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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.

Plot: Italian model inherits Waldrick Castle in Germany, creepy relatives included

Malenka (released in English language territories as Fangs Of the Living Dead) was a Spanish-Italian co-production that was significant for being one of the first vampire films to emerge in Spain under the repressive regime of Generalísimo Francisco Franco. Allegedly inspired by The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) it was the first foray into horror for director Amando de Ossorio. De Ossorio was only preceded by Jacinto Molina Álvarez (Paul Naschy to the English-speaking world) and his The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) that proved that horror could be a viable genre in Spain. It's rather interesting that the Philippines, a Spanish colony, arrived at the vampire film earlier with Gerardo de Leon's The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood Of the Vampires (1966), both with Amalia Fuentes in the starring role. For the time Fangs Of the Living Dead at least attempted to push the envelope.

The primary selling point for Fangs Of the Living Dead is poorly dubbed Swedish star Anita Ekberg. Ekberg debuted in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), with her star rising thanks to appearances in War and Peace (1956), Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Boccaccio ’70 (1962). However by 1968 her career had taken a steep turn for the worse, and Ekberg would be making a living appearing in mostly Mediterreanean (Italian and Spanish) exploitation productions of dubious merit. Fangs Of the Living Dead was the last cinematic exploit for spaghetti western regular Adriana Ambesi who also had a role in the big budget John Huston production The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966) just three years earlier.

The remainder of the cast were veterans of Paul Naschy and Jesús Franco productions. Rosanna Yanni and Julián Ugarte worked earlier with Naschy on The Mark of the Wolfman (1968), and Yanni would do so again in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). For Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead she not only acted as one of the principal characters, but also served as its producer together with Adriana Ambesi. Yanni would also appear in The Amazons (1973) from former Bond director Terence Young. In 1962 Diana Lorys appeared in the Jesús Franco thriller The Awful Dr. Orloff before starring in a string of spaghetti westerns. Lorys had worked earlier with de Ossorio on the spaghetti western The Three from Colorado (1965). During the 1970s Lorys turned up in the Franco productions The Bloody Judge (1970) with Christopher Lee, and Nightmares Come at Night (1972) with late Franco muse Soledad Miranda in a relatively minor part. Not helping matters either was that Ugarte was only two years senior to Ekberg.

As a peculiar retelling of the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, Fangs Of the Living Dead concerns itself with Sylvia Morel (Anita Ekberg), an Italian model that looks suspiciously Nordic, who inherits the old family homestead of Waldrick Castle, somewhere in a remote region of Germany. Two weeks away from getting married to her fiancé Dr. Piero Luciani (Giani Medici, as John Hamilton), Sylvia rushes to inspect her inheritance. At the local tavern she meets barmaids and siblings Freya Zemis (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanny), and Bertha (Diana Lorys), both wearing low-cut dirndl dresses, the latter of whom wastes no time in making a pass at her client. When she announces that she’s the new Countess barmaids and villagers alike act as if they’ve seen a ghost. Meeting Count Walbrook (Julián Ugarte) at the castle estate, Morel enthusiastically declares “what an incredibly handsome uncle I have!” before kissing him on the cheek and noticing his icy coldness. Vladis (Fernando Bilbao) Walbrook’s trusty coachman, houseservant, and guard at this juncture chooses to dispense information to Morel about her uncle’s nocturnal habits in the castle.

That night Sylvia is woken up by Blinka (Adriana Ambesi, as Audrey Ambert) who wears an incredibly revealing funeral dress, describes herself as one of her uncle’s former mistresses, and prefers to talk about herself in the third person. Not having properly rubbed the sleep from her eyes Sylvia is overcome by Blinka, who doesn’t hesitate to make a pass on her. Moments later Walbrook storms in, forcefully removing Blinka from Morel’s room, and whipping her into subservience in one of the adjacent chambers in a scene that must have been provocative and daring for the time. At this point Walbrook shows Sylvia an ancestral portrait which is said to be her maligned great-grandmother Malenka, “a brilliant biochemist!” and alchemist that dabbled in black magic, and experiments in necro-biology. Transgressions for which she was burned “at the stake in the town square” by a pitchfork-and-torches brandishing mob of mortally terrified - or “a murderous, ignorant crowd” as Walbrook describes them - villagers. Having put Sylvia under his spell the Count tries to turn her in a blood ritual that doesn’t follow typical vampire lore. As a last resort he coerces her to call off her engagement, to follow the voice of blood and join him in the halls of eternity. Sylvia is, of course, none too sure about any of it...

Piero Luciani and his comic relief buddy Max (César Benet, as Guy Roberts) travel to the castle but are denied admittance by Vladis. In the town they seek the assistance of Dr. Horbinger (Carlos Casaravilla), the disgraced and now continually inebriated town physician that believes in the vampire myth. Luciani shrugs it off as “nonsense” and before long the trio are headed off to Waldrick Castle to put end to Count Walbrook’s unholy reign of terror. Will they be able to free Sylvia? Is Walbrook truly a vampire as he suggests? Fangs Of the Living Dead exists in several different versions. First there's a 75-80 min. US print with producer-mandated alternate ending that de Ossorio reluctantly filmed, then there's a 96-98 min. European print, probably of Dutch origin, that includes additional science exposition, and dialog scenes but omits the alternate ending. Finally there is the original Spanish Malenka print with the ending as envisioned and intended by its director.

The ancient undead already played a prominent part in Naschy's The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) and they were the focal point of de Leon's The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood Of the Vampires (1966). Fangs Of the Living Dead pilfers both of de Leon's vampire exercises in terms of plot. The vampire craze would reach a climax in 1973 with the release of Count Dracula’s Great Love, León Klimovsky’s The Dracula Saga (which all but steals the plot of Fangs Of the Living Dead), Joe Sarno's low-key Vampire Ecstasy and Luigi Batzella’s The Devil’s Wedding Night. Compared to these later outings Fangs Of the Living Dead is rather demure and prudish as was expected under Franco's military dictatorship. For a late 60s continental European production it at least tries to be provocative with its scenes of punitive whipping, implied sapphic liaisons and by putting the major female cast members (Lorys, Yanni and Ambesi) in very flattering low-cut dresses.

Fangs Of the Living Dead might not be the most stimulating of the form, but it benefits tremendously from its location. Waldrick Castle, or the chateau standing in for it, is filled with darkened hallways, candle- and torchlit mausoleums; shadowy, cobwebbed crypts, and opulent chambers. As a gothic horror piece Fangs Of the Living Dead eschews from both blood and nudity, but as Hammer Horror before it each of the actresses is put in skimpy dresses that allow as much bare skin as possible. The more voluptuous Rosanna Yanni and Adriana Ambesi regularly struggle to keep their assets contained in their dresses. What it lacks in technical polish it compensates with a sweltering sense of Mediterranean darkness and a melancholic organ, violin and harmonium score from Carlo Savina. The English language dub is atrocious even by 1960s exploitation standards. Amando de Ossorio would truly come into his own with his much lauded second horror feature Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), which spawned two sequels of its own, and with the amiable The Loreleys Grasp (1973) with Helga Liné and Silvia Tortosa.