The Adventures of Hercules / Hercules II: The Adventures of Hercules / The Adventures of Hercules II / Le Avventure dell’Incredibile Ercole (1984/1985) -***˝
So as I said, ten-year-old El Santo was not a bit impressed with Luigi Cozzi’s Hercules, and I held onto much of that negativity until just a few months ago. What changed my mind— or at any rate, what put me into a position from which it was susceptible to being changed— was seeing the sequel, The Adventures of Hercules, at B-Fest 2016. The Adventures of Hercules is by almost any imaginable measure a much worse movie even than its predecessor, but it wasn’t that which led to my reevaluation. What made the difference, rather, was that the second film is a much purer distillation of the gonzo Eurocomics vibe for which Cozzi had been aiming all along. With the stark lunacy of The Adventures of Hercules to guide me, I was able at last to see through the unmet expectations that I’d brought to the films. I mean, they still suck, but now I recognize that they suck with rare daring and imagination, hinting at a whole parallel lineage of fantasy adventure cinema that never got a chance to take root.
We begin, once again, with the story of how the universe was made. Note that this acid-head cosmology cannot easily be reconciled with the one we got the last time around. Then we learn that there is trouble on Olympus (which is apparently no longer on the Moon, even though it still looks as if it’s supposed to be). Hera, queen of the gods (now played by Maria Rosaria Ommagio, from My Father’s Private Secretary and City of the Walking Dead), has progressed from stealthily sabotaging the designs of her husband, Zeus (still Claudio Cassinelli), to open revolt against him, and she is joined in her rebellion by Poseidon (Ferdinando Poggi, of The Demon Lover and Kidnapped to Mystery Island), Aphrodite (Margi Newton, from Night of the Zombies and The Bronx Executioner), and Flora (Manhattan Baby’s Laura Lenzi). The renegade deities have stolen the seven thunderbolts that are the source of Zeus’s power, using them to animate a menagerie of fearsome monsters. On the advice of Athena (Carla Ferrigno, of Black Roses and The Seven Magnificent Gladiators, who was calling herself Carlotta Green at this point in her career), Zeus reincarnates Hercules (Lou Ferrigno again) from his place among the stars, giving him mortal life once more so that he might slay Hera’s creatures and regain the thunderbolts.
One thunderbolt drives the soul of the fire demon Antaeus, which bears a suspicious resemblance to the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet. In the city of Phygesta, a cult has grown up around Antaeus, to whom virgins are now regularly sacrificed. Well, there are two girls in town who are sick of that shit, and what’s more, Urania (Milly Carlucci) and Glaucia (Sonia Vivani, from Ring of Darkness and SS Extermination Camp) are in a position to do something about it. Urania is tight with the Little People— by which she means not faeries or leprechauns or even Peter Dinklage, but rather (are you ready for this?) the three Fates. Except that there are only two of them (both played by Christina Basili), and they’ve obviously been modeled after the Twin Fairies in the Mothra movies. Come to think of it, Mothracles would probably be a far more effective counter to Antaeus than any normative Greco-Roman hero, and a giant god-monster capable of transatmospheric flight would sure come in handy against another threat which the Little People reveal when Urania consults them on the subject of the fire demon. Apparently when the rebel gods stole Zeus’s thunderbolts, it so unbalanced the cosmos that the Moon came loose from its orbit. Worse yet, the Moon is now hurtling toward Earth with all the implications that you’d expect in a movie that didn’t blithely violate 43 separate laws of physics before breakfast each morning. But rather than striking up a chorus of “Restuilah doa hamba-hambamu yang rendah,” the Fates just tell Urania to take Glaucia and seek out Hercules in the Forbidden Valley. (You don’t want to think about the ranch dressing they make there…)
Meanwhile, Hercules is battling another of the thunderbolt monsters, a constantly leaping man in a mangy, dreadlocked fur suit with a vaguely catlike face. Oh, hell… I think this sorry sack of carpet samples is supposed to be the Nemean Lion! Whatever it is, it doesn’t last long against Hercules, who proceeds on into the aforementioned Forbidden Valley. He arrives just in time to rescue Urania and Glaucia from the Slime People— and if you thought the Slime People in The Slime People were stinkeriffic, wait ‘til you see this bunch! They’re tougher than they look, though, and there are a damned lot of them. So numerous are they, in fact, that even Hercules’s strength is not enough to make up the difference. Flight is the only option, so Hercules leads the girls to the great stone head whose mouth leads into the Catacombs of Euryale. Even the Slime People won’t follow them down there.
That’s because the eponymous owner of those tunnels (Serena Grandi, from Lady of the Night and The Grim Reaper) is really one of the fearsome Gorgons. One look at her in her true form is enough to turn any living creature to stone. Naturally anyone with that much evil power has to have a stolen thunderbolt hidden away in her guts, so Hercules is able to carry out the next phase of his mission while shepherding his companions to safety. And the same is true again in the next plot of accursed territory which they have to traverse, the forest of Tartarus the soul collector. Once, Tartarus was a god himself (indeed, in mythology he was one of the Protogenetes, the primordial generation of gods who embodied the Earth, the Heavens, and the Underworld), but now he lives like a slasher movie murder-hermit in this forbidding patch of wilderness. The innumerable plaster dolls hung from the branches (each of them an imprisoned human soul) testify to the lethality of Tartarus, but he’s no match for Hercules.
Now that’s three thunderbolts that have practically leapt into Hercules’s hands, and Poseidon and Aphrodite are rightly growing worried. Hera has a plan, though. Flora knows a guy, an ambitious and unscrupulous warrior named Atreus (Raf Baldassarre, of Thor the Conqueror and Eyeball), who’ll do anything to join the company of the demigods. Atreus agrees to meet Flora at the tomb of King Minos (William Berger again) to help resurrect the long-dead troublemaker, but what he doesn’t realize is that his role in the revival is to be that of blood sacrifice. Once Minos lives again, Hera figures it’ll be no trouble getting him to handle Hercules for her, considering how things went the last time those two met. However, the rebel goddess has misjudged Minos as seriously as Atreus misjudged Flora. When the returned king goes to his old pal Daedalus (still Eva Robins) this time, she presents him not with a pack of hero-killing robot monsters, but with a god-killing sword. Together, Minos and Daedalus will overthrow all the gods, and rule the universe in the name of Science and Chaos!
Hercules, Urania, and Glaucia won’t learn of that alarming development for some time yet. For now, their attention remains focused on the thunderbolt scavenger hunt and on freeing Phygesta from the cult of Antaeus respectively. Acting once more on a tip from the Little People, Hercules and Urania pay a visit to the Nereid Thetis (Orgies of Caligula’s Sandra Venturini), who keeps in her divine medicine cabinet a magic balm that can render Hercules temporarily immune to Anteus’s fiery touch. Glaucia, meanwhile, stays behind on the beach to set up a final-act plot point. Glaucia’s separation from her friends also gives the priest of Antaeus (Venantonio Venantini, from War of the Robots and The Beast in Space) a chance to abduct her, maximizing the stakes when Hercules battles the fire demon. Once that’s taken care of at last (thunderbolt #4!), Urania and Glaucia commendably stick around to help Hercules with the remainder of his quest. The heroes are able to collect just one more plot coupon, though— the thunderbolt animating Arachne (Paula Prati, from Ironmaster and Reflections of Light), Spider-Queen of the Amazons— before Minos and Daedalus knock the whole damn movie sideways.
I don’t want to tell you what happens from there, because I think you deserve a chance to be blindsided, gobsmacked, and mindboggled by it the way I was. I can’t resist teasing you just a little, though, with the literally unbelievable mess that The Adventures of Hercules makes in its pants during the final act. What I’ll say is that the final showdown between Hercules and Minos occurs on the Astral Plane, and that it devolves into an orgy of rotoscope animation that would earn a facepalm from Ralph Bakshi. I’ll also say that only a few seconds of that rotoscoped footage is truly original to The Adventures of Hercules, and that I have no earthly idea how Cozzi got away with stealing two of the particular clips that he did.
It is a longstanding, if not exactly proud, exploitation movie tradition for sequels to be made for a fraction of the cost of the original film, but The Adventures of Hercules carries such skinflintery to an extreme that would not become common until the rise of the direct-to-video sequel in the 1990’s. To understand why, you have to look behind the scenes, to the dissolution of the Cannon Group’s distribution deal with MGM. The two firms got into bed together in 1983, when MGM was in dire need of product to push, but short on cash with which to make any of their own. Relatively little MGM money went into the actual production of Cannon’s wares, but the pact between the studios put Cannon films on enough screens that Golan and Globus could plausibly afford to spend more on each than they ever had before. It didn’t take long, though, for MGM CEO Frank Yablans to get sick of having his company’s good name besmirched by association with shit like Sahara, Bolero, and, well, Hercules. The Adventures of Hercules was in mid-production when the corporate divorce came down, so we should probably be impressed that it got completed and released at all.
Remarkably enough, though, the implosion of the budget did nothing to rein in Luigi Cozzi’s ambitions for the picture. In fact, The Adventures of Hercules features more monsters, more fantastical environments, and more special effects in general than its predecessor. Some of the necessary settings could be realized effectively enough on the cheap, of course. Olympus and the headquarters of Daedalus could simply be reused from Hercules, and the caves that had served the first film well enough as the passage to the Underworld serve equally well as the Catacombs of Euryale here. The Forest of Tartarus required no more than to festoon a grove of trees with plaster dolls, and shooting the Forbidden Valley sequence in the Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo lent The Adventures of Hercules more production value than could have been bought for the complete budget of the typical Cannon film circa 1984. The same applies to the ruins where the Amazons attack Hercules and Glaucia while Urania communes with the Little People at the Oracle of Death. But other stuff— the Oracle of Death itself, the Temple of Arachne, the Altar of Antaeus, the Chamber of Echoes, the Castle of Thetis— had to be built from scratch. Ditto all the new creatures: Antaeus, the Fates, the Nemean Cowardly Lion, the Slime People, Euryale, the energy spirits who do the Gorgon’s bidding, Tartarus, Arachne, the handmermaidens of Thetis. And while some of those creatures are astoundingly lazy in conception (Euryale’s energy spirits are especially lame), others aim for marks that Cozzi could never possibly have afforded to hit. Euryale is the real prize there. Incredibly, Cozzi attempted to one-up Clash of the Titans by rendering her as a serpentine, snake-haired woman growing from the cephalothorax of a giant scorpion! It should go without saying that every last one of those critters is a failure of one kind or another, but the scope of what Cozzi’s effects department failed to achieve is simply breathtaking.
It wasn’t all the garishly misbegotten spectacle that made me fall in love with this movie, however. (Well, the climactic battle on the Astral Plane did have something to do with it…) What really won me over was its equally flailing and incoherent attempt to have a theme truly worthy of myth. As The Adventures of Hercules wears on, it increasingly becomes the story of two scientists attempting to dethrone the gods. And the crazy thing is that if you were determined to tell such a tale using characters from Greek legend and mythology, King Minos and Daedalus would be pretty good choices. Daedalus, after all, designed the Labyrinth and built the artificial wings with which his son, Icarus, famously killed himself by flying too close to the sun. Minos, meanwhile, was canonically the patron of Daedalus, and he had much reason to resent the gods after being cursed with the Minotaur for a stepson. Of course, these being the kind of movies that they are, “Science” ends up being distinguishable from magic only because it involves robots and laser beams, and because its conjuring words include “cosmic rays,” “atmospheric conditions,” and “relativity.” In any case, it’s simply perfect that Cozzi cast William Berger to play his deicidal madman. He couldn’t have known this at the time, but in 2016, it’s impossible not to notice that Berger looks exactly like renowned geneticist and insufferable atheist-fundamentalist blowhard Richard Dawkins.
Daedalus is the more interesting figure, though, because I believe that with her, Cozzi knew exactly what he was doing. When she makes her first entrance in Hercules, savvy viewers will immediately ask two questions: (1) How come Daedalus is female all of a sudden; and (2) why in the name of Priapus is she wearing an acrylic codpiece? The two issues are, shall we say, intimately connected. Like Ajita Wilson, Eva Robins is a trans-woman, but she had less done in the way of reconstructive surgery. Later in life, she became a prominent advocate for transgender issues in Continental Europe, but she spent her youth acting in exploitation movies. Indeed, she and Wilson twice made films together, the first of which, Eva-Man: Two Sexes in One, billed them respectively as “the only true hermaphrodite in Italy” and “the most beautiful transsexual in the world.” What that means for Hercules and The Adventures of Hercules is that to play a character personifying science in defiance of divine will, Cozzi cast an actress whose very body is a radical example of how science has subordinated nature to the will of human beings. And he furthermore flagged the symbolism, for those who knew what to look for, by casting a trans-woman as a character who is canonically male. Now I suppose it’s just barely possible that I’m reading too much into this, but it would be one whopper of a coincidence if that’s all it were. On the other hand, it’s at least as big a marvel to find such a sophisticated Easter egg tucked away in what otherwise look like such a witless pair of movies.