FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*
I recently pointed out the shortcomings of the first two HERCULES films of the fifties, drawing attention to their mixmaster approach to archaic mythology. A couple of years after HERCULES UNBOUND, cult film-director Mario Bava concocted a much better rendition of Greek myths, though it too is not without some peculiar re-arrangements.
As played by Reg Park, this Hercules is still physically close to the Steve Reeves model. Additionally, the hero is unquestionably tied into a mythological framework, rather than just being some muscleman sent to fight pirates or Mongols. That said, though he’s the son of Zeus, he also pals around with the Athenian hero Theseus, who in the real myths had his own myth-arc and didn’t associate with the Theban strongman. For good measure, the two heroes are also accompanied by a comic foil, who for no good reason is named Telemachus, same as the goodguy son of Odysseus.
Hercules is summoned to the palace of the Princess Deianira by her guardian Lico (Christopher Lee). This sinister fellow—whose name might be derived from Lycaon, one of mythology’s first werewolves—shows the hero that Deianira has succumbed to a malady that leaves her without memory. Lico says that the only cure for the malady is the Stone of Forgetfulness, but this is located in the underworld of Pluto. Hercules and his two accomplices can only gain access to the Land of Death by acquiring the Golden Apple of the Hesperides, and accordingly the heroes set out to follow the guardian’s instructions, little realizing that Lico has his own plans for Deianira.
The heroes reach the underworld without great trouble, but once there various creatures and hostile environments imperil them. Perhaps the most interesting menace is Procrustes. In Greek myth he’s an eccentric brigand who invites travelers to his inn, and then “adjusts” their bodies to fit his beds. The movie makes Procrustes a sort of shaggy monster with the same habit, which is at least a novel take on a little used myth-figure.
The explorers find the magic stone, but they’re only able to escape the underworld with the help of Persephone (here the daughter, rather than the wife, of the death-lord). She returns to the living world as well, having forged a romantic bond with Theseus. Hercules uses the stone to return Deianira to normal, but now the underworld menaces the living world, as Pluto demands his daughter’s return. Hercules, though grateful for all that Theseus and Persephone have done for his beloved, must now deny Theseus his amour, for the greater good. Persephone provides the hero with a little help by wiping Theseus’s memory for him, which seems a bit of a cop-out.
In the end, Hercules contends with Lico, whose object is to drink Deianira’s blood at a certain time, and thereby obtain immortality. (The English translation is ambivalent about whether this act will just kill the maiden or make her into some vampire-like creature.) Hercules fights Lico, Hercules wins, the end.
Bava’s visual style is far more refined than most of the other peplum, exploiting his gifts for horrific atmosphere. The script, however, never manages to elaborate its own resonant take on the archaic stories, even though the plot comes close to treating Deianira and Persephone as inverse reflecftions of one another: one who escapes the world of death, and one who does not.