Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Vintage Review Spotlight :: Muscles and Mayhem x 3 :: Pietro Francisi's Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1965)

For several weeks a giant sea serpent has laid siege on the coastal village of Ithaca, causing several fishermen, tired of being the beast's personal buffet, to petition King Leyeritis for some much needed help. Luckily for them, Hercules just happens to be reveling in the King's Court and gladly volunteers to help slay the monster. His bestest chum, Ulysses (Cerusico), also volunteers to go; and as the boys and their small crew prepare to set sail, leaving their worried womenfolk behind, they promise to be back before the sun sets. And with that, after Herc easily pulls up the giant stone anchor, they're off -- right into the teeth of a vicious storm! Then, to make matters even worse, the lookout spies the sea monster and raises the alarm (-- and so help me, I'm not making this up, but that "sea serpent" sure looks like an otter to me). Moving quickly, Herc harpoons the beast and tries to reel it in, but the beast proves too strong and, instead, drags them farther and farther out onto a dark and turbulent sea.

The next morning, as wreckage from their boat washes ashore, a carrier pigeon arrives bearing news, assuring all the expedition is okay -- well, if being reduced to floating around on what's barely left of the ship means "okay" -- but they might be out to sea a little while longer than originally anticipated. Cast adrift, what's left of the hungry crew wants to eat the remaining pigeons and threatens mutiny. But as Herc chucks them all in the drink to cool off, land is spotted. But the Greeks are unfamiliar with the native flora and fauna -- but eat it anyway. They also attract the attention of a very large and cantankerous bull. And when the beast charges them, Hercules counters, bopping the bovine on the head several times, killing it. They eat that, too. Then, they follow a path and come upon a village and, judging by the native garb, Hercules conjectures they must be in the land Judea.

Soon spotted, the villagers eye these new strangers warily -- especially a very large native, Samson (Lloyd), who watches them from the shadows, fearing they might be Philistine spies sent to kill him. And I think we all know where this is heading, right? Right...

Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1965) was another one of those movies that evaded my grasp for far, far too long. I caught my first glimpse of it over a decade ago after stumbling home from the bar one night, drunk as a skunk, as one normally was after stumbling home from the bar, and kicked on the old boob-tube in time to see some kind of period piece on one of the Super-Stations, where a village was in the process of being massacred by a bunch of baddies. Through my booze induced fog, I watched as people were brazenly crucified against their houses, strung up, burned out, and the rest drug off in chains. Despite this carnage, I kinda faded in and out after that, but clearly remembered watching a muscle-bound hero exact some tasty revenge for those peasants in an equally spectacular fashion. And as this mind-boggling spectacle of carnage and flying boulders continued I realized two things: one, judging by the beefy hero and dubbed voices, this had to be some kind of Italian Hercules movie. And two, this, in my stupor, could quite possibly be the greatest freakin' movie ever made! And then I promptly passed out in the recliner before the movie ended.

Come the dawn, I added more misery to my hangover by kicking myself for not recording the end of the movie. Hell, I didn't even know what it was called. But checking the local TV listings in the paper confirmed I wasn't seeing double due to the booze; there were two musclemen in this thing, running amok. Maybe even three...

And thus, I spent the next decade trying to track down a copy of Hercules, Samson and Ulysses, which was finally accomplished when I bought a VHS dub off of eBay around 2005. When it arrived, the original source of the dub proved to be Video Search of Miami, a gray-market service that had also allowed me to catch Guillio Questi's total mind-f*ck of movie, Death Laid an Egg (1968). And when I finally sat down and watched the whole thing, you ask, Was it as good you remembered? Well, the answer to that is, no, it wasn't. Nope. It was better.

Director and screenwriter Pietro Francisci popularized these muscles and mayhem movies when his Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959) were imported to the States in the late 1950s with surprising box-office success. Which, of course, brought on a rash of imitators to cash in. Goliath, Samson, Ulysses, Maciste -- the son of Hercules, and Atlas all had their separate vehicles, but the most popular protagonist was still Hercules. And of couse, when your scriptwriter gets even more bereft of ideas, they started teaming them up. And that's exactly what Francisci did by teaming up our three stalwart heroes. But, by all rights, the proper title of this film should probably have been Hercules, Samson and Delilah as Cerusico's Ulysses disappears for over half the movie and provides nothing but comedy relief. I mean, after all, it is Liana Orfei's vamping and scheming that provides the lever and fulcrum that moves this plot along.

And in the good news department, you no longer have to rely on crappy, pan-n-scan bootlegs of this gonzoidal flick either, as the Warner Archives has the film available for purchase on DVD. And not only is the film presented in its proper aspect ratio, the print is a massive improvement over anything I've seen. In fact, it's so good we can see the mythical sea-serpent who triggered this whole mess is not an otter as first perceived but is actually a sea lion. ROAR! And so, with both Hercules and Hercules, Samson and Ulysses available in a proper, restored format, one holds out hope that more of these hair-brained epics get the same treatment.

Until then, you could do a lot worse than taking the plunge on a movie with giant monsters, stuffed animal wrestling, bull head-butting, the greatest village massacre ever committed to film, crucifixions, hangings, impalement, raping, pillaging, deadly arrow barrages, spear-chucking, incredible stunt work (both human and equestrian); and that's not even getting to the laughable dubbing, cartoony sound-effects, Delilah's erotic serpentine whip dance of the cobra, the evil Philistine king, who puts the bastard in dastardly villain, the converted German SS helmets of his lackeys, two beefy guys beating the living snot out of each other, and the complete and utter destruction of not one, but two, great stone temples. We're talking some major Styrofoam-boulder-chucking-fu, here, people. Go. Watch this. Now!

Other Points of Interest:

Hercules, Samson and Ulysses a/k/a Ercole sfida Sansone (1965) I.C.D. :: MGM / P: Joseph Fryd / D: Pietro Francisci / W: Pietro Francisci / C: Silvano Ippoliti / E: Pietro Francisci / M: Francesco Lavagnino / S: Kirk Morris, Richard Lloyd, Liana Orfei, Aldo Giuffrè, Enzo Cerusico, Diletta D’Andrea

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