Monday, July 28, 2014

It Came from the '80s: Hercules (1983)

by Patrick Bromley
Before The Rock...there was Ferrigno.

More than any other Greek myth, the legend of Hercules has been brought to the screen again and again. Beginning with the original 1957 Hercules with Steve Reeves, the character appeared in 20 films over the next eight years. He has been played by a number of actors. He has gone to Hell. He has met The Three Stooges. He has been played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first film role) in 1970's Hercules in New York (aka Hercules Goes Bananas). He has been turned into a popular Disney cartoon. He had his own long-running syndicated series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Just this year alone he's been on the big screen twice, once played by sentient roast beef Kellan Lutz in The Legend of Hercules and, most recently, by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in Brett Ratner's Hercules.

None are as burned in my memory as much as 1983's Hercules starring Lou Ferrigno, a movie I desperately wanted to see when I was six years old but somehow went another 30 years without catching. Why did I want to see this thing so badly? Here are some theories.

1. Lou Ferrigno. At six years old, I was deep in the throes of my obsession with The Incredible Hulk, both the character and the TV series on which Ferrigno played the green, gamma-radiated goliath. This was the chance to see him come into his own! To get out from under Bixby's massive shadow! To Take the spotlight sans green makeup and prove to the world he's a great actor! He is not a great actor.
2. Lou Ferrigno looking like Hercules. I've spoken before about my older brother being way into fantasy when I was young. Part of that meant he constantly had fantasy paperbacks checked out from the public library laying around our shared room. I was too young to read them, so I would just stare at the covers (which were undoubtedly better than the stories contained within). The poster art for Hercules looked just like one of those paperbacks, and Ferrigno looked like the physical embodiment of what was once only possible in drawings.

3. A love of Greek mythology. As a kid, I was waaay into Greek myths. It's part of what made me so cool -- a coolness that has clearly carried through to adulthood. Though I had a brief fascination with Tall Tales, I was primarily reading Greek mythology when I wasn't reading non-fiction books about classic monster movies. Theseus was technically my favorite hero (I don't know why; probably because I thought minotaurs were cool), with Hercules a close second. Part of me is now thinking that Hercules was one of my favorites because I pictured Lou Ferrigno and not the other way around -- that it was my desire to see Hercules at age 6 that sparked my interest in Greek mythology. Clearly, this is a classic chicken/egg scenario. I was a weird kid.

With the popularity of Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian, it makes sense that in 1983, my beloved Cannon Films would attempt to build their own knock-off franchise with Arnold's muscle-bound contemporary and Pumping Iron adversary Lou Ferrigno. What they did not count on was that Schwarzenegger is a born movie star, and Lou Ferrigno is very, very much not.

Though the onscreen director's credit is for "Lewis Coates," we now know that the film is written and directed by the great Luigi Cozzi, the man responsible Starcrash, a movie I really love, as well as the execrable Contamination, a movie I really don't. What's with Cannon trying to hide the fact that the director is Italian? I know that kind of thing was commonplace then, but because we now live in a time when that sort of thing is a selling point for us genre fans, so it's hard to conceive of the fact that it used to be a secret. I'll watch anything Luigi Cozzi directs. I could give a shit about this Lewis Coates asshole.

Hercules begins with the creation the universe. I KNOW. Way to back up, guys. How did the universe begin? I'm so glad you asked. It was an EXPLODING JAR. An ugly, bedazzled jar you wouldn't bother to touch at a garage sale explodes and creates the planets.
Yep, that's the one.
Wig Zeus, who spends the movie floating around in space and narrating certain events (when the actual narrator of the movie isn't narrating), sends the light released from the exploding creation jar into the body of an Earth baby, which becomes Baby Herc. Baby Herc grows up in Thebes, but the palace guard and his sexy Ariadne (Sybil Danning) stage a coup and start killing everyone in the city, Baby Herc is rescued by a peasant woman and sent down river on a raft (just before the peasant woman is shot with an arrow and killed). Baby Herc kills a snake puppet with his bare hands. Then he becomes Lou Ferrigno.

Hercules is raised on a farm by Ma and Pa Kent. One day Hera (Roseanna Podesta), who has continually tried to kill Hercules, sends a bear to kill Herc. Instead, it mauls and murders Pa Kent. Herc throws the bear into outer space, because fuck bears. Then Hera tasks evil wizard Minos (William Berger) with killing Hercules. Minos calls upon Daedalus, who produces three big ass mechanical monsters to do the job (because Luigi Cozzi clearly hasn't gotten Starcrash out of his system). Once again, Hercules isn't killed but Ma Kent is. Now an orphan, Hercules leaves home and joins a tournament in which he must compete in a bunch of tests. One of the more famous of the Hercules stories is covered in a scene or two that amounts to nothing. He smashes some people with a tree and then throws the tree into space, because Hercules uses outer space as his fucking garbage dump. His last test is to clean the stables (not so much "test" as "slave labor"), where he meets the gorgeous Cassiopeia (Ingrid Anderson), who wears a veil because the first man to see her face will marry her. Before you can say "Girl, drop that veil" Herc cleans the stables and she drops the veil. I guess they're in love? It doesn't matter, because they are ambushed and kidnapped by Ariadne. Hercules is dumped into the ocean and left for dead.

I'm fucking exhausted and this still just feels like the setup. It's not. We're into the movie proper, so why does it feel like we're still waiting for things to get started?
Herc washes up on an island and meets a witch, who turns out to be the super hot sorceress Circe (Mirella D'Angelo) when she drinks his blood. WHAT. She promises to help him rescue Cassiopeia if he helps her retrieve a talisman, so they set off on their quest. They cross the River Styx. They battle a mechanical hydra. They win a magic chariot when Circe turns Herc into a giant so he can push apart some rocks. The chariot is pulled by a rope that Hercules throws into space because there is nothing in Hercules that can't be solved by throwing it into space.

More stuff happens. I'm tired of talking about it. Reading the plot synopsis of Hercules probably makes it sound really entertaining, what with all the mechanical monsters and the blood drinking and the Sybil Danning and the constant space disposal. And, yes, on paper the movie sounds entertaining in a crazy way. For the most part, it isn't. The truly nutty moments aren't given any weight (except for the bear attack) and the moments in between -- which make up most of the movie -- are leaden. My enjoyment deflates to such a degree during the lulls that even when the movie lurches to life it's not enough carry me through.

This is a bad movie. I don't know how to get around it. It's incredibly clumsy. It is stiff. It feels and often looks very cheap. If you showed it to the average person, he or she would likely call it one of the worst movies he/she had ever seen, but that's only because most people haven't trained themselves how to watch movies like this. Still, in this case, they might have a point. I'm a huge apologist and self-appointed scholar of this kind of movie and even I had a tough time not being completely bored. Everything in the movie, as though the events take place in real time.

It's biggest crime is that it is boring. I have owned the movie on DVD for six or seven years. I have tried to watch it at least five times. I have fallen asleep during the prologue every single time. Cerci makes Hercules into a giant, like Animal at the end of The Muppet Movie. The visual effect takes 30 seconds of screen time, and then...nothing. Giant Hercules doesn't do anything. I mean, he pushes the rocks apart, but way more time is spent on watching him become big than on the actual thing he is being made big to accomplish. Sybil Danning plays one of the villains (the one wearing the low-cut top). How can a movie with this much of Sybil Danning's cleavage be so boring? It violates everything I know to be true.
And, in the great tradition of Italian Hercules movies, star Lou Ferrigno has been dubbed by an actor who sounds nothing like him. Usually, dubbing doesn't bother me -- it's such a part of a certain exploitation aesthetic that I kind of like it in many cases -- but here it's pretty ridiculous. Maybe it's because this is one of the few examples in which I know what the actor being dubbed is supposed to sound like (see also: Andie McDowell in Greystoke). Despite being dubbed, Ferrigno still gives a bad performance. He's just not a movie star. He sure looks the part -- enormous, ripped as shit and sporting the correct Hercules beard (I have always pictured Hercules with a beard; I do not know why) -- but just because you fit the suit doesn't make you James Bond.

It truly is a movie made in the Ed Wood tradition, from the drugstore set and costume design to the nonsensical plotting to the amateurish performances. The scene in which Hercules battles a bear that is comprised of stock footage and the least convincing bear suit you've ever seen? Ed Wood wouldn't have directed it any differently. My problem with Hercules is that there doesn't seem to be joy in the filmmaking -- it lacks the lightness of vibrancy of better "bad" movies. Complain all you want about the flaws in Plan 9 from Outer Space, but Ed Wood's passion and joy for MAKING A MOVIE comes through at all times. The same could be said of Luigi Cozzi's own Starcrash, a film which demonstrates a number of the problems as Hercules but overcomes them with endless invention and fun. Everything about Hercules feels as heavy and lumbering as Lou Ferrigno's arms.

But "bad" does not mean "without value." As an adult, I can appreciate Hercules in ways that would not have been possible had I seen it as a kid. Framing Hercules within the context of Italian exploitation cinema helps me appreciate some of its weirdness and forgive many of its incompetencies. Pino Dinaggio contributes a rousing adventure score, but its energy and bombast is totally at odds with the film's languid pace. The music tells us that something exciting should be happening on screen, but it's always some boring shit. Every time someone in the movie uses magic, it's accompanied by a sound effect that resembles a radio being tuned in a '50s sci-fi movie. It's weird and I love it. For as bad as some of the effects are (and I'm not talking about the stop-motion mechanical animals or optical lasers; I love all that shit), there's something so charming about the fact that the filmmakers actually put it on screen and tried to pass it off as being acceptable for mass consumption.

Exhibit A - Wig Zeus:
There is nothing about that costume that suggests any professional filmmakers should be comfortable with audiences seeing it. And, yet, there it is. On movie screens, and then on cable and now on DVD, captured for all time. There's something great about watching a director like Cozzi do the "best he can do." It's true of the movie's whole aesthetic -- yes, it looks and feels cheap, but everything has that handmade quality that you really only see in '80s genre films. I just wish it was all in the service of better pacing or a story that understood what to do with them. I know that Starcrash suffers from a lot of the same problems as Hercules (I am not blind to the problems of Starcrash), but for some reason the alchemy works in one movie and not in the other. These genre movies are such a tenuous proposition -- so many small things could go wrong in such small ways that it's easy to get the balance wrong.

The movie runs 100 minutes. With about 20 minutes cut out, it might have been something. Cozzi wouldn't have even had to remove any scenes, just lose the dead space and tighten up the fucking eternity it takes for everything to happen. It's possible there's a fun and goofy 79 minute movie in Hercules. The trailer makes it look like a blast, but that's because it cherry-picks many of the best qualities -- the FX money shots, the Donaggio score, Sybil Danning. The movie spaces those things out until it becomes almost interminable.

Great news! A sequel was produced two years later called The Adventures of Hercules (aka Hercules II), once again written and directed by Luigi Cozzi. It's on the same double feature of DVD as the original, meaning I've owned it for years without ever seeing it. I'm sure it will end up appearing in a future It Came from the '80s column. Hopefully it corrects a lot of the mistakes made in the original; my guess is it only repeats them. Either way, it will probably be a while before I find out.

While there are things to enjoy about Hercules (it rhymes with "Rybil Ranning"), it's far from the definitive screen depiction of the character. I'm still pretty sure I will continue to picture Lou Ferrigno whenever the Gods' Champion is mentioned, as the desire to see the movie at a young age was so strong that my kid brain convinced itself that he WAS Hercules. Such is the power of movies.

Got a movie you want to see covered in It Came From the '80s? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. "Hercules is raised on a farm by Ma and Pa Kent. "

    You know, this weirdly reminds me of the novel Dracula Cha Cha Cha, third in hte Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman, which is a series that pulls in (in the various time periods, starting in the 1890s, jumping to WWI in the second, etc) pretty much every fictional character possible. Half the fun of the novels is trying to figure out who is who in the background. In that novel, set in Rome in 1959, at one point a kid is mentioned who's in town after winning a screen test contest in Kansas and it's specifically mentioned how hick his garish blue suit and red tie are, but he might be OK in this gladiator flick they're working on. A pretty fun Steve Reeves & Clark Kent combo, basically. (A lot of Fellini's characters wander through the novel as well, of course.)

  2. I enjoyed reading your review, Patrick. It's not my style of movie, but the music is in the trailer is outstanding.

  3. I refuse to watch this movie again because I went to the theater to see it when I was 8 years old and I loved it and I know in my soul the same way that I know water is wet that if I ever see it again I will want to travel back in time and slap 8 year old me and adult me likes that kid so I just don't do it and I don't know why I told all of you this sorry thanks.

    1. This comment just made my day. :-)

  4. Ah man, I was so into Greek mythology around that age too - I'd kinda forgotten about it - Poseidon was my favourite god so I always had a soft spot for Theseus - plus minotaurs ARE fuckin cool.

    Great review, but having no nostalgic connection to this movie it's probably not worth seeking out. I know I'm only a few years younger than you, but I feel like the Ferrigno Hulk craze was just a BIT before my time, so even him I know more from Celebrity Apprentice than anything else.

  5. "Most people haven't trained themselves to watch movies like this". Great observation. You really hit on something there.

  6. My parents went out on a date to see this movie(!) To this day I believe this movie ended date night in my household for years.

  7. I'm watching Hercules now as I read your review. Your review made it into a comedy fest for me. Thanks for brightening my dreary, rainy Saturday at the movies!!

  8. The trailer for this movie is amazing! But I'll take your word regarding the actual movie.

  9. I am watching it right now and loving it.. your review is as entertaining as the movie. I love seeing movies like this.
    I would be delighted if I could make a movie this good.. Yarr Har Harr