Following on from my Top 20 classic Italian films discussed in previous posts, while I was writing Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult, I also compiled a ‘Top 20 cult movies’, which are more offbeat and well worth tracking down. Some of these are pretty rare, but over the next few posts I’ll describe where, if possible, to find them.
The Trojan War (Giorgio Ferroni, 1961)
Billed as a Steve Reeves vehicle, this recreation of the battle for Troy, via Homer’s myth, is one of the top Italian sword and sandal spectaculars, with large sets, a great score by Giovanni Fusco and a memorable supporting cast – Hedy Vessel makes the screen’s most beautiful Helen and Drew Barrymore’s father John Drew Barrymore played crafty Ulysses. It was shot in Italy and Yugoslavia and deploys hundreds of extras for its impressive battle scenes. Reeves plays Trojan hero Aeneas, who survives the sacking of the city and heads off to found Rome in the sequel, The Last Glory of Troy (1962, aka War of the Trojans).
The Trojan War is available under its US retitling The Trojan Horse, in the boxed set The Adventures of Hercules. This 7-film set also includes The Loves of Hercules (Hercules vs the Hydra) with Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay, Hercules Against the Sons of the Sun, Hercules Versus Moloch, The Lion of Thebes, The Triumph of Hercules and the entertaining Perseus the Invincible under the title The Medusa Against the Son of Hercules. All are panned-and-scanned prints, but are clear, in English (with optional English subtitles) and are far above the usual public domain pepla releases. As it says on the box, ‘a must-have for every collector’.
Buy it in the UK
Maciste in Hell (Riccardo Freda, 1962)
Kirk Morris plays mythological muscleman Maciste, who arrives in 17th century Scotland during a witch trial and travels into the bowels of the Earth to lift a centuries’ old curse. Hellish in its depiction of Hell (and with some hellish acting to boot), this one divides peplum fans – some rate it, some hate it. The vivid Hell scenes, with fires, torments and the writhing Damned, were staged in the grottoes of Castellana in the Apulia region of Italy, which are still open to the public today.
Maciste in Hell is available on Region 1 DVD in a barely-viewable print, under its alternative title, The Witch’s Curse in the UK
A better print is on the better value double-disk, with a great widescreen print of Hercules against the Moon Men.
Sons of Thunder (Duccio Tessari, 1962)
Former stuntman Giuliano Gemma’s first starring role, this peplum send-up was filmed on picturesque locations in Italy and Spain and is a tour-de-force from former scriptwriter Tessari. He later worked regularly with Gemma in a variety of genres, most notably on the Ringo westerns, A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo (the latter was a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey in a post-American Civil War setting). Though it has been shown on TV in some territories with English subtitles, Sons of Thunder remains an obscure film. One of the best mythological epics ever made, its unavailability on DVD in an English-friendly release is mystifying.
You can currently see the entire film, in Italian, here
The Castle of the Living Dead (Warren Kiefer, 1964)
This cult Gothic horror about a troupe of travelling players trapped in a lunatic’s castle is celebrated for several reasons. It was co-directed by Michael Reeves, who later made Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm, before his untimely death in 1969. It stars Christopher Lee in one of his best Italian vehicles and Donald Sutherland in his film debut in not one, but two, roles. Sutherland plays a policeman investigating Count Drago (Lee) and his experiments in the atmospheric castle, and also appears heavily disguised as an old hag who talks in rhymes and warns travellers to avoid the count: ‘Some will live and some will die, before tomorrow’s sun is high’.
It has been released in the UK in 2012 by Odeon Entertainment in a very good print, in English.
In a bizarre link, Parco Di Mostri (Park of the Monsters), the eerie location used as Castle Drago’s grounds which is filled with unusual statues, is also featured in the BBC TV programme Monty Don’s Italian Gardens
, a series which visits several locations used in Italian cinema, including Villa Borghese in Rome.
Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)
Bava’s contemporary horror film lays the foundations for what later became ‘giallo’ psycho-thrillers, with a maniac knocking off models in a chic fashion house. It’s really just a colourful Krimi, but one made with imagination and a superb eye for visuals. Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok are the nominal stars, but the film’s real attraction is Bava’s camerawork. Carlo Rustichelli’s percussive jazz score is his best and is available on CD
The film was heavily cut for its original English language release, and video and DVD releases have been variable. Of the two UK videotape releases I’ve seen, one is the cut version, the other uncut. This one is uncut http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blood-Black-Lace-Cameron-Mitchell/dp/B00004U3ZU/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=video&ie=UTF8&qid=1341572139&sr=1-1-spell
It’s also available on DVD on Region 1 in the UK