Hercules [1983]: in which Lou Ferrigno, Lasers, & Space Improve the Peplum


Have you ever watched a movie and been disappointed that no one throws a man in a bear suit into space? After watching Luigi Cozzi’s “Hercules,” I realized that I’ll forever be disappointed in movies that don’t include a man in a bear suit being thrown into space. It’s rare that a movie embodies the mercurial beauty of “So Bad It’s Good” cinema the way Cozzi’s “Hercules” does. Cozzi is a director whose career is studded with knock-off films: “Starcrash” is his “Star Wars,” “Contamination” is his “Alien,” and this movie is his “Clash of the Titans.” What sets Cozzi’s knock-offs apart is the fact that they are crammed to bursting with STUFF HAPPENING–you may be baffled by what’s on screen, but you are guaranteed to never, ever be bored. Cozzi’s muse is all hopped up on sugar cereal and sparkles with gloriously absurd ideas, every one of which the director is dedicated to capturing on film, always punctuated with an exclamation point.

Hercules [1983]
That’s a man in a bear suit at the top center of this image. In space. A MAN IN A BEAR SUIT IN SPACE.
“Hercules” starts off by disorienting its audience with a melange of repurposed alchemical mysticism, patchwork Greek mythology, and dicey astronomy that attempts to explain the creation of the universe. To sum up: the fire of chaos created four elements (day, night, air and matter) which in turn created Pandora’s Jar which exploded and then that created the planets–all of which is presided over by the space-deities Zeus, Athena and Hera. In order to fight the evils that have been unleashed by the breaking of the jar, the gods create Hercules and then proceed to fuck with him for pretty much no reason at all until he can prove he’s really a hero. By flinging so much nonsense at the audience within the movie’s first minutes, the filmmaker cleverly establishes a base level of insanity that will be maintained throughout the film. There’s a rhythm to the weirdness here, and that rhythm is the blast beat–relentless, overwhelming and fast.
Hercules [1983]
“My God, it’s full of stars!”
Armchair scholars should be forewarned that any resemblance between what happens here and any Greek mythology they might be familiar with is purely coincidental. If you’re the type of person who likes to point out that King Minos was not a science-loving spacelord hell-bent on destroying Hercules and that Daedalus was not a hot babe in plexiglas armor who made stop-motion steampunk monsters to aid in Minos’ misdeeds, then you should probably stay far, far away from this film. It will do nothing but cause you devastating head pain and consternation, above and beyond anything Steve Reeves ever had a muscley hand in. If, however, you are like Dear Friend of the Empire Vicar of VHS, and believe that “Starcrash” outclasses the “Star Wars” movies, then you are in for a whopper of a treat.
Hercules [1983]
“You cannot pay me with Masters of the Universe toys.”
Once Hercules begins impressing the world with his feats of strength and bravery, the forces of evil conspire to put an end to his do-good-ery. Hercules falls in love with Cassiopeia, a beautiful princess, but the two are separated when King Minos kidnaps the princess in order to offer her as a virgin sacrifice. Motivations get pretty muddy at this point–Minos is allegedly obsessed with science and reason, and yet his primary mission seems to revolve around a supernatural ritual. Also, he uses magic. Theological issues aside, the story is clear-cut in the way only a kids’ film can be–bad guys are bad guys on account of doing bad guy stuff, and good guys are defined by the fact that they help the hero, who is the dude the movie is named after.
Hercules [1983]
Absolutely everything about this movie is engineered for maximum silliness and delight. The costumes include space-deity getups that would do the Unarians proud and skimpy outfits for the leading ladies that manage to stay just this side of the movie’s PG rating. The sea witch Circe (who becomes an unlikely ally of Hercules’) wears body armor over her torso that includes sculpted nipples and mons pubis, while Cassiopeia dons what looks like strategic Christmas tinsel after she is kidnapped by Minos and his evil daughter Ariadne.
Hercules [1983]
Captain Hercules von Steamingham versus the ratchet-powered Clankerbug of Thebes
The special effects work is rickety but entirely lovable. In the absence of a Ray Harryhausen to bring his monsters to life, Cozzi’s FX team cobbles together some stop-motion robots (all of whom would look more at home in “Starcrash” or maybe “Flesh Gordon”) and an occasional puppet to provide the movie’s whimsical bestiary. These tin-toy creations may not be convincing, but it’s pretty much impossible not to smile as they menace Hercules and his companions.

Hercules [1983]
The casting is B-movie bliss, putting “Incredible Hulk” actor Lou Ferrigno front and center as the legendary muscle-man and allowing him to flex his way through feat after feat of superhuman strength. One of my fave Euro-heavies, William Berger, hams it up as King Minos, pulling an impressive series of facial expressions throughout. I loved Berger’s eyebrow-arching, finger-tenting turn as Father Vicente in Jess Franco’s “Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun,” and he’s in equally fine form here. In a one-two punch of inspired villain casting, Sybil Danning plays Minos’ wicked daughter Ariadne. Like Dyanne “Ilsa She Wolf of the SS” Thorne, Danning achieves a base level of haughty cruelty just by showing up in front of the camera.
Hercules [1983]
As if this wasn’t enough, there’s an appearance by Bobby “Tony the Pimp in ‘Demons’” Rhodes as the King of Africa, who adds nothing to the story except the fact that he looks awesome being carried around in a palanquin made of dinosaur bones.

Hercules [1983]
This movie didn’t have to show a baby fighting papier mache snakes, BUT IT DID.
The only reason I can think of that Cozzi’s “Hercules” hasn’t achieved fame as a cult classic is that it’s been relegated to the stacks of kids movies due to its lack of gore and nudity. Allow me to assure you that this film doesn’t require gore and nudity to achieve mind-bending weirdness. “Hercules” doesn’t need to be as bizarre as it is, but it goes there for no other reason than someone thought that was a good idea. And for that, I salute this movie and everyone involved in its creation.

Hercules [1983]

8:03 PM

Corpse Mania [1981]

One of my favorite bits of marketing genius comes from my local humane society. A few times a year, they host an event that they title KITTEN BONANZA. It sets up expectations in the mind of the potential pet parent of scores of fuzzy little buddies just begging to be cuddled and loved and given forever homes. Kitten Bonanza is a very fucking exciting name for what is actually a pretty standard pet adoption event.


“Corpse Mania” is a little like that, in that it paints a certain brain-picture which is going to be very difficult for any film to fulfill. The title should more properly be “Corpse; Mania,” but that sort of candor doesn’t sell DVDs, does it? Let’s discuss.
“Corpse Mania” is dubbed by many reviewers a Shaw Brothers giallo, and if that sounds like a weird and improbable combination, it is. Best known for their wild martial arts films like “Five Deadly Venoms” and “36th Chamber of Shaolin,” Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios produced scores of genre films between the 1951 and 1989. These titles included gross-out supernatural horror movies, guy-in-a-suit monster flicks, and kinda-actually-pretty-ill-advised collaborations like “Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires” (made with Hammer Films). With this in mind, the idea of their taking on the kinky, stylish Euro-thriller makes a certain kind of sense.
Corpse Mania [1981]
Set in mainland China in what appears to be the 1920s, the film’s opening scenes depict a mysterious man moving into his new home with a woman who appears to be extremely ill. It’s not long before the local gossips are curious about their reclusive neighbor and decide to go snooping around his home, only to find a maggot-covered corpse in his bed–but no sign of the man. Cut to stern-but-fair Inspector Chang, who is reminded of a similar case from two years earlier in which a grief-stricken husband kept his dead wife in his home until he was discovered and packed away to an insane asylum. It just so happens that this gentleman has recently been released from the asylum, making him the prime suspect in this case. The plot thickens when rumors surface of tension between the necrophile and a wealthy madam whose girls are being murdered one by one. Could it be part of the necrophile’s revenge, or is there a larger conspiracy afoot?
Corpse Mania [1981]
“Corpse Mania” is a assuredly an oddity in the Shaw Brothers body of work, but every shakily-plotted mystery with a gloved killer isn’t a giallo. The movie has some qualities of the giallo–namely: deviant sex, aggressive cinematography, and a be-hatted-and-gloved unknown murderer. Missing are the anxiety about urban life, the troubled protagonist, and references to fashion and music that are also at the heart of the giallo. The period setting and romanticized necrophilia are more characteristic of gothic horrors, and the over-the-top gruesomeness can be found in Edgar Wallace krimis or the stories of Japanese author Edogawa Rampo. If anything, the rapid tonal shifts between tragedy, comic relief, and outbursts of graphic violence are in keeping with Hong Kong filmmaking, as is the style of camerawork. Dynamic cinematography isn’t solely the hallmark of Euro-thrillers of the early 70s–crash zooms, dutch angles and sweeping tracking shots are intrinsic to Hong Kong action scenes.
Corpse Mania [1981]
The giallo-ness or not-giallo-ness of the movie isn’t really material to its success as a strange, gross-out thriller. “Corpse Mania” doesn’t have the feel of the inspired work of an auteur, but rather plays out like a clunky mystery strung together as an excuse to show really yucky stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you! Not every genre movie sets out to be a masterpiece, and this film achieves some chilling and wonderful stuff in its eighty-two minute run time (this does feel like a rather long eighty-two minutes, though, dominated as it is by dialogue scenes). My own squick factor surrounding necrophilia is pretty well documented, so the lingering scenes of female corpses covered in worms and maggots proved admirably gut-wrenching for this viewer. Every time my finger hovered on the fast-forward button during another sequence of dialog surrounding where someone was or was not at a particular time, something wacky or spooky would happen that would revive my faith in the film. An eerily dusty interior (this movie would have us believe that houses fall into almost instant disrepair in China), a splattery beheading, or a genuinely tense stalking scene would catch my interest just in the nick of time.
Corpse Mania [1981]
Also, I’ve discovered a new favorite subtitle: the exclamation “ABUSED CORPSE!” which appears several times during this film.
Corpse Mania [1981]
“Corpse Mania” is not an especially taut thriller, nor an especially stylish Hong Kong film, but in taking some of its cues from European shockers and adapting them for Asian audiences, it winds up being a unique effort that’s worth a peek. While it doesn’t achieve the style of the best gialli or the energy of the best Hong Kong horrors, it’s a nifty one-off that provides some truly visceral shocks.
7:21 PM

The Joys of Occult Rock: Ghost with openers Sabbath Assembly

The worship of vintage film and music genres can be a gloomy sort of fandom–it’s easy to feel like one was born too late to enjoy the best work of one’s favorite artists. This kind of bittersweet appreciation of subcultures past can be isolating, so it’s especially rewarding to find creative types doing weird & wonderful stuff in the Here And Now.

On June 1, I was fortunate to be present at the 300-capacity Studio at Webster Hall (which meets with my highest watering-hole approval by being located in a basement) for an especially electric presentation of occult heavy rock by the unlikely match-up of psychedelic folk-metal act Sabbath Assembly and gleefully Satanic retro-rockers Ghost (previously discussed during Tenebrous Music Week). What might seem an odd pairing wound up being a downright and thoroughly excellent live music experience.
Sabbath Assembly - Studio at Webster Hall, June 1 2011
In re-working the music of the Process Church of Final Judgement, a nihilistic Age of Aquarius cult embracing the God/Satan-Light/Dark duality of Gnosticism, Sabbath Assembly creates a deeply moving, mystical brand of rock music. Vocalist Jex Thoth has a stunning, powerful voice that ranges from a delicate whisper to a pleading cry through songs that resonate with the power of invocation. Sabbath Assembly’s elegant melodies have a poignancy to them that creates a real emotional resonance–something that was entirely unexpected and proved to be a nice counterpoint to Ghost’s satirical take on ritual music. For a deeper look at Sabbath Assembly, check out this interview on ARTISTDirect and watch this recent live footage:
Ghost at Studio at Webster Hall - June 1 2011
Ghost could easily be the kind of band whose schtick outpaces their musical chops, but my world is an infinitely finer place because they back up a ridiculous concept with catchy hooks and wicked wit. How else to explain a song titled “Prime Mover” which references–and inverts–the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, all while keeping heads banging and fists pumping? The concept of the band, that the members are anonymous Satanists bent on corrupting the minds of rock-loving youths, requires buy-in from the crowd, and they had that sealed from the first appearance of the censer-swinging vocalist, clad in his Satanic Papal finery.
Ghost at Studio at Webster Hall - June 1 2011
As absurd spectacles go, this was a very fine showing, culminating in an inspired Beatles cover and the sharing of Communion wine with lucky cultists at center stage. I’m hesitant to spoil the surprises of Ghost’s stage show, but I encourage fans and other curious parties to check out the band’s official website, as they’ve announced a full North American tour this Fall (supported by Alcest and Enslaved).

Ghost at Studio at Webster Hall - June 1 2011