Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: V is for The Vampires (1961)

While clearing boulders from a field to make way for his plow by chucking them hither and yon, the mighty Goliath (Scott) is soon interrupted from this task, alerted that young boy is drowning in the nearby sea. (The lad might’ve been being attacked by some monstrous underwater mollusk but the shoddy print I streamed didn’t yield a whole lot here.) But while Ciro (Vitolazzi) is rescued and resuscitated, up the beach a spell their village is currently being overrun and massacred by a band of moorish pirates led by Amahil (Aikens). And the women they don’t kill are taken prisoner and forced onto their ships, including Julia (Ruffo), Ciro’s older sister and Goliath’s fiance.

And as they set sail for the island of Salmanak, the elderly are tossed over the side to the swarming sharks, while the younger and more nubile ladies are bled out a bit, with their blood collected in a golden chalice that Amahil takes to his master, Kobrak, whom we don’t see except for a gnarled and clawed hand as he accepts this blood sacrifice, which kicks up an evil wind so fierce and malevolent it frightens the hardened pirate away.

Meanwhile, Goliath and Ciro see the smoke from the burning village but arrive too late, find the bodies of their families, and piece together from the few survivors that these pirates were only interested in killing the men and stealing the women to be sold as slaves in Salmanak. And so, to Salmanak they go, where Goliath is a little stunned by the grim sideshows they encounter (-- one involving a greased pole and a bed of spikes) and an unnatural fear that seems to grip the locals. He also stumbles upon a slave auction and recognizes the women are from his village. All hell breaks loose, then, as the immortal insurance adjuster’s worst nightmare intervenes, rescuing Magda (Incontrera) from the block and reduces the town square to rubble.

Pursued by soldiers, the fugitives find refuge in the home of Kurtik (Sernas), whose alchemist lair is apparently littered with petrified corpses! Here, Magda gets them up to speed on what happened to Julia. Seems the beautiful maid not only caught the eye of Amahil, she’s also drawn the interest of Omar (Feliciani), the Sultan of Salmanak; and then there’s the Sultan’s concubine, Astra (Canale), who’s also trying to get her hands on the girl; as is Kobrak himself for myriad reasons, mostly for leverage against the legendary Goliath. 

And to add even more confusion it should be noted that both Amahil and Omar want to rid their homeland of the plague of Kobrak, which we’ll detail in a minute. But Astra is secretly in cahoots with the vampirish Kobrak, who fears an alliance by the others with Goliath could spell the end of his reign of terror, and so she does her best to secretly short-circuit this at every turn. (Just ask the Sultan’s rebellion-leaning grand vizier. Make that his “former” rebellion-leaning grand vizier.)

But all Goliath really cares about right now is getting Julia back and, as far as Magda knows, Amahil still has her, having separated her from the others on the pirate ship. Luckily, Kurtik knows where Amahil hangs out but Astra beats them to this cantina, kills the pirate, and secrets Julia away, leaving Goliath and Kurtik to deal with the palace guards she sics on them. 

Meanwhile, back in the sanctum sanctorum, Magda provides a massive plot dump when she peruses some of Kurtik’s ancient scrolls, which reveal the origin of Kobrak, an evil sorcerer, who is hellbent on world domination; and who lives on the fresh virgin blood of the captured women -- stock that will always need replenishing, hence his need of the pirates, and he turns all the conquered men into mindless zombie warriors as he amasses an army of the undead. 

Yeah, apparently, all those desiccated corpses around Kurtik’s lab are Kobrak’s victims he’s trying to restore but lacks a certain ingredient to finish the process. Unfortunately for Magda, her unearthed secret will die with her as Kobrak materializes out of the ether, an impressive sight as we finally get a full look at him in his GWAR-like armor, and slays her.

Meanwhile, meanwhile, despite his best efforts, Goliath is captured but easily breaks out of the palace dungeon and blunders into the Sultan and Julia, the latest addition to his harem thanks to Astra (-- as to what Astra’s grand plan is here, well, I’m open to suggestions). Here, the Sultan calls off his guards and has a parlay with the mighty warrior, wanting him to join his fight against Kobrak. Again, Goliath refuses, taking Julia and flees the scene, leaving the Sultan alone, making him a perfect target for Kobrak. And after he kills him, Astra alerts the guards, saying it was Goliath who killed their king and to bring him back dead or alive -- but preferably dead...

Born Gordon Merrill Werschkul, Gordon Scott was working as a lifeguard at the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas when he was spotted by a Hollywood talent agent in 1953. And due to his amazing physique he was soon signed by producer Sol Lesser to replace Lex Barker as Lord Greystoke in Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955). It was Lesser who changed his last name to Scott, feeling Werschkul sounded too much like [Johnny] Weismueller, who served the role well in eleven films from 1932 to 1948, and gave us his legendary war-hoop. Scott would continue with the role through a series of five films and patched together TV pilots, slowly morphing the character from the inarticulate man-ape to the more educated version which was more in-line with author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ source novels.

Tiring of the role but finding himself typecast, Scott pulled up stakes and headed to Italy at the behest of his friend and fellow body-builder, Steve Reeves, who was making a name for himself in a series of muscle-man epics like Hercules (1958) and The Giant of Marathon (1959), which spawned a ton of spin-offs and cash-ins. And for Romulus and Remus -- released in the States as Duel of the Titans (1961), director Sergio Corbucci wanted Reeves to play both brothers who united Italy and founded the city of Rome but Reeves balked and suggested they bring in Scott instead. 

The very same year, Scott would star in two Maciste films: Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World (1961) and Goliath and the Vampires a/k/a The Vampires (1961). Now, Maciste was an Italian folk hero whose cinematic history dated back to the silent era, which was later co-opted into the sword and sandal and styrofoam boulder peplum-boom of the 1960s before it petered out, replaced by the Spaghetti Western. In most instances when these films were imported, the American distributors would rename the character, calling him Hercules, the Son of Hercules, Samson or Goliath.

Scott does a pretty good job with the character, too, bringing the muscle and the mayhem as Goliath and Julia escape into the desert, survive an extended DEEP-HURTING sandstorm, and once more have their hash saved by Kurtik when they stumble upon the cave of the Blue Men -- a bunch of knights decked out in costumes plundered from the set of The Undersea Kingdom (1936), who are indeed blue, as Goliath and the Vampires takes a gonzo left turn from hybrid horror and sword and sandal epic to sci-fi. How? Well, let's begin with how Kurtik keeps referring to Kobrak’s army as robots. He’s also managed to capture Astra in the interim and extracts the location of Kobrak’s secret lair by threatening her with some spiffy go-motion sock-puppet monsters. But once he gets that info, Goliath refuses to let Kurtik kill the prisoner, a decision he will come to regret and rejoice in that order.

See, while Kurtik heads off to do … something, and Goliath leads a battalion of Blue Knights into a spooky primordial forest to flush out Kobrak, Julia is left alone to guard Astra, who quickly turns the tables and then takes her prisoner by a short-cut, apparently, to Kobrak’s lair. The villain then sucks all the life out of Julia, turning her into one of those unliving statues. And did I mention he also sent his army of “robots” into the woods, who quickly rout the Blue Knights, killing all of them, including Ciro, and capture Goliath, who is now set to be converted into one of those mindless automatons by making him a pendulum inside a giant bell? (Just roll with it.) Ah, but here Astra pays her debt by supplying him with wax to plug his ears, allowing him to survive the constant bell-whacking; and so, the treatment doesn’t stick and Goliath engineers his escape, taking Julia’s stiffened body and the antidote with him.

Back in Kurtik’s cave, the good wizard is pleased to see Goliath return safely, and doubly-pleased when presented with the antidote. But as he’s about to open the flask and apply it to a stiffened body, Astra implores him to stop, saying it's a trick and he’s about to release poison gas. Wait, you ask. Where did she come from? Eh, it doesn’t matter, I guess, as Goliath answers these accusations with a tossed spear, which Astra catches with her abdomen. And then things really twist up in a knot when another Goliath shows up, carrying the body of Julia.

A’yep, the first Goliath was really Kobrak in disguise. Thus and so, we get a pretty spiffy doppelganger dust-up until the real Goliath rips the fake facade off of Kobrak’s face, revealing the greatest luchador vampire mask of ever. And as Kobrak tries to flee, Kurtik tosses a magical hand grenade at him, and with a fiery explosion, the evil one is dead, making one wonder why the hell Kurtik didn’t just do that in the first place. Anyhoo, with the real cure delivered, Kurtik is able to restore Julia and the others, reveals himself to be the true Sultan of Salmanak, whose first order of business is to erect a statue of the man who saved his kingdom.

Wow. Well, that was pretty nuckin’ futz. Written and co-directed by Corbucci along with Giacomo Gentilomo, Goliath and the Vampires is one of the strangest and grisliest peplum movies I have ever seen. It also makes little sense in spots, with massive leaps in plot-logic, quantum shifts in character motivations (-- yeah, I’m looking right at you, Astra), and a lot of action and plot twists missing from the screen altogether while other meaningless scenes and subplots go on and on and on and on and on. I mean, we could’ve been watching Kurtik capturing Astra instead of watching Goliath and his girl lost in that interminable sandstorm but, nooooo! But this might not be something lost in translation but could very well be the fault of American International, who weren’t afraid to stick foreign films into a Cuisinart to fit what they thought audiences would swallow easiest. 

And on that same note, adding even more fuel to this insanity is the schizophrenic soundtrack, which I think is mostly the work of Angelo Lavagnino but with a few Les Baxter spazz-jazz cuts mixed in, most notably a fairly modern sounding belly-dancing sonata. Considering the disparate sources, kind of amazing how well it all works.

Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) is an obvious influence as is Corbucci’s signature nihilism and high body count, which he would expound upon further in his westerns, Django (1966) and Navajo Joe (1966). The opening village massacre even rivals the one from Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1966). And aside from the Gorgon in Medusa vs. the Son of Hercules (1963) Kobrak is probably my favorite all-time peplum villain. An impressive sight visually both in his armor and out of it, he proves a worthy opponent with his magics and astral-projection. I love his modus operandi of bleeding out his women prisoners and converting the men into a desiccated army of faceless zombies. (Again, kudos to the costume designer.) The scenes in the fog-enshrouded forest when his army materializes piecemeal, marching forward in unison to the beat of the soundtrack is some top-notch stuff. And when they quickly rout the Blue Knights, setting most of them on fire, is the stuff of nightmares.

Speaking of nightmares, many a film like this has been ruined by saddling the hero with a kid sidekick. Here, not only does the kid sidekick die, he dies most horribly by doing the exact opposite of what the hero told him to do, secretly tagging along on the raid. And his death meant nothing, living long enough to tell Kurtik that his men were dead and Goliath has been captured, to which Kurtik merely shrugs and says, yeah, we’re basically screwed.

The film was produced by Dino de Laurentiis, meaning there was plenty of money to be spent on the production, which resulted in a lot of amazing sets, most of which Scott destroyed quite spectacularly, especially his escape from the dungeon of the palace, where he uses a disgorged pillar as a battering ram. The extended fight sequences are well staged, and there were a lot of them, even employing a little wire-fu to give Goliath’s punches a little more impact.

This was a first time viewing of Goliath and the Vampires, and while I kinda gave up on the plot as it constantly kept pretzling itself and got mired down by a couple of subplots that could’ve been easily flushed altogether, I found it to be visually impressive and highly enjoyable with the villain and production design kicking it into my top five peplums encountered thus far. Again, you wouldn’t think bringing Gothic horror to this kind of pecs ‘n’ fists-fest would work but it does. 

And before I finish this review up I will once more plead the case for someone out there to make an effort to rescue these features from the hell of Public Domain and release restored copies of these peplum movies in their original aspect ratios so we can finally flush the chopped and cropped and washed-out TV and video prints that litter this world wide web once and for all. Because I, for one, feel this gonzo genre deserve to be seen and seen properly. Like most flash in the pan genres, most were pretty terrible but some were pretty good. Some of them were even pretty great, like Goliath and the Vampires.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 22 down with just four more to go!

Goliath and The Vampires (1961) Ambrosiana Cinematografica :: American International Pictures / EP: Dino De Laurentiis / P: Paolo Moffa / D: Sergio Corbucci, Giacomo Gentilomo / W: Sergio Corbucci, Duccio Tessari / C: Alvaro Mancori / E: Eraldo Da Roma / M: Les Baxter, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino / S: Gordon Scott, Leonora Ruffo, Jacques Sernas, Gianna Maria Canale, Rocco Vitolazzi, Mario Feliciani, Vanoye Aikens, Annabella Incontrera

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...