Wednesday, August 29, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

These two peplum are alike in that they're (1) heavy on the pectotal-pricking deathtraps, and (2) possessed of at least some marvelous elements.  They're different in that (1) one has a decent lead actor and a boring lead villainess, while the other's the exact reverse.

HERCULES AND THE MOON MEN-- directed by Giacomo Gentilomo, whose other familiar credit is co-directorship of another peplum, GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES-- is better known to modern audiences thanks to its adaptation into an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.  MOON MEN isn't by any means the worst of the Italian musclemen epics, but it's made partly risible by the presence of aliens in a Hercules (originally "Maciste") film, and partly by the blatant "men-in-monster-suits" conceptions of those aliens, to wit:


The sci-fi elements overlay what might be called the "Minotaur trope," wherein an evil ruler continually sacrifices helpless victims to the maw of some monster or monsters.  The monsters here are a race of moon men who have crashed on ancient Earth near the city of Samar.  Queen Samarra (Jany Clair) strikes a deal with the aliens: they want constant sacrifices, whose blood they think may revive their comatose queen (though it apparently goes on for some time without having any effect).  In exchange, the evil queen, not satisfied with dominating her own bailiwick, wants to use the aliens' advanced technology to conquer the world.  Naturally, such a threat brings forth the mighty Hercules, played this time by a muscleman named Alan Steel, who generally looks cheerful as he lays waste to the queen's minions and, eventually, the moon men.

Despite her vaulting ambition, Samarra struck me as one of the weaker evil queens seen in these mini-epics.  Perhaps it's because she seems dependent on the aliens to maintain her power.  She meets her inevitable end rather uncourageously, as well.  Gentilomo at least included a couple of extra beauties for the audience's delectation: Samarra's good sister, who has the usual prince-boyfriend, and a lady freedom-fighter who makes nice with Hercules.  However, overall Gentilomo's pacing is pretty slack, which may be one reason it made a good subject for MST3K treatment.

In contrast, SAMSON IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES, though padded with some travelogue-style footage at the start, keeps a nice assortment of plot-threads moving.  Director-duties here went to Piero Regnoli. His imdb credits show more writing-gigs than directorships, though he both wrote and directed the enjoyable fang-flick THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRES.  Regnoli also wrote MINES, though aside from the North African location there's nothing substantive to connect these particular mines to the Biblical sovereign.  (Of course, mines by themselves are one of the favorite locales seen in peplum, since they almost require the presence of enslaved workers.)

To be sure, the opening does tell us of a fabulous African city named Zimba, ruled by Caucasians, which has access to the fabled mines, though Zimba's king doesn't allow any gold to be removed, as a means of keeping the city at peace.  Zimba has a young son, name of Vazmar, who stands in line to inherit the kingship-- his very existence a sure sign that it's going to be placed in peril.

Scheming general Riad decides to betray his king and his city.  Using a subterranean tunnel (concealed by an ornate Sphinx-head that becomes significant later), Riad sneaks out of the city and seeks out the camp of a tribe of neighboring warriors, also Caucasians, who are ruled by a fiery queen named Fazira (Wandisa Guida).  In exchange for more power, Riad makes a pact to lead Fazira's troops into the city through the hidden passage.  He does so, and the city falls to Fazira.  However, orphaned prince Vazmar escapes with the help of a handmaiden.  Her name happens to be Samarra, proving that for some reason 1964 was a good year for peplum-girls of that name.

Fazira is one of the strongest evil queens I've seen in peplum.  Before Riad arrives to make his deal, she's seen striding around in trousers as she critiques two of her warriors after they've finished fighting with staffs. Displeased with their performance, she grabs a staff and knocks one man to the ground.  One might say: sure, no soldier's going to really fight his ruler.  However, during the invasion of Zimba minutes later, Fazira is seen plunging into battle alongside her men, and even stabbing a few of the defending soldiers.  This was not the norm for the nefarious queens of peplum, who were more accustomed to lounging around giving other people orders to maim and kill.

Enter the inevitable hero, Maciste/Samson.  As played by Reg Park, Samson doesn't exactly look like the brightest bulb in the socket.  However, he does have some good stunts.  When a freedom-fighter is imperilled by a spike-machine bearing down on him, Samson simply rips out the wall behind him in order to set him free!  But Fazira's men capture Samson, and he's scheduled for execution via being torn asunder by wild horses.  With a vibrant display of tormented musculature, Samson outpulls the horses. Fazira is very taken with this display of prowess, to the extent that she talks about rediscovering her femininity, or something like that.

Following the example of Steve Reeves' two HERCULES films, Fazira finds a way to enslave Samson.  Once an enchanted metal cuff is secured around Samson's ankle, he becomes a veritable zombie in her service.  Sadly, he's not seen satisfying her sexual whims; rather, Fazira is content to make Samson work his ass off in the mines.

Meanwhile, for a while Samarra and Vazmar have been taken in by a friendly tribe of black Africans (mostly "acted" by travelogue-footage). Later Samarra is captured by Fazira's forces and tortured to make her reveal the prince's whereabouts.  When she doesn't talk, Fazira threatens to go Goldfinger on her, by pouring molten gold over her body.

Fortunately the enslaved citizens of Zimba manage to get away from their overseers long enough to file the enchanted cuff off Samson's leg.  Samson leads a general revolt, which includes coming up through that secret passage with such force that the giant Sphinx-head is toppled, crushing Riad with his own device.  Minutes later, Fazira meets a similar fate, perishing in her own molten gold (but, unlike Samarra of MOON MEN, remaining uncompromisingly evil to the end).

Unlike MOON MEN, the elements of the marvelous in MINES are a little more marginal, as Samson's zombification only takes place for a short time in the film.  Some of Samson's stunts, like outpulling the horses, might be assigned merely "uncanny" status, but when the hero picks up a hunk of stone about the size of a small car, I think we're dealing with real super-power.

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