Skip to content

Plot: Hercules falls under the spell of a mysterious queen

On the back of the international box office smash that was The Labors Of Hercules (1958) (hereafter Hercules) the inevitable sequel came with the following year’s Hercules and the Queen of Lydia (a direct translation of the Italian title Ercole e la regina di Lidia) that was released in North America as the abbreviated Hercules Unchained. Both leading man Steve Reeves and director Pietro Francisci moved onto greener pastures. Reeves would play a succession of mythological strongmen while director Francisci delved into more historical territory with Siege Of Syracuse (1960) and closed the gates on the sword-and-sandal genre with Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963). Hercules Unchained managed to top its box office breaking predecessor on every front. Armed with a much more engrossing story, an epic array of quests and tests of strength, and with the stakes raised that much higher for everyone involved. The sets are more elaborate, the combat scenes are more involving, and the women are universally and uniformly breathtaking. Hercules Unchained set the template for the b-grade peplum to follow for decades to come, ensuring its survival well into the mid-seventies.

This time around the basis for the screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Pietro Francisci were Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Returning home from the previous movie’s quest for the Golden Fleece Hercules (Steve Reeves), Iole (Sylva Koscina), Jason (Fabrizio Mionzi), and Ulisses (Gabrielle Antonini) barely have time to recover. On the road to Thebes Hercules is challenged by the giant Antaeus (Primo Carnero) but can’t defeat the behemoth on land. Hercules and Ulisses are asked by Edipus, the dying king of Thebes (Cesare Fantoni), to negotiate a heavily escalated royal succession dispute between his warring sons. En route Hercules is seduced by a harem girl dancing the “Dance of Shiva” leading him to drink the Waters of Forgetfulness from a nearby magic spring, the Lethe. Without memory Hercules becomes a willing captive of the wicked Queen Omphale (Silvya López, as Silvia Lopez) of Lydia. As Hercules finds himself in the gardens of Omphale, unaware that Omphale embalms her playthings once she’s grown tired of them. Ulisses pretends to be Hercules’ deaf-mute servant in order to survive in the Queen’s opulent court, all while figuring out a way to restore Hercules’ memory. Meanwhile Iole is beset by Eteocles (Sergio Fantone) as Polinices (Mimmo Palmara) assails Thebes. Will demigod Hercules be able to both save Thebes from the warring brothers and rescue his wife?

The practice of sequels is almost as old as Hollywood itself, but it wasn’t always that sequels were alotted bigger budgets and higher productions values than the original. In case of Hercules Unchained, once again directed by Pietro Francisci, there isn’t too much of a difference between both titles. Hercules was significant for setting in stone many of the conventions of the more pulpy and kitschy variety of peplum. Hercules Unchained on the other hand was key in introducing future genre conventions such as court – and political intrigue, magic, and embalming – as well as bellydancing interludes, wild animal fighting, and hand-to-hand combat. Hercules Unchained saw much of the same talent, both in front and behind the camera, returning and it allowed for a distinct sense of continuity. Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Fabrizio Mionzi, Mimmo Palmara, and Primo Carnero all make their return in either the same role or a similar one. Exclusive to Hercules Unchained are Silvya López, Marisa Valenti, and Colleen Bennett all of whom function as eyecandy in either a greater or smaller capacity. The prima ballerina (Colleen Bennett) at Omphale’s palace court paved the way for Cuban imports Chelo Alonso and Bella Cortez, both of whom would become genre fixtures in the coming decade. Hercules Unchained was not necessarily bigger in scale, but it took on a much darker tone than the whimsical Hercules. (1958).

Hercules was a pretty straightforward recounting of Apollonius Rhodius’ epic poem Argonautica with a giant rubber monster thrown at the end for good measure. Hercules Unchained puts a greater focus on court intrigue and the stakes are raised much higher for everyone involved. Hercules has to leave his beloved Iole in the claws of the reptilian Eteocles, Ulisses is powerless as Hercules walks blindly into the trap that Queen Omphale has laid out for him – and he spents a good portion of the feature trying to break Hercules out of her spell. Thebes is under the threat of war making Hercules’ diplomatic mission all the more important. The political class, corrupted by the power bestowed on them, has descended into squabbling and scheming, often to the detriment of the very citizenry that has entrusted them with said power. Rivalry is another big theme in Hercules Unchained, whether its two brothers vying for kingship or two women fighting for the affections of the same man. Omphale’s embalming theatre is fairly dark stuff for a kitschy peplum, as is the body count and predilection towards bodily harm and cold blooded murder. Steve Reeves is actually given the chance to showcase his acting chops and the entire middle-section is probably the most sumptuous as Hercules is a captive in Omphale’s court. Hercules Unchained is romantic the old-fashioned way as Iole desperately longs for her man to come home and gives lovelorn Queen Omphale of Lydia a boy-toy until Hercules regains agency. It’s an ingenious piece of screenwriting that doesn’t cast any of the parties in a bad light. Unfortunately there are no big rubbersuit monsters to defeat, but for good measure Hercules throws his behemoth nemesis Antaeus into the ocean.

As these things tend to go Hercules Unchained couldn’t escape its share of tragedy. Silvya López, the actress playing Queen Omphale, would die at the tender age of 28 from complications arising of leukemia just one year after the film’s completion. López was born Tatjana Bernt in Austria to Slavonic immigrants. Prior to taking up acting López, who was fluent in six languages, did modeling work with Jacques Fath for Vogue magazine in France. She debuted in an uncredited role in the musical Baratin (1956) and the comedy Five Million Cash (1957). It wasn’t until the Richard Pottier directed drama Tabarin (1958) that she adopted the Silvia López alias. Pottier would attain cinematic immortality himself with The Rape Of the Sabines (1961), a peplum comedy with future Bond actor Roger Moore, Mariangela Giordano, and Marino Masé, that undoubtly was an influence on Terence Young’s own zany mix of peplum and commedia sexy all’italiana The Amazons (1973). The loss of López overshadowed, at least in part, the release of Hercules Unchained. Tragic in a completely different manner was that Sylva Koscina in a decade hence would be working with trash specialist Jesús Franco on the Harry Alan Towers produced Marquis de Sade: Justine (1969) with Romina Power.

Hercules Unchained is an old-fashioned popcorn flick clearly intended as a second feature for a movie matinee headlined by an American production. As a peplum from an earlier generation it spearheaded elements that in a few years time would become standard for the sword-and-sandal genre. It has a hunky bearded hero, two classical beauties to appeal to everybody’s liking and enough comedy, action, tests of strength and romance to appeal to a broad audience. Hercules Unchained might not have been bigger per se than its predecessor. Hercules (1958) was whimsical and kitschy. Hercules Unchained is surprisingly dark at times for what all intents and purposes is a more fantastic inclined peplum rather than the more classical inspired Hercules a year earlier. Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Fabrizio Mionzi, and Mimmo Palmara all would feature in peplum for several years to come, and Pietro Francisci’s two Hercules epics heralded the beginning of a cheaper, more philistine peplum movement that would last until the mid-seventies. Obviously Hercules Unchained had more than enough resources and budget to outclass the cheaper imitations it ended up inspiring.

Any band that has been around long enough will eventually become judged by the merits of its imitators. After all the easiest way for a young band to find its footing is by following in the footsteps, sometimes directly, of its inspirations and influences. Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Dying Fetus, and Krisiun at various points all have been the subject of imitation on a smaller or larger scale. Pennsylvania death metal combo Incantation weren’t part of that select group until sometime around 2008 when bands as Dead Congregation and Father Befouled sprung up and popularized the sound with those for whom the original was too difficult to comprehend. In the decade-plus since the first copycats wormed their way out of whatever unconsecrated ground they called home the original is still unsurpassed and in their old age have been experiencing something of a conceptual rejuvenation that knows no equal.

Since 2013 Lombardy, Italy-based Ekpyrosis has been conjuring something of a little infernal storm of themselves. Our introduction to them was with their commendable “Witness His Death” EP from 2015. While no paragon of originality it captured enough of that murky atmosphere that has been Incantation’s calling card since the very beginning. Two years later their proper debut “Asphyxiating Devotion” followed and while nothing fundamentally changed about Ekpyrosis’ sound in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t quite as narrow in how it choose to imitate Incantation. “Primordial Chaos Restored” continues that evolution and it sounds as if, slowly but surely, Ekpyrosis is etching out its own identity while staying loyal to the old masters. The only real significant change that Ekpyrosis underwent is the ousting of bass guitarist Marco Cazzaniga and the recruiting of Gianluca Carrara in his stead. The transition with Carrara is seamless and he debuts commendably on “Primordial Chaos Restored”. One of Ekpyrosis’ greatest strengths is the vocal interplay between Marco Teodoro and Nicolò Brambilla that is a dead ringer for both Daniel Corchado and John McEntee, but our favorite member is drummer Ilaria Casiraghi. Casiraghi (or Curly, as we frequently call her) is of the Kyle Severn, Rick Miah, and King Fowley school of drumming and probably understands better than anyone else that less is always more.

There’s something to be said about how well Ekpyrosis masters their chosen style when a track like ‘Abyssal Convergence’ sounds as if it was culled from “Profane Nexus” or a similar recent Incantation offering. ‘Instigation Of Entropy’ opens with a riff scheme reminiscent of ‘Desecration (Of the Heavenly Graceful)’. ‘Conception From Nothingness’ echoes ‘Sempiternal Pandemonium’ and ‘Crown Of Decayed Salvation’ at various points. ‘Chaos Condensing’ is an atmospheric acoustic instrumental and the first of its kind that Ekpyrosis has written, to our recollection at least. It seems only fitting that Ekpyrosis would conclude its latest EP with a faithful rendition of Incantation staple ‘Devoured Death’ (at least they were so smart not to cover ‘Profanation’, ‘Unholy Massacre’ or ‘Deliverance Of Horrific Prophecies’, which would be the obvious, and thus predictable, choices). It would be interesting to hear Ilaria tackle Dave Culross’ more technicaly challenging material from “The Infernal Storm”. At its best it’s almost impossible to tell Ekpyrosis apart from Incantation. At various points this really sounds like a long-lost Incantation recording, probably from somewhere between the Daniel Corchado, Mike Saez - and John McEntee fronted eras.

The Stockholm influence that permeated “Witness His Death” and parts of “Asphyxiating Devotion” has completely disappeared and Ekpyrosis is now fully embracing its ancient New York death metal sound. To fans of Incantation, Morpheus Descends, Autopsy, Winter, and the like this EP will sound instantly familiar and there are more than a few things to cling to. ‘Chaos Condensing’ is, by far, the most adventurous track present, primarily because it captures that old Italian horror atmosphere so wonderfully. Not that we’re expecting Ekpyrosis to suddenly turn all Goblin and go all psychotronic and psychedelic. This is about the last band where you’d expect funky bass licks like Fabio Pignatelli or mind-bending keyboards like Claudio Simonetti but the macabre horror atmosphere is certainly worth exploring further. Also not unimportant in this particular equation is the production from Carlo Altobelli. Rather befitting it leans more towards something murky as “Onward to Golgotha” than the bare-bones Sunlight Studio approximation of his earlier productions for this band.

What really sells “Primordial Chaos Restored” is the absolutely stellar cover drawing from Raoul Mazzero for View from the Coffin. It effectively captures the funereal, murky essence of the cavernous death metal that Incantation pioneered. In the second half of the nineties (when it was anything but trendy to imitate Incantation) Canadian one-man act Darkness Eternal pretty much reigned supreme in the field. These days the field is considerably more populated with all the good and bad that entails. Ekpyrosis clearly love the various incarnations of Incantation and “Primordial Chaos Restored” doesn’t focus on any era specifically. Ekpyrosis is, at least as far as we’re concerned, the leader in a growing movement of underground metal acts that steer away from the mechanical, sterile, and frankly, lifeless hyperspeed death metal that Hour Of Penance, Fleshgod Apocalypse, and Hideous Divinity have specialized in. They are, along with Ferum, Amthrya, and Resumed, the future of the Italian underground. The catacombs are churning and Ekpyrosis has been spat from the darkness. At some point this sort of death metal will become the norm again. To paraphrase Hellhammer: “Life is just an illusion, only Ilaria is real.