Wednesday 16 June 2010

Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964)

Director: Giacomo Gentilomo
Star: Alan Steel
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Carlo Franci's score leaps out here first for attention, a cacophony of sinister crescendos that may have been distilled from every monster movie ever made, which is highly appropriate given the material. This is generic pulp peplum at it's best, or worst, depending on your perspective. Peplum is an Italian genre usually referred to as sword and sandal, historical or mythological epics that turn out to be a little less epic than you might initially expect and which often featured bodybuilders or slumming American actors in the lead roles. They are roughly to Hollywood epics what spaghetti westerns were to the American originals: low budget attempts to capture a style that perhaps inevitably ended up creating a whole new style of their own. Their heyday was the late fifties and early sixties, after the 1958 version of Hercules with Steve Reeves, during which time they were churned out in numbers that cannot comfortably be imagined.

Most of them appeared in the west in dubbed form, if at all, and the lead character was usually a mythological hero such as Hercules, Samson or Colossus. Hercules was the most frequent, but not just because the Italians made so many Hercules movies. They had their own series that featured a similar character named Maciste and because the Americans hadn't a clue who he was, he promptly became Hercules too whenever dubbed into English. He debuted in Giovanni Pastrone's groundbreaking Cabiria as far back as 1914, where he was played by Bartolomeo Pagano, who went on to reprise the role in another 26 silent movies. By the time of the peplum revival, anyone with muscles seemed to get an opportunity to play Maciste. Mark Forest was the most frequent with seven outings but he was savvy enough to spend his time studying opera and promptly moved back to the States to become an opera teacher. Here Maciste is Alan Steel.

I'm not sure how Mark Forest can be a real name but Alan Steel just a pseudonym, but that's what it is. He's really Sergio Ciani who started out as a double for Steve Reeves but soon rose to lead roles as the peplum craze took hold, playing Hercules, Maciste and Samson, among others. He's actually quite fun, but not much of his success is due to his acting ability. He breathes a lot and effortlessly takes on outlandish numbers of opponents, but mostly by simply pushing them aside as they run towards him. He doesn't act as much as act as an immobile object for the rest of the cast to bounce off. Of course he looks great because he's constantly coated in olive oil so he can glisten magnificently in the dark. He also has a habit of losing the top half of his costume, only for it to miraculously reappear a little later on, so he spends most of the time with his pecs on view. Unfortunately he's not too bright because he walks into every trap the film has to offer.

These traps are mostly set by Queen Samara, the queen of Samar, which is a wasteland with a neverending supply of young children to sacrifice to the Moon Men of the title who live in the Mountain of Death. Wow, a little too much at once, huh? OK, let me backtrack. Initially the land of Samar is a cheesy model onto which falls a fiery mass, some sort of asteroid that Bruce Willis didn't manage to deflect. After the Moon Men presumably come out and turn the local mountain into the subtly named Mountain of Death, the people of Samar obviously decide that moving is too much of a hassle so they'll just sacrifice their children to the aliens instead. Perhaps, given that this is a movie from Italy, the land of lovers, they saw this as a sort of birth control device, handy in that it meant they could spend their time rutting like rabbits and yet not have to take care of the inevitable consequences for too long. There must be a reason somewhere.

It also gives us plenty of opportunity to hear the moans of the tormented as they're dragged in chains to be thrown into the conveniently huge doorway that opens vertically into the mountain. In ancient Samar, walking into the light is apparently a bad thing, which would have caused no end of trouble for Jennifer Love Hewitt and her magic eyelashes. While we never see anyone actually eaten by these aliens, we do get plenty of shots of the sacrificial offerings on their way up the mountain, so many that the film often has as much of a moantrack as a soundtrack. It's like they caught on to Conan's 'lamentation of the women' quote and decided to turn it into an entire movie. These children are all a little old to warrant that description too, making us wonder if the translator needs to be added to their number. The queen is all for keeping up the sacrifices because the Moon Men are her best buds but her people are getting a little pissed off about it.

And here's where we come in. Claudius is the queen's chief advisor who has served the family for a long time. He looks precisely as he should except he has an unfortunate cowlick that looks like a huge extra ear stuck on the side of his head. Queen Samara looks severely beautiful, all dressed in shimmering blue, reminding a little of Sarah Douglas in Superman II. She's just as dismissive too. 'Silence, you old fool!' she tells him when he comes up with the idea of sending for Maciste to free them from the oppression of the Mountain of Death. Like, what ruler of a long tormented kingdom would want something like that? Unfortunately for her Maciste is already on his way, as her secret advisor secretly advises her, and sure enough we watch him ride on his white horse through what seems like every abandoned quarry in Samar. One of them is full of men who try to seize him but he disposes of them all before someone finally says, 'Seize him!'

Meanwhile back at the ranch, a strange man materialises in a strange mask that makes him look like a cross between a Mexican wrestler and the Spanish Inquisition. Inevitably he has a voice that aches to be like James Earl Jones. 'Samara, you have failed,' rumbles Redolphis, for that's his name. 'Maciste is alive. He escaped from the trap you set for him.' The queen is truly shocked. 'Alive? But how could he avoid death at the hands of my best soldiers?' Best soldiers? These were the best soldiers? If this is the standard of the Samar army, it explains why they're still sacrificing their children. The Moon Men must have looked at them until they cried uncle. 'You underestimated that man,' Redolphis continues. 'Remember as long as he stays alive he remains a threat to that destiny bred from the stars. We will not be able to leave the mountain and dominate the world and you will not become the most powerful woman on Earth.'

Ah, it all becomes clear! The queen has ambition to rule the world but she's stuck with useless soldiers who are perpetually a day late and a fistful of dollars short. No wonder she needs the help of the lunar invaders. 'I promise you he will die,' she offers, but she finds that she has to do it by the full moon, so Princess Billis can be delivered to the aliens and Queen Selene can return to life. Both are played by Delia d'Alberti, who has a fine bosom and a shock of long blonde hair. She's the queen's sister, though they don't share the same mother, and apparently the queen hasn't twigged yet that she's only going to be tolerated by the Moon Men until their own queen can be revived. Then again, the arrogance of leaders who can't be contented with just one land is precisely why there are so many peplum movies. They rely on such things. Adding Moon Men into the mix is just a bonus because they don't need as much effects work as real monsters.
Eventually Queen Samara gets invited into the Moon Men's cavern to see how identical Billis is to Queen Selene and we see some real monsters, stone men who look like they stepped out of a cubist painting. They're the coolest thing in the film, like an army of slow rockwork soldiers and in their company Redolphis gives the queen another eloquent hint that she's a moron. 'When the planet Saturn comes into conjunction with Mars,' he orates, 'and under the evil influence of Uranus then will occur unimaginable disasters.' Yes, the evil influence of Uranus. Will cause unimaginable disasters. Sometimes these films are so bad that whatever I conjure up to deride them is doomed to be less funny as the actual dialogue. 'The oceans will rise, the mountains crumble, and inexorably our moon will draw near the Earth. Through this cataclysm only our form of life can survive. After the long night of sleep we shall become the masters of the Earth.'

Back in reality, Maciste will soon arrive in Samar but we have other characters to get acquainted with first. Princess Billis has a boyfriend called Darix, who aims to wipe out the 'mysterious power of the monsters.' Darix is the cousin of the queen, which means that they're all keeping it in the family. Claudius has a daughter called Agar, though she's more like his granddaughter, and he sends her to meet Maciste. Darix is tough, as we'll soon find out when he gets shot through the heart with an arrow. Even mortally wounded he can still fend off his attackers long enough for Maciste to turn up and save him, and then he can recover with amazing speed. Agar is an idiot, though she seems to magically stay alive long enough to get everyone else in the story into danger, if not killed outright. Nobody mentions that she's a jinx but Samar would surely have been freed from lunar oppression decades ago if only she hadn't have been born.

And so to Maciste. He soon gets the opportunity to strut his stuff because he's the man of the hour; he stands for truth, justice and the Samar way; and he's a dab hand at walking into traps. Agar fetches him to Claudius, Claudius tells him that the queen is full of 'arrogance and limitless pride' and off they go into the vast maze of secret tunnels under the palace to find some traps, possibly the first actually interesting thing we've seen thus far. Claudius gets skewered to death by a set of spikes that emerge from a wall. Agar's right there, of course, to jinx him into dying in her arms while she promises to save Maciste, not that she can see him. Maciste has fallen into what appears to be a really relaxing shower that opened up below him with a trapdoor to hide him from sight. He escapes through a wall only to be attacked by a hairy monster with a great flapping jaw and lose the top half of his costume for the first time. It'll be back, trust me.

Conveniently he runs right into Agar, who knows more ways out of the palace than I can count. She takes him to a tavern to meet up with Darix and his colleagues who are planning rebellion, then leaves him to head straight back to the palace where she knows full well the queen has her number. Did I mention Agar isn't bright? In the form of Anna Maria Polani she is at least worth looking at but I'm not sure that makes up for how utterly worthless she is as a character. At least we can be distracted by the queen's guards stumbling upon Maciste because the tavernkeeper has a daughter they want to sacrifice. 'Don't attempt to resist,' they tell him. 'We're here to take your daughter.' And they resist! Even though they were told not to. What a bad influence Maciste is on these subservient peasants! He even teaches them how to grin inanely while throwing soldiers into a barrel. He likes that and keeps doing it, even though there's only one barrel.

Soon all the guards in town are distracted away from their task of stealing away unwilling victims for this month's sacrifice to fight Maciste, who never loses his inane grin. The few that survive go back for even more reinforcements but by then Agar is back with more bad news. She never has any good news, it's either bad or worse. This time it's that Billis has been added to the front of the line of moaning sacrifices. Of course given that this news has arrived with Agar we just know it has to be a trap and sure enough, that's what it is. Maciste is great on his own at finding traps to walk into, without needing Agar's help, but at least this one ends up with him in an exotic torture device, a spiked jaws of death contraption which looks great but doesn't do too much. His technique to fight it is to stand in it and get tired. There are ominous drums, whips and moans but mostly from the folks working it while Maciste breathes hard and waits for the ropes to snap.

As there's nothing hotter to a villainous queen than a hot sweaty muscleman, instead of having him instantly killed she summons him into her bedchamber. 'I know you're strong enough to crush me,' she whispers, 'but it's worth the risk.' She even puts his hand round her neck and he volunteers to be her slave. This is before she slips an aphrodisiac into his drink, that he pours all over the floor for her to not notice even while walking through it. Jany Clair is the actress playing Queen Samara and she's great at regal poutiness. She also looks rather hot with her hair down, making me wonder why she doesn't leave it that way. Unfortunately she's stuck in a movie of bad clichés and can't get out. We get sped up fights. We get characters surreptitiously moving out of the way so someone runs head first into a gong. We get secret passageways at every opportune spot. We get an army leader who suddenly decides to change sides. Why now?

We also get a sandstorm. I have to point out the sandstorm because it goes on and on. And on. People run around, fall over, get up, run around some more, snap cardboard trees. At least the soundtrack has roaring winds which is about the only appropriate sound anywhere in the film except the frequent moantrack. For instance when one character gets crushed to death by the rockwork soldiers, the soundtrack starts imitating a rattlesnake for no apparent reason. In the sandstorm, we get sand noises and storm noises, which is so surprising we're almost stunned into forgetting just how pointless this scene is. Every now and again someone has to give up. We can't see too much so we get gifted with clever dialogue like 'I can't go on!' or 'Where are you?' or 'Help me!' This is the cinematic equivalent of the famous endless corridors in early episodes of Doctor Who but at least the BBC was working within the confines of television.

We also get a truly awful set of scenes comprised of stock footage of natural disasters while the Moon is summoned towards the Earth. There are torrential waves and cloud formations, but there's an earthquake too and rivers of magma, even a twister. It's like every disaster movie ever made with Agar as almost the only cast member. That's a truly scary thought and one that puts us firmly on the side of the disasters. We could cast bets as to which one will get her and argue about which one would have been most satisfying. It's all to help resurrect Queen Selene, of course, while we can't help but wonder why she's entirely human looking while Redolphis looks like a gay version of Bender. Is this what living in the Mountain of Death does for people? I'll let you work out the finalé in your head but it's comprised of at least half a dozen clichés so that must count for something. Maciste gets Agar too but by Crom, he's welcome to her.


BeckoningChasm said...

Argh, Hercules films. Watching four of those in a row (on the old "50 Sci Fi Classics" box set) was sheer torture.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

So I shouldn't mention the Warriors box set from the same company that collects fifty of them together? : )