Thursday, 15 June 2017

Hercules - Prisoner of Evil (1964)

U.S.A. release title: Hercules - Prisoner of Evil
Italian title: Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi 
Director: Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony M. Dawson)
Uncredited director: Ruggero Deodato
Production companies: Adelphia Productions/ Ambrosiana Cinemtografica
Starring Reg Park

Ursus (Reg Park), a prominent member of the Cherkessi tribe, is caught in a love triangle:  his lover Aniko (Mireille Granelli) is the daughter of the recently deceased Khan, and therefore the rightful queen of the kingdom of Sura. However her cousin Zereteli (Furio Meniconi), leader of the Kirghisi tribe, has taken advantage of the ensuing power vacuum to steal the throne for himself. He hopes to seal the deal by forcing Aniko to marry him, much against her wishes, but she reluctantly agrees in the hope of saving her own life and that of Ursus. Ursus also has a beautiful blonde servant girl Kato (María Teresa Orsini), who was rescued by him when they were both children and she was found wondering, her memory lost. She was adopted into the tribe and has been caring for Ursus ever since. She clearly loves him, but he does not return her affection, stating merely that he "loves her like a brother."

Ursus (Reg Park) with Kato (María Teresa Orsini)
Meanwhile some sort of monster stalks the land, killing villagers, despite Ursus' attempts to hunt it down. The English subtitles call it a monster, but in the Italian dialogue it sounds like they are referring to is as "avvoltoio" or "the Vulture," possibly because of the strange bird-like noises heard when it approaches. When we see the monster leap out of the shadows, it is a man of great strength, his features distorted and disfigured. Zeretili takes advantage of the panic caused to claim that Ursus is behind the monster, using it to kill Kirghisi people. Zereteli knows this is not actually true, but takes political advantage and declares war on the Cherkessi and secretly sends a man to kill Ursus. 

The Monster
Ursus has a brother Ilo (or Yio according to the subtitles, played by Ettore Manni, another peplum regular), who whilst not exactly his match physically is reckoned to be very intelligent. About half way through the film Ursus is wounded and unconscious, and Ilo is left to carry the film for quite some time. This would often happen in peplum films, particularly when the actor playing the main star was an American or British bodybuilder with little acting skills or grasp of Italian. It happens in Hercules, when Hercules joins the crew of the Argonautica and becomes a supporting player to Jason, who takes over on both acting and action duties. In this film Ursus is out cold for a good twenty to thirty minutes of running time, whilst Ilo acquaints himself with Aniko and begins to solve the mystery of the monster. It may have something to do with the wine that she serves in her secret cave where she holds her trysts with Ursus.

The devious Aniko (Mireille Granelli)
Ursus eventually wakens, having been healed by the tribe's wise man, after hearing the screams of Kato. She was alarmed by the approach of one of Zereteli's men who had been laying wait to kill him. Suddenly her memory seems to be returning, as she screams "Assassin! I know who you are! You murdered the Great Khan!" The man confesses, after a soldier hurls a knife into his back, that he did indeed kill the Khan on Zereteli's orders. But how does Kato have knowledge of this? This knowledge gives Ursus and the tribe of Cherkessi the justification it needs to go to war against Zereteli and the Kirghisi, and a huge battle commences. Meanwhile Ilo, thrown into jail by Zereteli, has finally learned the shocking truth about Aniko. The real daughter of the Khan is Kato, and the woman claiming to Aniko is actually a witch, determined to rule the kingdom with Ursus as her zombie slave. Can Ilo save Ursus before it is too late? Of course he can.

Like most peplum films, this story is about power, and a kingdom needing its true ruler to be restored through the brute strength of a muscular hero. This was the template laid out in Hercules (Le fatiche di ercole, 1958, Pietro Francisci), the film which exploded swords and sandals across the globe. That film demonstrated that Greek myths could be plundered to provide escapist adventures, and very quickly filmmakers began exploring other historical, mythological or fantasy spheres. The costuming and set dressing of Hercules - Prisoner of Evil locates the film somewhere in the world of the Mongols, as also seen in Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World (Maciste alla corte del Gran Khan, 1961, Riccardo Freda, Italy/ France: Panda Film/ Gallus Films) and Hercules Against the Barbarians (Maciste nell 'inferno di Gengis Khan, 1964, Domenico Paoella). It's perfectly possible that costumes and sets will have crossed over all three of these productions. There are other generic conventions which this film fulfils, such as the mandatory dance number, where the ruler is entertained by beautiful girls in skimpy outfits. It would seem that historical despots everywhere keep a troop of dancing girls on permanent retainer.

Screened on U.S. television in the 1960s by American International Pictures TV as Hercules - Prisoner of Evil, this film played theatrically in Italy and elsewhere in Europe with the titular character Ursus retaining his original titular identity. It was briefly distributed on VHS in the U.S. as well, but has never been released theatrically in its English-language dub. Many of these films were retitled for English-speaking audiences, with the hero's name often changed to Hercules or Goliath: something more recognisable for non-Italians than the native Maciste or Ursus. The title phrase "Prisoner of Evil" does not make a great deal of sense, as Hercules, or Ursus, is never actually behind bars. In this film it is Ilo who spends most of the last act in a prison cell. The imagery used on this Something Weird VHS release are from a different Reg Park movie, Samson in King Solomon's Mines (Maciste nelle miniere del re Salomone).  One IMDB reviewer posits that Hercules is a prisoner of the witch, in that she keeps turning him into the Vulture, but that is a bit of a stretch. I don't think the execs at AIP were that imaginative. It is more likely that it was just chosen as a generic, fits all title that would sound exciting when trailed on TV. A similar fate was in store for Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide (1961, Vittorio Cottafavi, Italy/ France: Comptoir Français du Film Production (CFFP)/ SpA Cinematografica), released in the UK as Hercules Conquers Atlantis, a more sensible direct translation. In 1963 Woolner Brothers released it in the States as Hercules and the Captive Women, which makes no sense as it is the queen of Atlantis who hold Hercules captive, and not the other way round.

Between 1958 and 1966 historians estimate that around 200-300 peplum films were produced by the Italian studios. The success of epics such as Quo Vadis (1951, Mervyn LeRoy, U.S.A.: MGM, shot in Italy and incidentally the story from which the character of Ursus came) and Spartaco (Sins of Rome, 1953, Riccardo Freda, Italy/ France: Associati Produttori Indipendenti Film/ Consorzio Spartacus) first helped encourage Hollywood to invest in the shooting of historical and biblical epics in Italy. The Italian studios, encouraged by this, began to see opportunities of reusing sets and costumes, as well as the skills of the craftsmen and technicians involved. When Hercules, which was essentially just another low budget Italian historical film, was picked up by Joseph E. Levine for international distribution, everything changed. Using the same techniques honed during his distribution of Gojira (1954, Ishirô Honda, Japan: Toho) as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Ishirô Honda/ Terry O. Morse, Japan/ U.S.A.: Toho/ Jewell Company Enterprises) in 1956, he spent over $1 million on advertising in America alone, and ensured that Hercules became a sensation. Hercules Unchained came a year later, and then Italian filmmakers began using the names of not only Hercules, but also Maciste, Goliath, and others in hundreds of films. Sometimes films would be made one inside the other, where two scripts would be written to use the same sets, costumes and actors, with the intention of supplying one to the international market and one for the domestic market. This is why it is virtually impossible to pin down an exact figure as to how many films were made in this genre, but it has to be at least 200. My own research into the distribution of these films in the UK at the time suggests that at least fifty were released here, even though this particular film was not.

Ruggero Deodato, Cine Excess 2011, photo credit Adrian Smith
It may seem a bit perverted to launch my Antonio Margheriti blog by choosing a film that by all accounts he did not actually direct, but I do have my reasons. My current PhD research has found me digging around in the world of the peplum, so it was Margheriti's sword-and-sandal films that felt like a natural first choice. He actually directed five peplum films in total, so I'm sure I will cover a couple more in the near future.

I have been lucky enough to meet Ruggero Deodato twice, once when I interviewed him at the Cine Excess festival in 2011 where he received an award, and again four years later in Rome at a film conference. He is a very nice man: like all directors known for horror films, his personality is at odds with the extremes he has overseen on screen. Ruggero was particularly pleased when, on our second meeting, I asked him to sign my DVD of Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976), his favourite of his own filmography.

According to the excellent FAB Press book Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato (Harvey Fenton, 2011) Antonio Margheriti was simply too busy to devote much time to the production of this film. He was, after all, working on about six films at the time, including his classic The Long Hair of Death, so he ought to be forgiven. Day-to-day shooting fell to Deodato instead, who had already worked with Margheriti as an assistant or second unit director on Horror Castle (1963) the year before, as well as working with Rossellini and others, so he had plenty of experience. This film would be his unofficial directorial debut before going back to second unit and assistant duties for another four years. Deodato shot the scenes and in the evenings he would watch the dailies with Margheriti, whose main directorial contribution was the special effects sequence: a climactic flood when Ursus pushes a huge rock down a cliff to break a dam, allowing the water to put out a great fire. The sequence is effective and demonstrates the director's skills in this field. Special effects, particularly miniatures work, were a specialism for Margheriti, and throughout his career he would be called on to give advice or to even provide special effects for other director's films. It was apparently a contractual obligation that Margheriti's name appear on the credits here as director. Deodato is credited as "Aiuto regista," or Assistant Director.

Hercules - Prisoner of Evil is passable entertainment, but nothing more. It raises some unintentional laughs, but the action sequences are enjoyable. Reg Park was a bodybuilder from Leeds who became Mr Universe in 1951, the year after Steve Reeves achieved the same feat. He played Hercules a few times, including once for Mario Bava, but he was not an actor. He may have had bigger muscles than Steve Reeves, but he does not have his screen presence. However he makes the best of it and is clearly more comfortable with the fight scenes than he is in the dialogue scenes, probably because they were all speaking italian and he was having to deliver his lines not really knowing what was going on. He looks particularly awkward when kissing María Teresa Orsini, something many men would jump at the opportunity to try. The film itself is effectively a footnote in Antonio Margheriti's career, but an interesting one nonetheless, and demonstrates his trusting and generous nature, allowing his assistant director to gain valuable experience if not the credit. Deodato has a great fondness for Margheriti, even if he does not think that highly of the films themselves, something which I will discuss in more detail next time I cover a film he was involved in.

I was recently invited to participate in a podcast with Rod Barnett where we discussed this film at great length. You can find The Bloody Pit podcast on iTunes or over on the Bloody Pit blog.


Since first posting this blog, I have been given some extra info by those well-informed types over at the Facebook group Peplum Paradise which I thought was worth repeating here. Although released three years apart, Hercules - Prisoner of Evil appears to share costumes and sets with The Seven Revenges (Le sette sfide, 1961, Primo Zeglio, Yugoslavia/ Italy: Adelphia Compagnia Productions/ Dubrava Film). It is perfectly possible, given that both are produced by Adelphia and are about warring Mongol tribes. Coincidentally both also feature Furio Meniconi in a main role. According to some online sources this film was also re-released in 1973 with pornographic inserts as La vie erotique d'ursus, or The Erotic Life of Ursus. The credited director for that version is Ettore Anrosi, presumably a pseudonym with no IMDB credits whatsoever. A plot synopsis for this version from the French website describes it as follows (in a ropey English translation): 

"The traitor Zeretelli wants to extend his power by eliminating the neighboring tribes and must therefore get rid of Turso, while the false queen Aniko uses a malefic philter that turns his lovers into thirsty monsters of murders and rapes."

Gary Allen Smith mentions this in his book Epic Films: Casts, Credits and Commentaries on More Than 350 Historical Spectacle Movies (2009, McFarland: Jefferson, NC), claiming that this version was made in France. It is difficult to know for certain as it is now lost, and he does not give a source for his information. The only evidence it ever existed appears to be this French poster floating around online. The above plot description makes it sound like La vie erotique d'ursus plays as Hercules - Prisoner of Evil until the monster appears, at which point a different actor in dodgy makeup runs around explicitly raping villagers. Only in the 1970s would this be seen as a good idea for a porn film. Perhaps one day a print will surface and we can find out for ourselves.

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