While a deltoid, a tricep, a hot groin, and a bicep usually make Judge Bill Gibron...SHAKE!!!, he would rather throw something at Charles Atlas than take him by the hand—especially if Mr. Dynamic Tension had anything to do with this pair of paltry peplum.
The perfect combination of brawn and bullspit.
Hercules, whose father was a god and whose mother was mortal, is called upon by the Kingdom of Iolcus to teach the wayward son of King Pelias the art of war. What he doesn't know is that he's walking into a court plagued by scandal. Rumors abound that Pelias stole the throne from his brother, killing him for it in a confused coup. Now an oracle warns the ruler that a man with one sandal will undermine his monarchy. Hercules arrives, befriends a spry young Ulysses, and falls madly in love with Pelias's daughter, Princess Iole. Because he is immortal, Hercules is cursed with the inability to love. He renounces his power and, before you know it, ends up fighting a murderous lion on the outskirts of town. He wins, but Pelias's son is killed. Angry at Hercules, the king sends him off to fight the killer bull of Crete. During the scuffle, our hero runs across Jason, the true heir to Iolcus's throne. Seems all he needs is the mythic Golden Fleece and he will be declared emperor. Gathering up the Argo, and some Argonauts, Hercules and Jason head out to search for the yellow animal skin. When a storm scuttles their provisions, they end up on an island of Amazons. After a little loving and some near post-coital killings, the ship heads toward its destiny. With Hercules' help, Jason finds the fleece, defeats the dinosaur (???) that guards it, and with one last sword-and-shield battle, regains the court of Iolcus.
Years later, Maciste, the son of Hercules, is chilling seaside, reeling in a whale (???) for his dinner when a group of dead guys come galloping up on horses. Before he can figure out what's happening, a bunch of albinos in white tunics and cream-colored fright wigs start shooting arrows at him. He grabs his immense fishhook and beats them silly. Maciste soon learns that these "Mole Men" have ravaged a local town, and they have either killed or kidnapped everyone. While investigating this information for himself, Maciste runs into his buddy Bangor. He is being tortured by the Mole Men, and our hero quickly dispenses with the sun-fearing fellows. Wanting to help the enslaved villagers, Maciste plots to have himself and Bangor captured. Once inside the underground lair of the Mole Men, Herc's dimwitted son discovers that a local Princess is about to be sacrificed to the gods, while the rest of the people power the Mole Men's massive gem-making machine. Quickly put to work as well, Maciste catches the eye of Queen Halis Mosab. She thinks he's hunky and sets up a test of skill to confirm his marital status. Unfortunately, the challenge includes beefy companion Bangor, and a large, smelly ape creature. Naturally, Maciste fools the foes, rescues the Princess, and plans a way of releasing all the other prisoners. Sadly, it takes another 45 minutes, some incredibly lame acting, and another idiotic test of strength to settle the score between our hero and his light-avoiding adversaries.
Call him what you will—gay icon, over-muscled moron, a mythic hero of virtue and strength, or a weird sword-and-sandal accident in the history of popular cinema—but Hercules still has his defenders, even as the decades dim whatever minor entertainment value his films featured. Frankly, the whole peplum movement of the '50s and '60s seems so surreal, reflecting very little of the current cultural climate and, on occasion, resembling a steroid-induced sideshow at the local carnival. In fact, some may argue that the reason films featuring these pumped-up personas were so incredibly popular stems mostly from the star's freakish physical form. While bodybuilding was a recognized sport long before, something about the post-war world made the narcissistic pursuit of physiological perfection seem all the more intriguing. Maybe it was the need to continue the feeling of power and dominance. Perhaps it was the advances in technology and training that made workouts more symmetrically perfected. It could be nothing more than an increasing concern over our metabolic make-up. Whatever the rationale, with a higher profile came more cultural interest. As a result, the Italians' love affair with all things gladiatorial slipped over into the realm of Mt. Olympus, and out popped Hercules and his equally inflated son, Maciste. A few hundred hackneyed films later, you've got more pabulum than peplum in the overall man-god canon.
As the first in the fledgling serialization of the mythic muscle dude, Steve Reeves is indeed a perfectly hunky Hercules. Even with his own voice dubbed by not one, but two, different individuals (don't ask, it's a long story) and an acting style that could be considered wooden and plastic, he definitely looks the part. Sadly, it's in service of one of the most scattershot, literarily obtuse interpretations of the Hercules myth ever conceived. Instead of concentrating on what the well-tanned hero is known for—his legendary trials or "labors," a dozen tasks that taxed his already superhuman strength—we get bows to Jason and his ratty ram's pelt, a visit to some Amazonian sirens, and a trumped-up romance that requires the rejection of his immortality (Yeah, like that's going to happen!). Well, at least he wasn't out battling titans and trading quips with James Woods in blue flame hair, right? To be fair, we really don't come to a Mediterranean muscleman movie for its historical accuracy, but a little internal logic and narrative rationality would be nice. This movie is all over the map, from its layered lunatic internal power struggles to the random arrivals of oracles and sorceresses. At any given instance, Herc's lady friend loves him, hates him, helps him, and/or hinders him. Equally frustrated are so-called allies Jason and Ulysses. Up until the end, our Argonaut is a whipped wuss. He whines so incessantly about leaving the island of Amazons that our hero has to drug him to refocus his quest for the Fleece. And Ulysses is a goofy sprite—a skinny stick boy leaping around like a mythological Tommy Tune. Odd, aggravating, and leaden at time, the original Hercules is only occasionally fun.
That's more than can be said for his offspring, the misshapen Maciste. Featuring the side of beef on bird legs known as Mark Forest and a bevy of Italian choreographers in bad fright wigs, this rancid 'roid outrage is far more interested in actress Moira Orfei's cinched-up bodice than it is about the typical sword-and-sandal stuff. Ms. O is the reigning Queen of the Mole People and her heavily-corseted frame is occasionally fetching, but she appears so tightly compacted that we begin to wonder which orifice she is breathing out of. Filling out the final facet of this muscle-bound ménage is black bodybuilder Paul Wynter, who is relegated to the role of well-oiled stereotype as the Mantan Moreland of the Ancient World, Bangor. Cowardly, complaining, and dim as a post, this "slave" more or less single-handedly sets back the cause of civil rights several centuries with his "massa" Maciste shtick. We grimace whenever he is onscreen, fully aware that, whatever Wynter the actor is doing, the actor dubbing his voice is rendering him weak and wussified. As for the narrative, this is standard melodramatic mung, a repetitive rescue-and-revenge tale that never becomes anything more than a vehicle for pose downs and flexing. Maciste must battle Bangor, one of those patented ratty Italian monkey men, and a gem-rendering machine before he can truly save the day. Yet, unlike his pop, this progeny fails to bag the babe. While it does feature some interesting special effects (the underground caverns are very convincing), this is a wretched excuse for action and/or adventure. Herc may have had 12 labors to endure, but here's betting he was glad to avoid this outright offspring torment. Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules is a truly painful experience.
Presented by Retromedia, the DVD distribution arm of Fred Olen Ray's cinematic empire, there is good and bad news about the technical aspects of this release. First, the horrors. Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules is a full-screen, washed-out catastrophe. The 1.33:1 image is colorless, lacking definition, and cropped so closely that we miss a great deal of the action occurring just out of frame. While this does mean there's less of this mess to endure, fans of the genre will be mighty displeased with this tacky transfer. Much better, for several significant reasons, is the version of Hercules present. Offered in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen print, the colorful, detailed picture here is pretty good. It is far from perfect—there are pigment and age issues 'o plenty—but it does deliver a fairly consistent level of lights and darks. On the sound side, there is nothing much that can be done with poorly dubbed English from 40 years ago. The Dolby Digital Mono is flat, muddy, and intermittently hard to hear. While it's true that most of the dialogue in a film like this is forgettable at best, when dealing with plots as dense as these, being able to understand what is going on is important. Finally, there are no bonus features here at all—no trailers, no context—nothing.
Unless the sight of greased-up musclemen gets your cinematic (as well as other) proclivities good and juicy, there is really no reason to line up for this paltry peplum double feature. Sure, the original Hercules is something of a classic, and does feature one of the definitive physical portrayals of the mythic macho man. Yet one would have to like stories on the sloppy, haphazard style to get anything out of this entertainment experience—and the less said about Maciste, the better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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