Tuesday, August 16, 2005

HERCULES THE AVENGER / HERCULES AND THE BLACK PIRATE

Probably the most popular movie super hero of all comes not from comic books, but from ancient Greek mythology (although he's made countless comic book appearances, too). Of course, I'm talking about that daring demigod, Hercules, the half-mortal son of Zeus.

With the surprising American success of 1958's HERCULES, starring Steve Reeves Italian producers fell all over themselves producing literally hundreds of further adventures of the muscle-bound man god. To fill the sizeable sandals of all those Hercs, producers scoured Europe for appropriately buff bodybuilders. The best of these – other than Reeves himself – was probably British champion Reg Park.

Park may not have been much of an actor, but he looked great on screen and actually possessed a certain amount of natural charm and charisma that penetrated the terrible dubbing, making him one of the more likeable Hercs. HERCULES THE AVENGER (aka LA SFIDA DEI GIGANTI, 1965) was the last – and least – of three times he portrayed the Olympian on film.

In this sadly standard sword and sandal epic, the mighty Hercules is sent on a quest to save his son's soul from the evil Earth Goddess Gia. As is usual on one of these quests, Herc must overcome numerous obstacles, battle a legion of paper mache monsters, and resist various temptations to rescue his progeny. What Hercules doesn't know is that while he is away, Gia sends her son Antaius to impersonate Hercules. Antaius seizes the throne and reigns over the people as a cruel tyrant. Can Hercules survive his quest, save his son, and reclaim his good name?

What do you think?

Now, there's nothing wrong with the plot – familiar as it is. Unfortunately, there's more here familiar than the plot, as director Maurizio Lucidi cannibalizes large portions of Reg Park's previous two Hercules films to pad out his film's running time. In fact, nearly all of Hercules' quest is lifted directly from the vastly superior HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961), directed by Mario Bava (DANGER: DIABOLIK, KILL BABY KILL). Even in the new footage, Park looks tired and out of shape. I'd suggest looking up Bava's film instead.

Retromedia's DVD offers HERCULES THE AVENGER in a surprisingly good anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer. There's a small amount of dirt and debris, and the picture's a little soft, but the colors are pretty good for the most part, and it's probably the best this film has looked in years.

Retromedia's DVD also includes a second feature, HERCULES AND THE BLACK PIRATE (SANSONE CONTRO IL CORSARO NERO, 1964), starring Alan Steel (aka Sergio Ciani, HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN). Now this is a Hercules movie in name only: instead, it's a swashbuckling pirate adventure set in Elizabethan times, and Alan Steel is simply called "Hercules" in the English dub.

The plot is simplicity istelf: "Herc" is a Spanish sailor hunting down the dread Black Pirate. Lots of stock footage sea battles and swordfights fill the running time of this substandard swashbuckler, and frankly, I found it difficult to sit through. It's not entirely the movie's fault, though.

The movie is presented in a choppy full-frame transfer culled from a beat-up TV syndication print. When American International released this to TV nobody bothered to pan-and-scan the image. Instead we get endless scenes where people who are talking are completely out of frame, essential information is cropped off the sides, and it's riddled with awkward jump cuts. I admit it, I'm spoiled by letterboxing – ten years ago I could probably have watched this on TV with no problem, but now it just frustrates and gives me a headache. The only extras on this double-feature disc are a still gallery of sword & sandal film advertising art on Side B.

I'm glad someone is preserving and releasing these movies on DVD – they're an essential part of exploitation film history. I just wish there was some attempt to restore and present them in a better manner. I guess there's not enough of an audience to justify the expense, though. If you're a collector of peplum films and you want these titles in your library, the price is right, and AVENGER looks quite good.

BUY: Hercules The Avenger / Hercules And The Black Pirate