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Plot: fair maiden is haunted by strange dreams and stranger occurrences.

There wouldn’t much of a global gothic horror industry, especially in continental Europe, if it weren’t for the British house of Hammer reimagining the old Universal horror monsters for the new times in the fifties and sixties. The Spanish language countries (Spain, México, the Philippines) as well as Italy took the gothic horror formula of Hammer Films and gave it a regional flavor all their own. Each country played up the genre to its cultural sensibilities/prejudices. While generally playing by the same rules and conventions there are distinct differences between continental European gothic horrors and their South/Latin American counterparts. Hammer’s influence was so strong that even Pakistan contributed to the genre in 1967 with Zinda Laash or Dracula In Pakistan (or alternatively The Living Corpse) as it became internationally. The Italian gothic horror ostensibly took after Riccardo Freda’s and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957) and the Hammer production The Horror Of Dracula (1958). However, the tides of change were washing over Mediterranean gothic horror by the mid-sixties and interest in them was waning. To accomodate the changing tastes Terror In the Crypt upstaged the old formula with a hefty dose of implied lesbianism and witchcraft.

La cripta e l'incubo (or The Crypt and the Nightmare, released internationally as simply Terror In the Crypt and alternatively as Crypt Of the Vampire in North America) is an interesting case for an international co-production. Helmed by an Italian director and crew the two name stars of the feature were Spanish exploitation pillar Adriana Ambesi as well Hammer Films icon Christopher Lee. Lee would complete his detour into Italian gothic horror with Castle Of the Living Dead (1964) the same year. With a screenplay from Tonino Valerii (as Robert Bohr), Ernesto Gastaldi (as Julian Berry) and José Luis Monter Terror In the Crypt is a distinctly Italian affair. Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla has long been an inspiration for the gothic horror genre and frequently served as a foundation for many productions. The earliest adaptation was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960). In the early seventies Hammer Films, then ailing and struggling to keep up with the changing times and tastes, used it for The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971). Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Velvet Vampire (1971) and The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) set the Carmilla story in then-contemporary times. Terror In the Crypt is distinct for being a more or less faithful adaptation of the famous 1872 LeFanu novel. While some of character names have been changed it covers most, if not all, major plotpoints and adds some Italian flair to it all. Filming at Castello Piccolomini in Balsorano, L'Aquila, Italy aided immensely too. As one of the country’s famous horror castles it would feature in Crimson Executioner (1965), Lady Frankenstein (1971), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Black Magic Rites (1973) (or The Reincarnation Of Isabel as it’s more widely known), Sister Emanuelle (1977) and the infamous Andrea Bianchi romp Malabimba (1979). Half a decade before Adriana Ambesi steamed up the screen in Spain’s first vampire movie Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), she experienced Terror In the Crypt.

In a grand castle amid a great vast forest in Styria lives lovelorn and lonely Laura Karnstein (Adriana Ambesi, as Audry Amber) with her affluent father Count Ludwig Karnstein (Christopher Lee, as Cristopher Lee), an aristocratic Briton widower retired from service to the Austrian Empire, and his nubile trophy wife Annette (Véra Valmont, as Vera Valmont). Laura has been suffering recurring nightmares wherein she sees family members coming to a gruesome end. Her most recent nightmares see the slaying of her cousin Tilda (Angela Minervini) and the dreams have Laura sufficiently startled. Looking after Laura’s well-being are maid Rowena (Nela Conjiu, as Nela Conjiú) and butler Cedric (José Villasante). Fearing that Laura might be possessed by the witch Scirra of Karnstein, who centuries ago cursed the Karnstein bloodline, Count Ludwig calls upon the services of historian Friedrich Klauss (José Campos). Klauss is tasked with reconstructing Scirra’s life and finding a portrait of her deep within the castle’s time-worn vaults.

One day a carriage accident brings Lyuba (Pier Anna Quaglia, as Ursula Davis) and her mother (Carla Calò, as Cicely Clayton) into the Karnstein household. The two girls immediately recognize each other from a dream and a strong bond grows between the two. The two grow inseperatable and Lyuba suggests they visit the ruins of the village of Karnstein. In the meantime housekeeper Rowena is revealed to be a practitioner of the black arts but she is brutally murdered before her spells and imprecations can accomplish anything. Count Ludwig and Friedrich continue their search for Scirra’s portrait and her tomb. The two eventually find the hidden portrait and are startled that Scirra bears a very strong likeness to young Lyuba. The search for Scirra’s coffin leads them to the discovery that Franz Karnstein (John Karlsen), Tilda’s griefstruck father, had been hiding in the castle bowels all this time. The three pry open Scirra’s tomb only to find Lyuba lying within instead. The three drive a stake through Lyuba’s heart lifting the age-old Karnstein curse and making Lyuba’s black carriage disappear just as Laura was about to board.

Along with fellow British expatriate Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee stayed employed in the fantastic – and horror cinema of continental Europe from the mid-to-late sixties. Steele famously became a royalty in Italian gothic horror. In her decade-long tenure Steele played in about a dozen of Italian productions, nine of which were horror. Lee, on the other hand, appeared only in about four. Also on hand is John Karlsen, later of Belgian arthouse vampire romp Daughters Of Darkness (1971). Adriana Ambesi was a regular in peplum, chorizo western and comedy. In her 14-year long career she ventured into horror a meager three times. Ambesi had crossed paths with Lee before in Giuseppe Veggezzi’s presumably-lost Katarsis (1963) and would do so again here. Towards the end of the decade she would play a supporting role in Amando de Ossorio’s gothic horror potboiler Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) opposite of Anita Ekberg, Rosanna Yanni and Diana Lorys. Pier Anna Quaglia would star in that other Barbara Steele gothic An Angel For Satan (1966) as well as the jungle adventure Eve, the Wild Woman (1968), the comedy Alfredo Alfredo (1972) (with Dustin Hoffman and Stefania Sandrelli) and the giallo Reflections in Black (1975). Terror In the Crypt benefits tremendously from a portent, pompous score from Carlo Savina (as Herbert Buckman) who infuses it with copious amounts of theremin, clarinet, harp and ominous washes of organ. It’s something straight out of a fifties science fiction production. The “K” emblem from The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) can also been seen and there’s a witch trial similar to that of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).

Compared to earlier gothic horrors of the sixties Terror In the Crypt is far more pronounced in its eroticism. Laura is initially paired up with Friedrich Klauss, but no chemistry to speak of develops between the two. It isn’t until Laura meets Lyuba that the obligatory romantic liaison with Klauss is discarded completely. It’s implied that Laura and Lyuba share a much deeper bond beyond that of an ordinary friendship. While bereft of any actual nudity Laura finds herself frequently sleepwalking and waking up topless in the castle chambers. Likewise does Lyuba sleep without a top on and although both Ambesi and Quaglia weren’t in the habit of flaunting their chests Terror In the Crypt is quite risqué for the time. A precedent with on-screen disrobing in Italian gothic horror was set with The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and Castle Of Blood (1964) that saw brief nude scenes from Maria Giovannini and Sylvia Sorrente, respectively.

In Terror In the Crypt Ambesi will always have her back to the camera and Quaglia is modestly covered by bedsheets which doesn’t change the fact that it is far more liberated in its portrayal of sexualty than Roberto Mauri’s The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1964). Where that movie hinged upon the bountiful decolettage of Graziella Granata here Ambesi and Quaglia each have a scene of implied nudity. Not only that, likewise it’s implied that Laura and Lyuba are engaged in a sapphic tryst. That Count Ludwig has a mistress young enoug to be his daughter with Annette almost a full decade before the pairing of Narciso Ibáñez Menta and Helga Liné in The Dracula Saga (1973) is at least prescient of where the genre was headed. It all sets the stage for the wicked and wild seventies when permissive attitudes allowed an increased focus on erotic tension between female characters and a greater amount of on-screen nudity.

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.