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Plot: rogue gods plan to overthrow Mount Olympus, lone muscleman intervenes

The first wave of Italian peplum lasted from 1958 to 1965 as Meditterranean directors and producers made use of the lavish sets left behind by American productions and smaller-scale sword-and-sandals adventures replaced the more serious Biblical and Greco-Roman epics of the forties and fifties. Pietro Francisci’s The Labors Of Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959), both with Steve Reeves as the titular demigod, ushered in the arrival of a more pulpy, kitschy peplum. By 1962 the first Italian peplum wave was cresting and outliers started to appear. One such example was Emimmo Salvi’s fantasy mash-up Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter (1962) with Iranian strongman Iloosh Khoshabe, Cuban import Bella Cortez and Gordon Mitchell. Cortez and Mitchell had figured into the entertainingly delirious The Giant Of Metropolis (1961), duly pilfered by Alfonso Brescia for his The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965), which Salvi wrote and produced. That Pietro Francisci would direct Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963), widely considered the last great Italian sword-and-sandal epic, is more than fitting.

Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter was the first Italian sword-and-sandal production to be filmed on location in Iran with a mostly Italian cast and crew. The feature was produced by Spartaco Antonucci and Manouchehr Zamani. Zamani cast Iloosh Khoshabe, a star of movies from Shapur Yasami and Esmail Kushan and who Zamani himself had directed once or twice – for release in the domestic market. That Zamani would cast Khoshabe, who sports a Steve Reeves beard and a Kirk Morris glistening chest, in the first English-language peplum production in Iran is only logical. Emimmo Salvi first worked as a production assistant from 1953 to 1958. From there he was promoted to screenwriter and later ascended to the director’s chair with this production. In an interesting twist he contributed to the screenplay for Umberto Scarpelli’s The Giant Of Metropolis (1961), before helming a duo of Arabian Nights adventure yarns with The Seven Tasks of Ali Baba (1962) and Ali Baba and the Seven Saracens (1964) as well as the Wagnerian epic The Stone Forest (1965). Salvi’s features often starred Gordon Mitchell and Bella Cortez. When the peplum dried up Salvi took to directing a few spaghetti westerns and an Eurospy romp before retiring. Bella Cortez was a skinny, long blackhaired, hourglass figured belle from Oriente, Cuba who briefly acted from 1961 to 1966 and starred in about a dozen, mostly peplum, productions. Cortez graced magazine covers from Italy to Yugoslavia and Switzerland and was romantically involved with director Emimmo Salvi. If Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter is retroactively famous for one thing, it’s that Luigi Cozzi lifted the plot wholesale for his equally entertaining The Adventures Of Hercules (1985) with Lou Ferrigno, Sonia Viviani and Milly Carlucci.

On Mount Olympus king of the gods Jupiter (Furio Meniconi) intervenes in a tryst of Venus (Annie Gorassini) with the mortal Adonis by throwing a lightning bolt at him. In his court Jupiter announces that Venus is to be wedded to either Mars (Roger Browne) or Vulcan (Iloosh Khoshabe, as Rod Flash Ilush), the latter who has been working in the Olympian forgery on a sword for Achilles. Angered by Jupiter’s decision Venus forms an alliance with Mars and Pluto (Gordon Mitchell, as Mitchell Gordon) to overthrow Jupiter and Olympus. When Venus partly disrobes and throws herself at Vulcan, this draws the ire of her beau Mars resulting in the inevitable fight in the smithy. Pending his decision Jupiter casts both men to Earth. Not helping matters either is Erida (Edda Ferronao) sowing discord among the Olympian gods. Vulcan awakens drowsily on the shores of Sicily where he is promptly rescued by the scandily-clad Aetna (Bella Cortez), who wears what amounts to a very skimpy cheerleader outfit, and her nubile nymphs.

Meanwhile Mars and Venus convince Thracian warlord Milos (Ugo Sabetta) to erect a tower reaching Olympus. No sooner has Vulcan been rescued by the Sicilian nymphs they are attacked by a tribe of scaly, fanged Lizard Men and summarily imprisoned. Vulcan is tortured by the Lizard Men until they are freed by Geo (Salvatore Furnari). Geo proves to be strategically important as he can summon a Triton to bring them to the realm of Neptune (Omero Gargano), who vows to help Vulcan. Before setting out on his quest Vulcan is treated to a tantalizing dance of veils from Aetna. Cortez’ little routine obviously took some inspiration from Anita Ekberg’s dance from the Terence Young directed Arabian Nights adventure Zarak (1956). After the dance Mercurius (Isarco Ravaioli) briefly engages himself toying with the gemstone jewel in Aetna’s navel. In the grand finale the forces of Neptune and Thrace come to a clash, Vulcan challenges Mars in man-to-man combat and Aetna and Venus all duke it out. It’s a battle so ineptly staged that Jupiter calls from the heavens above for all to lay down their weapons.

For a production with no budget to speak of Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter was able to assemble quite a cast. It was the first English-language production for Iloosh Khoshabe, and Bella Cortez was well on her way in becoming a peplum fixture thanks to her radiant looks, dancing skills, and with titles as The Tartars (1961), the science-fiction mash-up The Giant Of Metropolis (1962), and the Arabian Nights double whammy The Seven Tasks of Ali Baba (1962) and Ali Baba and the Seven Saracens (1964). Roger Browne in a few years hence would figure into the fumetti Argoman (1967), Samoa, Queen of the Jungle (1968), and The War Of the Robots (1978). Edda Ferronao would star in The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1964) two years later. Isarco Ravaioli was a beloved character actor with titles as diverse as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), the fumetti Diabolik (1968) and Satanik (1968), the Eurowar romp Heroes Without Glory (1971) and the barbarian movie The Throne Of Fire (1983). Annie Gorassini was a comedic actress that worked with everybody from Federico Fellini, Pietro Francisci to Lucio Fulci, Bruno Corbucci and Emimmo Salvi. Famous in their own way were Salvatore Furnari and Franco Doria, probably the most recognizable dwarfen actors of the day.

Granted it never quite reaches the same level of kitsch as The Giant Of Metropolis (1961) and it isn’t as out-there as The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) later in the decade. Furio Meniconi wears a really bad wig, Omero Gargano’s Neptune looks sort of drowsy and the rubber suits from the Lizard Men are even worse than that of Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreleys Grasp (1973) about ten years later. Jupiter’s bold of lightning was crudely scratched onto the film to reach the desired effect. Primitive does not quite convey just how crude these special effects are. The action choreography and the fights are as lamentable, clunky and stilted as they come. Italy after all is, was and never would be Hong Kong or Japan and nobody in the cast had any formal combat training. Khoshabe, Browne and Mitchell acquit themselves admirably enough, and the catfight between Cortez and Gorassini is a lot better than it has any right to be. Which doesn’t mean any of the fights are good or at least believably staged. The Lizard Men were an interesting addition but they are discarded almost as soon as they are introduced and their subplot goes nowhere virtually immediately. Likewise does the Thracian tower subplot never amount to anything, even though the characters make it out to be important for a good while. Venus ensnares gods and mortals by wielding her most common superpower. In Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon aren’t all that different from the mortals they apparently so despise.

With a showing this abysmal, no wonder special effects man Roberto Parapetti would never be heard of again. Iloosh Khoshabe, Roger Browne and Gordon Mitchell are sufficiently oiled and practically bare-chested the entire time. Bella Cortez, Annie Gorassini, and Edda Ferronao unfortunately are not but they wear the skimpiest of tunics – and it’s puzzling that Cortez never became a bigger star than she ended up being. Certainly her appearance and bellydance routine in The Seven Revenges (1961) should have landed her bigger opportunities than the ones she ended up getting. Gorassini obviously has a lot of fun in the role of duplicitious Venus, who is prone to disrobing to have men doing her bidding, and her experience as a comedic actress evidently helps tremendously. The throne room on Mount Olympus seems perpetually enshrouded in smoke and dry ice and it’s not quite as lush and opulent as it probably should have been. The production values are nothing to write home about and match the early Alfonso Brescia catalog. Evidently the first wave of peplum was cresting and the lack of resources available to the production makes that painfully clear. The battles lack in scope and scale and the gods act far too much like the petty and vindictive mortals they use as peons.

There isn’t a whole lot to recommend if you are looking for a quality peplum, but as these things go, you could do far worse than Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter. It’s thoroughly entertaining for the rank pulp that it is. Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter is the sort of historical curiosity that - while available in the public domain and from companies as Mill Creek Entertainment, often in prints of dubious quality and origin - should be given a proper restoration and remastering. It certainly no classic peplum and whatever merits can be bestowed upon it is that it features an ensemble cast of sorts. The first cycle of peplum was winding down and productions as Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter would never have been greenlit if it weren’t for companies completely milking a concept until audiences no longer showed up in cineplexes. The peplum would experience a resurgence (as would gothic horror) in the next decade, but they’d never command the resources they once had in the fifties and early sixties. Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter borders on the satirical but it never transcends into the realm of send-up or spoof. Perhaps it would have worked far better acting as such. It’s not exactly tedious, but it isn’t spectacular in its wretchedness enough either. It’s still sufficiently awful by any reasonable standard, and the terrible dubbing is always a hoot with this sort of productions. At least there’s Bella Cortez.

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.