black Lace, Whip and the Body, Watch Me When I Kill, and Any Gun Can Play. Like most import trailers of that era, they're a little stiff, and the transfers are nothing to write home about, but hey, trailers are always fun. The emphasis on Bava just makes me wish that this disc was of Hercules in the Haunted World instead of the originals. Finally there are brief biographies of Reeves and Koscina, and on Sylva Koscina's bio page there's a picture of Sylvia Lopez, who played Queen Omphala in the second film, instead of Koscina herself.
VCI is guilty of trotting out the same old Herc transfers once more instead of dedicating their efforts to finding or creating letterboxed transfers in the original language. The disc's double feature concept is strong, and as usual for VCI there are a few nice archivist's extras, but without either better movies or better transfers, it's hard to see how anyone will be actually interested in this disc. Produce a transfer in original aspect ratio (video quality is too much to ask from VCI) and with multiple sound options, maybe a commentary, dig up some relevant trailers (I know Sinister Cinema used to have 'em), and you'll have a worthy disc on your hands. This, however, is catalog filler. What kind of world is it where Hercules is in such poor shape?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Poster Gallery
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