Peplum Populist: The Adventures of Hercules (1985)
This is a bit more of coloring-out-the-lines for my sword-and-sandal reviews, since The Adventures of Hercules comes from the mid-‘80s, far beyond the classic era of the Italian peplum of 1957–1965. But it is an Italian genre film about Hercules starring a bodybuilder from the US, which is the most sword-and-sandal situation imaginable. Plus, I’ve owed Black Gate a look at this film ever since 2009 when I reviewed the first of this pair of unbelievably goofy Lou Ferrigno Hercules flicks from director Luigi Cozzi. The guy who made that psychedelic version of the original Godzilla — which explains a lot about these Hercules movies.
The short version of the first part of my oration, In Facinorem Herculis: To cash-in on the success of Conan the Barbarian, Cannon Films contracted Italian filmmaker Luigi Cozzi to direct a new Hercules film starring bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who was at the height of his popularity after The Incredible Hulk television show. But instead of doing a standard Conan imitation — which the Italian film industry was already churning out — or trying to harken back to the classic Italian sword-and-sandal movies, Cozzi and Co. slapped Star Wars SF gimmickry over everything. According to Cozzi, it was his idea to pitch a Hercules film closer to the recent Superman films after the producers rejected a “sexy” script from director Bruno Mattei. Cozzi crammed the movie with laser blasts, lunar-based Olympians, giant robots, space travel via chariot, and plenty of beeping-and-booping synth noises. Although Cozzi had experience with riffing on Star Wars thanks to his 1979 movie Starcrash, it wasn’t any help overcoming a pinched budget, copious terrible performances, and the general misguided tone of “Who is this for?”
While Hercules ‘83 got a US theatrical release, it wasn’t a hot property in North America except as an object of jeers. But it made enough money internationally to justify Cannon moving ahead with a planned sequel, although with a trimmed budget. The Adventures of Hercules (Le avventure dell’incredibile Ercole, with a Roman numeral “II” added to some video releases) went straight to video and cable in the US and isn’t as well-known as its predecessor.
Without needing to spend time on a loony origin story, the new movie gets straight into a conventional quest. Herc must recover the seven lightning bolts of Zeus that four rebellious gods have stolen and hidden inside various monsters. Why do this? Because they needed a movie to happen. The theft of the bolts has caused Zeus to lose control of the Moon, which will now smash into the Earth — although apparently it stepped back a long way to get a good running start if we go by the visuals.
Hercules comes to the aid of a tribe of women led by Urania (Milly Carlucci) and Glaucia (Sonia Viviani) — the only members of the tribe we see aside from an early casualty — who are getting sacrificed to a poorly animated fire monster. The four rebel gods resurrect the villain of the first movie, King Minos (again played by William Berger), to halt Herc from his tasks. The four gods aren’t creative in their method of resurrecting Minos, swiping it straight from 1966’s Hammer film Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Minos turns against his benefactors and starts babbling about “science” and a plan to create a genetic super-race using Hercules. This is only a distraction from the quest for the thunderbolts and stopping the Moon on its collision course, and the script forgets about it rapidly.
The arrangement of the plot is more linear than the first film, as Herc and his two skimpily-clad girl companions bloodlessly bash through various monster menaces to grab the lightning bolts. Along the way, the same blender of Greek mythology occurs: Hercules is sucked into both Atlas’s and Achilles’s stories and encounters a strange version of the Amazons ruled by a Spider Queen and her “magnetic web.” Herc takes up the mantle of Perseus at one point and kills a Gorgon-like creature in a blatant, shot-for-shot rip-off of the slaying of Medusa in the original Clash of the Titans, only with execrable stop-motion work. The stop-motion robots in Hercules ‘83 were already a few steps down from Harryhausen, but these effects are Augeian Stables crud level. The overall feeling is something like a ‘70s comic book from Marvel when they were smashing genres together to find new avenues to explore. Sometimes it worked. When it didn’t, it looked like The Adventures of Hercules.
The smaller budget is evident in the recycling of VFX footage, the scant sets, and the more limited use of stop-motion. Some of the scenes were apparently shot for the first Hercules but never used, and other footage came from The Seven Magnificent Gladiators, another Italian-made Lou Ferrigno peplum that was shot back-to-back with the first Hercules. There is some astute use of actual ruins shot in a naturalistic style that gives a stronger sense of Heroic Age Greece than anything in Hercules. But the science-fiction aspects of the first movie remain in force here, with full laser-light shows and chintzy electronic sound-effects making the “Bronze Age” part of the story a bit hard to discern.
Most of the effects are based on hand-animation and glowing opticals, as well as people in tatty monster suits who always do backflips when Herc slugs them. The visuals are a step below the first film, and culminate in a mind-numbing finale where Minos and Hercules duel against the background of a static starfield. After Minos finishes hurling neon laser blasts at Herc, the two fight a shape-shifting battle done through poorly rotoscoped outline animation. The film goes right off the edge when Minos shifts into a T. Rex (lots of those in Greek mythology!) and Hercules into a big ape. If the battle between these two animated outlines looks familiar, it’s because it appears the effects crew simply traced over the classic fight footage between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus from the original 1933 King Kong! And by “appears” I mean that’s exactly what they did. That’s pathetic. Also, I’m 99% certain the fire-monster killing Urania and Glaucia’s tribe is traced from the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet.
Ferrigno is dubbed again, and his physical performance seems like he’s a touch baked. Hercules is a big guy, and that’s about all you can say about the character. Lou Ferrigno’s wife Carla, under the name Carlotta Green, acts in the film as the goddess Athena. She’s better at the part than the actress who played Athena in Hercules, but almost anybody would be. In general, the gods are better portrayed this time around — and more sensibly dressed than the Lunar Discotheque bunch from the last movie.
The best performance comes from William Berger as Minos, the only other cast holdover from Hercules. Berger acts like he’s the only person with any awareness of the ridiculousness of the film around him, and he hams it up to reach the nosebleed seats. Berger was born in Austria and fluent in English, and managed a long career in European genre films, working many times with Jesus Franco and often appearing in “gringo villain” roles in Westerns. Berger was usually a fun figure in the films where he popped up, and he’s the only consistently good thing in either Hercules movie.
Strangely, there’s no sexuality in the film. Even though Hercules spends most of his screen-time walking around with two beautiful women, there isn’t a whiff of sexual tension or even the most chaste of kisses. It seems the filmmakers were trying to shove the movie even firmer into the kid-vision camp. Ferrigno, who stressed how much he wanted children to see and enjoy the first Hercules, was probably responsible for this turn toward an even softer PG.
In the long view, The Adventures of Hercules is as about dumb as its predecessor without being as outrageous or fun. It’s more comprehensible than Hercules, but also it’s shallower, tackier, and shows its age more. There’s a timeless idiocy to Hercules ‘83 that makes it fun to revisit, and that’s not the case here. The rotoscoped King Kong copy-and-paste finale is worth seeing however, if only for how ambitious it is at awfulness.
This second Hercules movie also made me realize, much more so than the goofy romp of the first, that given the depth and imagination in the actual myth cycle around the figure of Heracles, there’s no reason to whip up inferior, petty gimmicks to make a movie about him. Isn’t the power of the Greek legends, the inspiration for thousands of years of art, enough? Not in 1985, apparently. Certainly not for Cannon Films.
Also, Minos should really consider dumping this bogus science and just get himself a damn Minotaur. You’d think a decent minotaur costume (put a bull head on a big guy) would be more cost-effective.
Both of Cozzi’s Hercules films are available on Blu-ray in discs from Shout! Factory. You can also purchase them together for dirt cheap in a single DVD package from MGM. This means if you buy Hercules, you’re also buying The Adventures of Hercules, so you might as well watch it. Yes, that’s my stellar recommendation. When MST3K gets around to Season 13, I highly recommend both for treatment. They’ve done Hercules movies and they’ve done Starcrash, so they’re ready.
Ryan Harvey (RyanHarveyAuthor.com) is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate and has written for the site for over a decade. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires.” His stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, is available as an e-book. Ryan lives in Costa Mesa, California. Occasionally, people ask him to talk about Edgar Rice Burroughs or Godzilla.
“Plus, I’ve owed Black Gate a look at this film ever since 2009…”
About time, Harvey! Thanks for taking the hit for us all, Ryan.
Pretty sure I won’t be adding this to the collection. Heck, even Wrath of the Titans might be better.
I saw that Hercules with my Big Brother in the theatre! Loved it.
He hated it, despite the tits (well seashell bikini but lots of boob/revealing ‘greek’ outfits on pretty ladies) and stuff. Those mechanical monsters, and people complain about ‘cheap CG’ now… Yeah, try chromakey with no computer, stop motion with wanna-be Harryhausens, painting over film cells with a tiny brush… Thank G-d for modern computers! A home computer and some affordable software you could do a $3 million effects budget for B-Movies in the 70s/80s.
But to a kid, just fun. Bear kills his Dad, he grabs the bear and throws it so hard it forms a constellation when it hits the dome of the sky!
And I watched it again as an adult –
and still liked it!
Usually you can see for free on YouTube. I ordered a double feature DVD anyways since found cheap.
However, well after watching MST3K, I do sometimes think like those heckling robots. Ca-plop! Ca-Plop! for the horses. There’s an AWESOME scene on the second film, about halfway through. He’s riding with two women in ‘greek’ clothing or something, one’s an Amazon – but HE has to ride first. I mean in RL, yeah he’d ride first to protect the ladies, but you’d think they’d put the ladies first for “jiggle” in the see through fabrics… Nope. Lou’s chest meats are BIGGEST! He’s ca-plop, ca-plop, ca-plop and he’s more muscular than his HORSE!
I rate these latter era Hercules movies right up with all my favorite Grindhouse, B-movies at the height of my bad taste. Right on the shelf with “Women in Cages”, “Lost Empire”, “Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity”, “Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn” etc.
There was a SEQUEL? Wow. I saw the first film on TV years ago, but in truth probably only watched around ten minutes of it. I didn’t have a problem with the sci-fi touches (I actually think they kind of worked) but dubbing Lou Ferrigno’s voice was a bad call: at very least, it showed a lack of sensitivity re his disability.
On Amazon can find double feature – Hercules / The Adventures of Hercules Double Feature – used starting about $7 + shipping. Tempted by the Blu-Ray but doubt they’d filmed it in that quality originally even on screen.
Again, I love a scene about halfway through the second movie. Lou is riding his horse and he’s bigger (not really but seems so) and more muscular than his horse (really!) again MontyPython/MST3K “Ca-Plop! Ca-Plop!” and he steals the show despite the playboy/fashion model ladies wearing revealing outfits with near transparent fabric. That alone is worth buying it, IMO.
Found it on YouTube now – Black Gate is unfriendly to posting links – but search “Adventures of Hercules 2” – it’s 25:38 ish into it… Maybe that is the origin of the term “Lay off the Roids before someone puts a saddle on you…” – but Lou did it with hard work and natural “Herculean” physique…!
I love the first film and those mechanical monsters he fights. It’s been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid.