Color, 1961, 82 mins. / Directed by Mario Bava / Starring Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, George Ardisson / Music by Armando Trovajoli / Produced by Achille Piazzi / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Though Black Sunday lifted the black and white horror film to new levels of visual artistry, Mario Bava wildly swerved into new territory the following year with Hercules in the Haunted World, a blazingly colorful mixture of gothic horror and peplum fantasy which stands as one of the most memorable entries in the often derided sword and sandal genre. A stylish concoction of luminous landscapes, ghoulish monsters, and eccentric plot twists, this is miles away from your standard Steve Reeves bodybuilding opus. And it has Christopher Lee as a villain, too!

After performing labors abroad, Hercules (Reg Park) is reunited with his best friend, the lothario Theseus (George Ardisson). Unfortunately Hercules' true love, Deianira (Leonora Ruffo), has passed into a strange trance and no longer recognizes the world around her. The shifty King Lico (Lee) advises Hercules to seek help from an oracle, who reveals that the only cure for Deianira lies in the underworld, specifically the powerful golden Apple of the Hesperides which provides access to the coveted Stone of Forgetfulness. Along with the bumbling Telemachus, Hercules (who has relinquished his immortality) and Theseus set off to the other side where they encounter a land of eternal night, filled with rock monsters, bubbling pools of lava, and deadly flying bloodsuckers. However, the greatest threat is yet to come...

Thanks to his extensive experience as a cinematographer, Bava brings a fully formed sensibility to his first color film and lays out the visual motifs which would latter reach full bloom in such classics as Planet of the Vampires. Using a minimal budget and limited sets to his advantage, Bava turns his soundstages and miniatures into delirious whirlpools of color and texture, pitting his actors against a seemingly endless array of imaginative obstacles. The heroes' climb over bubbling lava, for example, is an expertly rendered example of a special effects set piece created from the barest elements posssible, while the forest and tomb sequences bring the established environments of Black Sunday into a new context, splashed with unnatural waves of red and blue light. The actors can't help but pale against such settings, but Park makes for one of the more interesting and intelligent Italian muscelemen, while Lee as usual makes for an imposing figure despite his relatively limited screentime. A subplot involving Theseus' infatuation with Persephone, the mythical daughter of Pluto, is also imaginatively handled and fits in nicely with the doom-laden romances of Bava's subsequent work.

Most widely seen in a laughably dubbed U.S. version from Woolner Brothers which omits and reshuffles several chunks of footage, Hercules in the Haunted World finds much of its dignity restored with this long overdue, definitive treatment of the original, undoctored edition. Boasted the European English language title of Hercules at the Center of the Earth on the actual print, this transfer contains the original opening title sequence (against a stony tomb) and thankfully preserves both the dopey English dub track and the original Italian version which, while less faithful to the actors' actual lip movements, adds some desperately needed gravity to the potentially silly storyline. The optional English subtitles translate the Italian dialogue directly, which makes for a fascinating comparison against the more simplistic English dub.

Generations of bad prints and worse PD videotapes have offered only a hint of the visual glories to be found in Bava's second film; the DVD offers the original scope framing (or at least most of it-- the precise aspect ratio has been the subject of guesswork for years) as well as a wonderfully saturated color presentation which puts this up there with the finest of the Bava home video releases available. As with other European films of this vintage, the film stock betrays some signs of graininess and instability at times, but this is miles ahead of how the film has looked on television before. The disc also includes some nicely conversational liner notes by Tim Lucas (who pulls out some wonderfully odd trivia in the last paragraph), a ragged looking U.S. trailer, and an extensive photo and poster gallery. While Bava fanatics and fans of European horror will find this purchase a given, even those who avoid sword and sandal films should find this stellar entry more than worthwhile.

Color, 1966, 85 mins.

Directed by Mario Bava

Starring Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Erika Blanc, Fabienne Dali, Piero Lulli, Max Lawrence, Gianna Vivaldi / Music by Carlo Rustichelli / Cinematography by Antonio Rinaldi

Format: DVD - VCI (MSRP $19.99)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital Mono

This oppressive and visually overwhelming exercise in the conjuring of atmosphere allowed Mario Bava to crank the gothic stylistic tendencies of Black Sunday into overdrive, finally permitting him to churn out scene after scene of hallucinatory intensity with only the barest threads of a plot to hold it all together. The avenging demonic forces of his past films have been distilled here into the single, chilling image of a ghostly young girl, rolling a sinister pale ball down hallways and street corners as she drives those around her to certain death. Rarely has a more haunting or unforgettable specter graced the horror cinema, and even had he never made another film after this, Bava would have already proven himself as a master filmmaker.

A young coroner named Dr. Eswai (or Eswe, depending on your source) (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives at a desolate Eastern European village and makes the acquaintance of the beautiful Monica (Erika Blanc), a medically trained native who has recently returned to her home. Together they perform an autopsy on a young maid who died under mysterious circumstances while employed at the eerie Villa Graps on the edge of town. The autopsy turns up a gold coin imbedded into the girl's heart, a local superstition carried out by the local witch, Ruth (Fabienne Dali), who uses home remedies to aid her townspeople. Eswai goes to the Villa Graps where the reclusive Baroness (Gianna Vivaldi) proves to be less than forthcoming. Apparently the villagers' callous irresponsibility led to the death of her young daughter, Melissa, who now haunts the town at night and strikes down those who even dare to mention her name...

Years before he exploded the conventions of spatial reality in Lisa and the Devil, Bava was already tampering quite daringly with cinematic storytelling in this film. The final half hour contains some magnificent sequences bound to disorient the hardiest viewer, including effective use of a seemingly endless spiralling staircase and a brilliant, Avengers-like conceit which finds the doctor trapped in endless circle within the same cluster of room. Fans of Euro starlets will also enjoy the presence of Blanc, who later steamed up drive-in screens as the star of The Devil's Nightmare. Regular Bava composer Carlo Rustichelli provides the score once again (supplemented by some Roman Vlad passages), including a few quotes from his previous Blood and Black Lace score, some apparently augmented by the U.S. distributor.

Though picked up by MGM for one of its many theatrical runs, Kill, Baby... Kill! (original title: Operaziona Paura, or Operation Fear) has remained one of the more difficult Bava horror titles to see in a form even close to its creator's intentions. A heavily truncated version entitled Curse of the Living Dead made the rounds as part of a notorious "Living Dead" triple bill in the late '60s, while the original version occasionally turned up on late night television and various public domain video labels. Relatively speaking, VCI's disc is the most watchable of the available options, thanks to the restoration of Bava's vibrant color schemes in which unnatural bursts of green, red, and blue accompany the characters' gradual descent into supernatural madness. Flesh tones look pale and dull, however, and the heavy graininess resulting from the 16mm makes the film look rougher and cheaper than it probably should. Also, the mild cropping from the original compositions (somewhere between 1.66:1 and 1.78:1) results in actors' faces scraping perilously close to the edge of frame. These debits aside, however, it's a great leap over the familiar Sinister Cinema version, for example, and should be enough to tide Bava fans over until a pristine widescreen version turns up somewhere. The disc also includes trailers for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Blood and Black Lace, and The Night Visitor, all accessible from a menu screen decorated in puzzling fashion with butcher knives.

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