Duke of DVD, once more walking in on you as you step out of the shower, water beading on your supple skin. I shield my eyes and gasp in mock alarm, pretending to look away as I leer at you through my fingers. I smirk as you try to cover your nakedness with a hand-cloth. Fear not! That saucy tattoo of Mother Teresa being buggered by the entire line-up of the 1971 Manchester United football team will go unspoken of henceforth!
Come, join me once again as we walk down Mario Bava Lane. Notice the neatly manicured lawns starting to give way to rusted-fence-lined blackened earth. There, on our right, is the Johnson place, they with their two kids, fancy cars, and popular gatherings. Oh how I hate them! On our left is Old Man Shriveledsack, walking out to get his morning paper. Yes, we see you, no, we won’t wave in return, you scrawny git. Further down the lane we travel, red eyes from unnameable creatures watch us from shadowy thickets. Your hand grasps my arm more tightly. Do not fear! These are pathways I’ve traveled oft of late, and I will see you through it.
We arrive at a mansion seemingly carved of a single stone from the face of a granite mountain. Blackened and twisted, with no line a straight edge, the edifice reeks of madness and despair. Dare we enter? Not without checking the mailbox first! It seems Mr. Bava is a front-runner to win the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes, and has also received a coupon for a free large coffee at Denny’s, the lucky sod! The front door creaks open of its own accord.
Let’s see what’s inside, shall we?
HERCULES! That’s right folks, the son of Zeus himself, oiled up by the gods, ready for action! Some might be surprised that the mad genius that is Mario Bava (along with co-director Franco Prosperi) would turn an eye towards Greek/Roman mythology, but indeed he has! In fact, Hercules in the Haunted World marks Bava’s entry into the world of color filmaking. Bava always paints a beautiful picture with his lens, and this movie is no different. Not only do we get to see fantastic landscapes and frightening widescreen vistas, but we also get Bava’s keen eye for showing well-oiled pectorals.
'Oh Theseus, is that a dagger digging into my hip or are you just glad to see me?"
Hercules, played magnificently by Reg Park, is returning to his homeland of Ecalia along with his best (and in no way gay) friend Theseus (George Ardisson). Having been out adventuring for many years, Hercules is longing to finally settle down with his honey Deianira (Leonora Ruffo) and perhaps live a simpler life. He’s having trouble getting back, however, because Theseus feels it’s his duty to sex-up any wanton maiden he happens across. It’s during one of these romps that our movie opens, with Theseus making out with a saucy farm woman beside a stream. Hercules is cajoling him to hurry things up when suddenly bandits attack!
"Yes, Hercules, your strength is very impressive. Now please untie the boulders from your wang."
Seeing no other recourse, Hercules picks up a wagon the size of a gypsy mansion and throws it at the marauders, finally succeeding in running them off. Little does Hercules know that Lico (the always awesome Christopher Lee), brother of the king of Ecalia, has sent these attackers to dispatch Hercules once and for all. Apparently Lico is also a dullard, to think something such as this would work, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Hercules finally makes it back home, only to discover that the king has died, leaving his daughter (and Hercules’ love) Deianira the heir to the throne. Lico isn’t much for the line of succession and wants to rule things himself, so he has a curse placed on poor Deianira, one which renders her nearly catatonic and only able to speak in spaced-out sentences. Seriously, it’s like she did 10 hits of LSD followed by some Jello shots.
"Herc, could you please do your butt-clenching exercises somewhere else? Marna there is overcome."
Hercules knows nothing of Lico’s designs and takes his word that something has befallen Deianira that must be cured. Offering to help, Lico sends Hercules to the Oracle for advice. The Oracle tells Hercules that only Pluto’s Stone, hidden deep within the foul confines of the underworld, can save Deinaira. Not only that, but that the only way Hercules can brave the underworld at all is if he first possesses the fabled Golden Apple.
Before they can head out, though, Hercules and Theseus hook up with the bumbling comic relief of Telemachus (played awesomely by Franco Giacobini), who is the current beau of the last saucy beauty Theseus hooked up with--though Telemachus seems unconcerned with that little tidbit. Telemachus tells them they must get ahold of a magic boat, which happens to be in the posession of this strange, beared man. We aren’t really sure why a magic boat is needed, but I guess if you are going to journey into Hell itself you need something a bit more reliable than Grandpa’s rusty fishing trawler.
Hercules likes to give his friends the gift of Surprise Buttsex.
"For the last fucking time, I'm not Kevin Nealon!"After obtaining the boat, the trio finally set off and arrive at the island of mysterious women, the Hesperides. These women, prisoners of the monster Procustes, exist in a sort of permanent night, where they are required to sacrifice unwary travelers to their dark god. They also keep track of the Golden Apple--it’s all a bit complicated. While his two companions sleep on uncomfortable stone slabs, Hercules heads right to the giant tree that houses the Apple. He climbs, far up into the tree, only to be driven back down again by the wrath of the gods, which consists of lightning flashes, blowing wind, and someone just off camera dumping burning paper dangerously near Hercules’s head. Giving up on the climbing plan, Hercules instead takes some leather straps off a horse’s bridle and uses them as a sling for launching a boulder the size of his left testicle up into the tree. As it flies, he asks Zeus to guide it, and sure enough, down falls a limb with the Golden Apple attached. Great success!
Meanwhile, Procustes shows up to kill both Theseus and Telemachus. I have to admit, the costume department did right when it came to making a stone monster suit to represent Procustes. About the only thing wrong with the suit is that it doesn’t allow for any movement other than a slow waddle. Theseus hits it with his sword, which shatters (but later in the movie is mysteriously whole again, hah!). Hercules arrives just in the nick of time, and picks up the seemingly helpless Procustes and tosses him straight through a rock wall, which has the lucky benefit of opening a pathway to the underworld. Score!
With this film, Bava transitions from black & white to crimson & blueLeaving Telemachus back at the boat with the Golden Apple (which sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, but whatev), Hercules and Theseus head off into Hades to retrieve the Stone of Awesome. Bava’s masterful use of color is in full effect here, folks. Stunning vistas surround the couple at every turn, making Hades look very unwelcome indeed, though beautiful in certain spots. Hades isn’t so much filled with demons and imps as it is a simple obstacle course, filled with burning lava, wafting stenches, and vines that bleed and moan when you cut them. Hercules and Theseus traverse this Hellscape with ease, until they come to a wide canyon filled with lava. Hercules uses some of the aforementioned vines to launch a rock once again, this time forming a rope bridge across the chasm that they two men then use to go across, hand-over-hand.
anything bearing a vagina, Theseus falls immediately in love with her, not even bothering to find out who she is, and promises to get her out of Hades safely.
The Spectacular Stalagmite Sisters lull Hercules to sleepwith their #1 hit, "Fog Machine Boogie in D-flat."
"Come on, Herc, hug it out."
Meanwhile, Hercules arrives at the Stone of Fantastical Things and pulls it free from its prison, burning his hands badly in teh process. But Hercules doesn’t need any ointment, oh no! Nor any elixirs, salves, unguents or poultices. He is a (demi)god among men! Hercules returns to the ship to find Theseus alive and well, much to his joy. Telemachus, who showed inhuman restraint in not eating the Golden Apple while the other guys were away, sets sail for home. During the voyage, Theseus spends an inordinate amount of time below decks, which makes Hercules curious, but not enough to investigate himself. He sends Telemachus instead, who discovers that Theseus has secreted away a chick, attempting to smuggle her out of Hell.
Pluto is pissed at the trespass, and sends a powerful hurricane in an attempt to stop the fleeing thieves. The girl, still nameless, bids Theseus to chunk the Golden Apple overboard in an effort to appease Pluto. Theseus runs topside, grabs the apple before Herc can stop him, and hurls it into the sea. Before Hercules can finish his sentence admonishing Theseus for such a crazy act, the hurricane clears and they are on the shores of Ecalia! It seems this plan worked. Their happiness at arriving home safe is short-lived, however, as they find Ecalia is in near ruins. It seems the wrath of Pluto has shifted to their homeland. Crops are withering, cows are dying, dogs and cats are living together. Just mass hysteria, I’m tellin’ ya!
"Is that a... Procustes turd?"
They all head back to the main castle, where Hercules uses the stone to heal Deianira, and the young beauty that Theseus rescued from Hades reveals herself to him, saying that she’s Persephone, most favored daughter of Pluto*, and that she is the real reason things are in ruins. Pluto is punishing humanity for the theft of his daughter. Theseus vows that he’ll protect her, even up to and including killing Hercules, if it came to that. Bold words, little man! Meanwhile, Lico isn’t in the least happy about Hercules returning to Ecalia. It is revealed that he is in communion with some dark god, who advises him to send Hercules to the Oracles, and so he does.
*Not the way the myth really goes, I know. I guess Bava was using a cut-rate translation of Bullfinch's Mythology.
Hercules decided to give Deianira the Stone of Horniness instead.
While Hercules is away, Lico jumps into action, killing Deianira’s servant girl and kidnapping Deianira herself, taking her into the catacombs below the castle. At the Oracle, Hercules learns the truth about Persephone and that in order to save Ecalia, he must convince Theseus to give up the underworld poon of which he’s grown fond. Hercules arrives back at the castle and has it out with Theseus, who attempts to fight the demigod, even going so far as to cutting Hercules’ arm with a sword, before finally Persephone interrupts the fight by causing Theseus to fall into a deep slumber. She tells Hercules it isn’t right that so many would suffer because of her love for Theseus. She promises now that Deianira is healed she’ll take the Stone of Kickass back to Hades along with herself to assuage Pluto’s wrath.
Hercules realizes that he hasn’t seen Deianira in a while, so he goes looking, only to discover the servant girl dead and Deianira missing. He makes his way down to the catacombs to confront Lico, but finds that Lico has summoned an army of zombies! Folks, I have to tell you, Bava made the most of his shoe-string budget here. The zombies are fucking awesome! They fly through the air, or run on the ground, grasping and clawing at Hercules with their rotted, gray limbs. Hercules fights them off and finds himself in a trap, consisting of two rock walls slowly squeezing shut, with him in the middle. He manages to make it out at the last second, leaving the zombies inside to be crushed.
"Praise be to the gods for Rohypnol!"
He finds himself in a large chamber, where Lico is placing Deianira on an altar to be sacrificed, so that Lico can drink her blood while the moon is just right in order to obtain True Ultimate Power. Hercules runs up the slope to the altar, and begins tossing Lico around like a deranged bear trying to get at a Little Person's sweetbreads. Hercules picks up a nearby stone column and crushes Lico to death with it. At about that time, the zombies free themselves of the garbage compactor trap and begin assaulting the hill in wave after wave of zombie attacks. Hercules fends all of these off, tossing stone pillar after stone pillar at the zombies until they are all dead. Finally, the moon passes out of its critical phase, causing the pretty-much-dead-already Lico to burst into flame!
Hercules wields Procustes' cock as a weapon, with awesome results.Bava then cuts to the seashore, where a newly-bedecked-in-snazzy-white Hercules pulls up in a chariot, along with the beautiful Deianira. Telemachus rides up on a horse, with the saucy brunette, claiming that she’s finally agreed to marry him! Before Telemachus can even begin to day-dream about the consummation of said union, Theseus runs up, telling everyone that he just had the most vivid dream in which he loved a beautiful woman and... Theseus sees the chick. He jerks her off the horse and they run laughing down the beach while a bewildered but not really mad Telemachus falls into the surf. Hercules and Deianira share a laugh. Fin.
Dearest friends, I submit to you that this is the pinnacle of Hercules movies. And I’m not just saying that because it had Bava’s masterful hand at work... ok, well, yes I am saying it for that reason, but it’s not the only one, no! Reg Park makes a fantastic Hercules (he played him in 4 films, including this one). His pecs appear to be sentient, and his beard could easily flay the paint off a battleship. The man is pure testosterone, and he plays Hercules fantastically, with a glint in his eye and a spring to his step. Christopher Lee is fantastic as always as the evil Lico. It’s said that a different actor dubbed Lee’s voice for the movie, which is sad (what, it wasn't sonorous and eeevil enough?), but it doesn’t detract from his brilliant portrayal.
"God, how I love you, Eddie Rabbit."
Once again, Bava was on a budget set ludicrously low, but this is how the Master thrives. I’m afraid given too much money Bava would have been not as cavalier about taking chances or setting up shots as he does in most all his films. His use of color and frame are unparalleled, and this movie brings those traits to life perfectly. Sure, the movie isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it’s exciting, good to look at, and even freaky (flying zombies, yeesh!). There are probably hundreds of movies in this genre (“Sword & Sandals” for the peasants, “peplum” for the in-crowd), but to me this one stands out as worth watching over most others.
Two Thumbs Up.
November 2, 2010
Issue 24 (2009)
Katia Shagalova: Once Upon a Time In the Provinces (Odnazhdy v provintsii, 2008)
reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2009
Katia Shagalova’s second feature film, Once Upon a Time In the Provinces, was one of the highlights of Russian cinema in 2008. Filmed in the city of Podol'sk outside Moscow, it provides a mostly realistic portrait of Russian life that seldom reaches the big screen. It features actors both new and established, and the level of their performances is overall quite high. The film was awarded the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) prize at the 2008 Moscow International Film Festival, although it was passed over by the festival jury. Its reception has not been without scandal due to the perception among some Russian critics that it gives a too negative portrayal of the Russian “provinces.” Shagalova both directed and wrote the screenplay for the film, and the work that has resulted clearly carries a distinct authorial message. This review, therefore, will be oriented around that traditional Russian approach to any work of art: What is the author trying to teach us?
The story revolves around a rather complex cast of characters. The first part of the film seems organized around the fraught relationship between two sisters. Nastia (Iuliia Peresil'd) is a young but apparently already washed up television actress, who has come to the provincial town to seek refuge with her sister, Vera (El'vira Bolgova), who is married to and regularly abused by her war veteran husband, Kolia (Aleksandr Golubev). We quickly come to realize that all three of these individuals are profoundly damaged: Nastia is suffering not only from the collapse of her acting career, but more deeply from the guilt she feels for her sister’s banishment from the family and for her brother-in-law’s conscription and deployment to a war zone. Kolia is quite literally damaged from a brain injury suffered during military service; he is consumed with justifiable hatred for Nastia and otherwise prone to violent outbursts of physical violence. Vera’s masochistic love for her husband grows only stronger the more that he batters and torments her. Nastia’s intermittent and clumsy attempts to intervene in her sister’s sad life do nothing but raise the tension in the household.
Kolia’s real family consists of his three buddies with whom he served in Chechnya. It is with each other that they choose to spend most of their time, whether drinking themselves into oblivion, refurbishing stolen vehicles, or doing battle with racist skinhead gangs. Their quasi-brotherhood transcends all other relationships in the film, most particularly romantic liaisons. For the sake of this friendship, Kolia is even willing to tolerate a budding romance between one of his buddies and the hated Nastia. This brotherhood is part of a general opposition between romantic and familial bonds in the film, whereby bonds of blood (whether biological or metaphorical) are more highly valued and more fiercely defended than bonds of erotic attraction. While romantic couplings take place easily and frequently, forming a web of relationships that crisscross the entire cast of characters and, presumably, the entire town, familial bonds are strong and constant, even if almost never emotionally satisfying. When Kolia confesses to his wife that she has become more like a sister to him, he considers this confession to be a peace offering. Vera’s hysterical reaction to this gesture makes clear beyond any doubt that, in the social milieu of this film, her unconditional subservience to the needs of her husband is the most destructive pathology of all.
But almost every relationship in this story proves ultimately to be a dysfunctional one. Marriages are loveless and bring no happiness. Love is genuine, but likewise leads to no good end. What appears to be a life-affirming devotion to Nastia on the part of the handsome and likable Misha (Leonid Bichevin), who is usually called Che as a nod to his Cuban father, turns out to be a manifestation of his obsession with his own mother. His desire for Nastia springs from the chance he sees to undo his failure to protect his mother from the hatred that she endured as an unmarried mother of a biracial child. Che’s love for Nastia, both touching and pathological, is emblematic for a pattern that repeats itself with most of the other characters. Kolia and his friends fight racial bigotry through violent means. Kolia’s friend Kim (Aidys Shoigu) silently loves Kolia’s wife from a distance, but he watches just as silently how this woman he adores is beaten and abused. Nastia’s love for her sister is genuine, but her attempts to help Vera always do more harm than good. Time and again, we see that the most virtuous and life-affirming of human impulses—love, loyalty, devotion, tolerance—bring not happiness, but more misery.
By making her characters likable and attractive not only physically but also morally, the director avoids one of the chief characteristics of perestroika-era chernukha: an all-encompassing sense of decay and hopelessness that permeates both society and environment. Shagalova rescues the film from complete hopelessness by highlighting two otherwise secondary characters in the film. Lena (Liubov' Tolkalina), the local police chief, certainly has her flaws: she is at best moderately competent at her job, and she has raised a disastrously delinquent daughter. Nevertheless, she is the only character in the film who seems to live responsibly, to provide for her family, and to maintain a sense of personal dignity. Her dilletantish dabbling in feng shui and poetry would be comical in another context, but here she appears as perhaps the town’s only fully developed human individual. She gives much more sensible advice to Vera than Nastia is able to give, and she provides Kolia with the love that he needs but which he can no longer tolerate from his clinging wife.
If Lena serves as a model individual, Iasir and his wife (Sakhat Dursunov and Viktoriia Poltorak), recent immigrants from the Caucasus, serve as the model couple. Throughout the film, Shagalova shows but never really investigates the oft ignored reality of Russia as a multi-ethnic society. The town is populated by all kinds of non-Russians, many of them clearly recent migrants to the country. Rather than develop this as a thematic problem in the film, Shagalova is more interested in spotlighting the relationship between Iasir and his wife, not only to provide a contrast to the strife and discord among the rest of the population, but also to provide a point of view that looks at society from outside. Their dialogue is endearing in its simplicity and profound in its quiet wisdom.
Ultimately, Shagalova’s depiction of this society locates its suffering not in the structure of the provincial milieu, but solely in the psychology of its inhabitants. The most optimistic phrase in the film, introduced only midway through the story but thereafter repeated like a mantra, turns out to be a diagnosis of the fundamental problem. “The nightmare is over—a new life has begun.” The phrase was uttered by the boys’ commanding officer at the end of their military service, a moment that they celebrate as their collective “birthday.” The film makes clear, however, that new life, whether “my,” “your,” or “our,” (the Russian phrase leaves the pronoun ambiguous) has in fact not begun at all. By repeating this mantra to themselves, to each other, and to their loved ones, the war veterans and, by extension, almost everyone in the film, continues to live in the dead space between “then” and “now.” By convincing themselves that the nightmare is over and taking comfort in that delusion, these characters fail to begin any new life at all. This film is perhaps the most accurate depiction of the true meaning of “stagnation”: a stasis in which the very desire to live better is negated by the repression of the “nightmare” that one desperately imagines to have already left behind. It is a repression that Shagalova herself seems to repeat in the construction of the film itself. Just as the young men repress the past that continues to haunt them, the young director represses the history that Russia no longer wants to face but which might enable a more penetrating analysis of the psychological stupor of contemporary society.
The most confusing character of the film, the vagabond nicknamed Horse (Aleksei Poluian), exists in the film as a visible trace of this repression. Destitute and alone, he has been reduced to living a beggar’s existence on the edge of society. Eating out of the same bowl as his dog, he is an object of derision and pity, to the extent that he is noticed at all. At the level of the plot, it is unclear why the character is necessary at all, and his function during the film’s final minute only serves to confirm the absurdity of his existence. His role makes sense only if we interpret his presence as a barely audible echo of the town’s no longer recent past. Vera tells Nastia that he used to be a “bigshot” in town which, judging from his behavior and attitudes, we must interpret to mean that he ran the town during the Soviet period. The onetime representative of the regime that built the town has now been reduced to an abject object of ridicule whose very identity is largely forgotten, erased under the nonsensical name of “Horse.”
There is yet one more figure even more peripheral to the action on the screen, but who apparently was even more necessary for the director. If we pose the question “who is to blame,” from a strictly cause-and-effect point of view, for the conflict and tragedy of the film, the answer at once becomes clear and indisputable. The blame lies with a character who never appears on screen but who Shagalova apparently found necessary in order to explain an otherwise implausible scenario. What exactly is Nastia guilty of? She denounced her sister to their father, an army general, who never appears in the film but who is alluded to several times. It is this father who deployed Kolia to a war zone, who banished his one daughter from the family and who has now banished his second daughter as well. This patriarch, figure of both parental and State authority, is an ogre so full of hatred and so despotic that he would rather see his daughters perish than to allow them to defy his authority. Here is where the real puzzle of the film lies. How does the father fit into Shagalova’s overall concept? If the father is truly to blame for the suffering of his daughters, then they become more or less innocent victims of the past, victims of a repressive regime. If they are responsible for their own lives, if they are guilty for their failure to redeem their lives, then why could Shagalova not dispense with the father completely? For, if the young people in her film really are responsible for their own fates, then the device of the evil father should not have been necessary. One could hardly imagine a perestroika-era or post-Soviet Russian director relegating such a character to the invisible periphery of the action. Yet Shagalova (herself the daughter of filmmaker Aleksandr Mindadze) deems him unworthy of any real attention. She banishes him to oblivion in much the same way that the former army conscripts try to banish their own personal nightmares out of their memories. Ought we not see the spectral presence of the father as Shagalova’s inability to completely banish a theme that she would really rather not raise?
Shagalova has provided a convincing and vivid portrayal of the predicament of Russia’s youth today. It represents a significant new development, distinct from the old-style chernukha of the recent past. It remains to be seen whether her social diagnosis of her contemporaries enables or rather forecloses a way out of the morass.
University of Pittsburgh
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As hard as we try to de-slutify Halloween costumes, we do appreciate it when celebrities show insane amounts of cleavage on this most revealing of holidays. Let's explore a few of our favorite costumes and the canyons they create.
We're not saying we only enjoy the bust-embellishing costumes. In fact, Adrienne Curry's Imperial Officer costume is a personal favorite. (Is that kinky choking or sinister choking? We can't tell.) Still, we have to give to this handful of gals for using their personal assets to really make their costumes shine (or maybe it's the other way around).800x600 | Full Size ');