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Plot: Hercules undertakes an epic quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece

The peplum, or sword-and-sandal, reigned supreme over the Italian cinematic landscape from 1958 to 1965, even though it was practiced well into the mid-seventies. The movie to launch the peplum phenomenom was Pietro Francisci’s unassuming and somewhat pulpy The Labors Of Hercules – released in North America as Hercules and domestically as le fatiche di Ercole – whose success had producers scrambling to launch their own pepla to capitalize on its box office success. The Labors Of Hercules laid out the groundwork and established the conventions that the peplum would adhere to for the next two decades. More importantly, it introduced the world to American strongman Steve Reeves, the image of perfection to which all subsequent Hercules would be measured.

The Latin term peplum is derived from the Greek peplon, and, according to the writings of Plautus and Virgil, designates the primitive dress of Greek women and, in particular, the tunic of Pallas Athena, while other sources define it as a Roman ceremonial mantle. It was French critic Jacques Siclier who first used the term - in an article titled L'âge du peplum in the prestigious Cahiers du Cinéma in the summer of 1963 – describing a specific brand of Italian costume drama set in the ancient world with muscle-bound historical, religious, gladiatorial, archetypical heroes in the lead role. Central in many peplum were the fantastic, and mythological adventures of Greco-Roman historical figures as Hercules, Samson, Goliath, Ursus, Atlas, and the fictional Maciste. Many of the non-Hercules protagonists were based of, or derived from, characters appearing in classic Hollywood peplum they sought to imitate. The peplum was almost exclusive to Mediterranean Europe, specifically Italy, France and Spain. The peplum genre never aimed for historical, or mythological, accuracy – instead they chose the most marketable elements from whichever Hellenic legend, myth, and poem sounded most appealing.

Director Pietro Francisci envisioned his own peplum after the commercial success of the Kirk Douglas-Anthony Quinn peplum Ulysses (1954). The production needed a hulking presence as lead man, as per the template set by Bartolomeo Pagano in Cabiria (1914). Years of searching for the right man came to an end when Francisci’s daughter suggested Steve Reeves, an American body builder and Mr. Universe 1950, after having seen him in Athena (1954). Reeves’ portrayal of the original Hercules allowed bodybuilders around the world to enter the industry. Following in his footsteps were the likes of Gordon Mitchell, Adriano Bellini (as Kirk Morris), Mickey Hargitay, Lou Degni (as Mark Forest), Sergio Ciani (as Alan Steel), Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus (as Rock Stevens), Mike Lane, and Lou Ferrigno. The Labors Of Hercules became one of the biggest box office hits, both foreign and domestic, that it prompted a peplum cotton industry in its native Italy, and in the neighboring countries of Spain and France. In its native Italy alone it grossed 887 million lire, or four times its budget – in addition to another 18 million in box office revenue worldwide thanks to the promotional efforts of its American distributor Joseph E. Levine. A year later a largely similar sequel followed with Hercules and the Queen Of Lidia, released in North America as Hercules Unchained. Again, thanks to Levine's savvy, it became a box office smash.

Steve Reeves as Hercules and Sylva Koscina as Iole

The Labors Of Hercules does indeed have its titular hero (Steve Reeves) completing two of the Twelve Labors in defeating the Nemean Lion, and the Cretan Bull. However the majority of its plot is derived from the Argonautica, the 3rd century BC Greek epic poem by Apollonius Rhodius, chronicling the myth of the voyage of Jason (Fabrizio Mionzi) retrieving the Golden Fleece from Colchis. In fifties western fashion The Labors Of Hercules opens with the hulking hunk rescueing the dashing princess Iole (Sylva Koscina) of Iolcus from certain death as her chariot storms towards a cliff. Meanwhile Pelias (Ivo Garrani), the king of Iolcus, has to deal with the treacherous Eurysteus (Arturo Dominici) in his court. Prior his quest Hercules seeks counsel of the prophetess The Sybil (Lidia Alfonsi, as Lydia Alfonsi) whereas Iole does the same in Thessaly with her multiple handmaidens, one of which is played by Luciana Paluzzi (as Luciana Paoluzzi). In an early flashback young Iole is played by Paola Quattrini. A good portion is spent on chronicling the trials and tribulations Hercules, Jason, and the Argonauts face crossing the Aegean Sea. They land at Lemnos, situated off the Western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), the island of the Amazons, presided over by Antea (Gianna Maria Canale) where the gentlemen enjoy the warrior women’s hospitality. Towards the end some Samson is thrown in. It’s all fairly standard peplum business until in the third act the pulp comes to the fore as Jason and Hercules are forced to battle the dragon Ladon, a creature bearing a remarkable resemblance to Godzilla (1954), a movie that Levine had distributed three years earlier.

Lidia Alfonsi as the oracle The Sybil

While leading man Steve Reeves was fairly new to acting Francisci assembled an ensemble of recognizable faces for the remainder of the cast. Reeves allegedly was paid $40,000 US cash for the part, a considerable salary for the time. Later Reeves was allegedly offered the roles of James Bond by producer Cubby Broccoli and The Man With No Name, the part that cemented Clint Eastwood as an icon of Italian exploitation, by spaghetti western specialist Sergio Leone. Croatian actress Sylva Koscina was a regular in Italian dramas and comedies during the fifties. Gianna Maria Canale had prior starred in the original Italian version of Spartacus (1953) – famously remade by Stanley Kubrick in 1960 with Kirk Douglas starring and producing – as well as in Theodora, Slave Empress (1954) and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957). Lidia Alfonsi would cross paths with Reeves again in Morgan, the Pirate (1960) and The Trojan Horse (1961). Alfonsi would find steady work in Italian television afterwards. Luciana Paluzzi, obviously a star in the marking given her bit part here, was Bond Girl Fiona Volpe in Thunderball (1965), played opposite of Farley Granger in A Black Veil for Lisa (1968), as well as being present in the Kinji Fukasaku science fiction opus The Green Slime (1968) and the Arabian Nights cheapie 1001 Nights (1968). Paluzzi returned to the peplum genre as Phaedra, the betrothed of Theseus in Terence Young’s campy shlockfest The Amazons (1973).

Distinct not only for being the first of its kind The Labors Of Hercules is far slower and with fewer action scenes compared to the many imitations that it spawned in the ensueing two decades. It was one of the last productions by Federico Teti and The Labors Of Hercules possesses a sense of scale that would be largely absent from the 1970s excursions into the genre once the peplum was no longer deemed profitable. It’s also far more technically proficient than the imitations that followed in its wake. The cinematography by Mario Bava, son of Italy’s first special effects artisan Eugenio Bava, makes use of vivid colors, long shadows, and painting-like composition, and contrasting light and shadow. Mario Bava would in the 1960s and 70s establish himself as the master of Italian gothic horror and giallo murder mysteries. American distributor Joseph E. Levine bought the English dubbed version for a modest $120,000, shortened the title to simply Hercules, relied on radio, television and word-of-mouth promotion to stir interest in the movie and booked it across 600 theaters nationwide, a practice now known as saturation – and one practically unheard of during the 1950s. The Labors Of Hercules made $4.7 million in domestic ticketsales in North America alone. Its influence on the pepla of the following two decades is undeniable, and directors would continue to borrow from the kitschy shenanigans of Pietro Francisci’s sword-and-sandal epic.

Actress. Activist. Influencer. YouTube celebrity. Filmmaker. Screenwriter. Model. Nudist. Playboy Playmate. Now add MCing to the ever-growing list of credentials of rags to riches entrepreneur Stormi Maya, the curvaceous wonder of nature from New York for whom no challenge is ever too great. On “Body Of Work” Maya teams up with producer Donald Robinson Cole (or Megadon) and is a quarter of an hour long throwback to some of the smoothest 80s and 90s hiphop nostalgia. The EP boasts two potential hit singles and has some of the catchiest beats of recent memory. Not only is Stormi Maya glib and easy to look at, her clever lyrics cut fast and deep. There's far more to this girl than a wealthy chest and ever-shrinking pieces of fabric. After having bared her body, Stormi Maya now bares her soul.

Who is Stormi Maya? She’s a multi-talented, clothing averse bombshell from the Bronx of mixed Hispanic-Irish descent that started modeling at the tender age of sixteen and cut her teeth in community theaters in the New York area. From there she reinvented herself as a YouTube celebrity and Instagram babe. In no time Stormi Maya was setting the internet alight with her bikini and lingerie pictures. Naturally Playboy followed and her October 2015 spread was such a raving success in the Croatian, Venezuelan and Slovenian editions that Playboy publishing barely was able to meet the demand in what has been called the fastest turnaround in the magazine’s history. One thing led to another and before long Stormi Maya was directing her own shorts and writing her own screenplays. Together with fellow model Alanna Forte, Stormi Maya is one of the regulars in the stock company from Californian fringe filmmaker Rene Perez. More recently she could be seen in the Spike Lee Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It. In short, Stormi Maya is a self-made woman who’s constantly looking to branch out. It’s only logical that after modeling and acting, a music career would be the next big thing.

If there’s one thing that Stormi undeniably is, it’s fun. She's one ambitious, fiercely intelligent, hard partyin' piece of eye candy. Like early Eminem she’ll poke fun at anyone and anything just because she can. Alliterative opener ‘Conscious Coochie’ is a club banger laced with porn samples that would make Gorgasm and Lividity proud. Don’t be confused by the persisting sampled moans as Stormi discusses her sexuality and prowess in the sack. In ‘Fake Ass Titties’, the EP’s tour de force and crowning achievement, Stormi candidly admits that she likes “big ass titties like everyone else.” The earworm chorus hammers the point home in case anybody was otherwise distracted. Maya is a woman clearly comfortable in her own skin and what better call for more body positivity than from a model that famously bared hers? ‘Thick Skin’ chronicles her experiences with celebritydom, cyberbullying and the darker side of fan culture. ‘Mouth Do’ is an eloquent protest against the entrenched but still socially accepted male behavior of catcalling, something in dire need of changing. ‘Aphro Puff’ is a seething scorcher that puts detractors that question her blackness in place. Nothing is more powerful than a woman unafraid to voice exactly what’s on her chest. Hers is even legendary in her own time.

Maya’s lyrics are thick on sexual innuendo and full of tacky witticisms and asides that recall the best of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. Stormi is rightly indignant about a lot of things but none of her raps are overly vulgar or full of gratuitous expletives. In 'Mouth Do' and 'Aphro Puff' the few strategically placed F-bombs hit with untold power and surgical precision. Stormi Maya is an outspoken feminist and that's exactly what the hiphop world needs right now. In these times of #metoo “Body Of Work” is a natural and timely response against everything from toxic masculinity, to the recent allegations leveled at Hollywood moguls Harvey Weinstein and Luc Besson but especially in light of Ke$ha’s protracted court battle against her producer Dr. Luke, one that almost ended costing her her livelihood. Nothing on “Body Of Work” is left to the imagination, from the artwork to the music videos and the lyrics – everything is there for a reason. It’s all part of a larger plan. In just a scant 16 minutes Stormi Maya touches upon everything from sex-positive feminism, bodylove, social – and economic inequalities, to celebrity culture and the patriarchy. How often does a debut coincide with recent events? Not all that often.

This being an EP Stormi lets not a single second go to waste and given how brief “Body Of Work” is, it's free of needless intros, interludes, commercial breaks, and random sonic asides that clutter up albums in this genre. Brevity is Maya’s greatest ally. 5 songs, 16 minutes. It’s enough to whet anyone’s appetite as to what she'd able to cook up in a full album format. A full Stormi Maya album is only a matter of time at this point. Her collaboration with Megadon has resulted in an unbelievably smooth production ensuring that this could be picked up by radio channels across the world. As a general rule we’d don’t ofen venture out of comfort zone when it comes to music, but Stormi Maya has massive cross-market appeal. It’s the perfect antithesis to what passes as hiphop these days. For a throwback to 80s and 90s hiphop you could do far worse. That this EP comes from a small independent artist makes it all the better. Hopefully Stormi Maya will be returning with a follow-up to this debut EP sooner rather than later.