Hercules and ‘70s exploitation flicks

By Tom Von Malder | Apr 18, 2021
Photo by: The Film Detective Reg Park is Hercules and Fay Spain is Queen Antinea of Atlantis.

Owls Head — Hercules and the Captive Women (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide) aka Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Italy, 1963, The Film Detective, Blu-ray, NR, 95 min.). The film is no classic of cinema, but it is fun and features British bodybuilder Reg Park as Hercules in the first of four films in which he played the strongman. For half the film, Hercules just sleeps a lot, but then he is all action and, of course, Atlantis has to be destroyed by the end.

The film, directed and co-written by Vittorio Cottafavi (“Traviata ’53,” “Milady and the Musketeers”), originally was released in 1961 under the Italian title. This is the version edited for the United States and released in 1963. This Blu-ray release was produced from rare 35mm archival elements that have been beautifully restored from a 4K transfer in its original aspect ratio. There also are solid exclusive bonus materials.

The area of Thebes in Greece is menaced by a red fog and portends of great death – we learn later that the Atlanteans, led by Queen Antinea (Fay Spain of “God’s Little Acre,” “Dragstrip Girl,” “The Godfather: Part II”), plan an invasion of Greece and have the ability to control the weather thanks to their god, Uranus. After a debate among Greek leaders that goes nowhere – reminiscent of the current U.S. Senate – King Androcles (Ettore Manni of “War of the Zombies”) sets out to investigate beyond the straits of the Mediterranean. Androcles tricks his friend Hercules into accompanying him on his quest, by having Hercules’ son Illos (Luciano Marin of “The Giants of Thessaly,” “Colossus of the Stone Age”) put sleeping powder in his drink. The married Hercules has just told his wife that he plans to settle down and spend more time with his family.

Instead of a fleet filled with warriors, Androcles has only one ship, manned by galley boys and cutpurses. Illos is on board too, but hides from his father until Atlantis is reached. Androcles’ assistant is the dwarf Timoteo (Salvatore Furnari of “Revolt of the Pretorians,” “Goliath and the Dragon”). The ship’s crew proves disloyal, but Hercules thwarts their revolt by pulling the ship towards shore when they try to row it away. However, a storm destroys the ship and our four heroes find themselves on the magic island of Proteus (Maurizio Coffarelli), Uranus’ son who can transform himself into different forms, including a reptile, snake, lion and large bird in succession as he battles Hercules.

Hercules, of course, wins, which frees Ismene (Laura Efrikian of “David Copperfield,” “The Young Nun”), whom Proteus had partially confined in a rock wall. It turns out Ismene is the daughter of Queen Antinea, of the nearby island of Atlantis, whose protective mist has been erased with Proteus’s death.

Hercules returns Ismene to Atlantis, but her mother is determined to have her die due to a prophecy that says Atlantis will be destroyed if the queen’s daughter outlives her. However, when Ismene is about to be burned at the stake, Illos rescues her. Meanwhile, Queen Antinea has captured Androcles and used a mystical rock from Uranus to turn him into a remote-controlled killer.

There is also a valley full of slave labor, who revolt when Illos and Hercules break open the barrier. As the throng storms the city, Antinea unleashes were super soldiers. Here, Cottafavi – probably for budgetary reasons, but very effectively – skips the battle and just shows the aftermath of all the slaves’ dead and dying bodies lying all over the city.

The fun continues with a horse and chariot race through a really cool underground grotto set and, of course, a volcano erupts and the city falls down on everyone who is left.

The bonus material includes an audio commentary by film critic and screenwriter Tim Lucas and an informative swords and sandals documentary, “Hercules and the Conquest of Cinema,” by Daniel Griffith of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures (19:28). There also is an introduction by MST3K (Mystery Science Theater 3000) writer and co-star Frank Conniff (3:02) and the complete MST3K version of the film, released in 1992, with the usual 10 minutes of foolery before the actors and “robots” talk through the film while mocking it. There also is a 12-page booklet, “Duel of the Titan,” with an illustrated essay by author and historian C. Courtney Joyner. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Switchblade Sisters (1975, Arrow Video, Blu-ray, R, 91 min.). This prime example of the 1970s exploitation films was directed by Jack Hill, who made 16 of them, including “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” both starring Pam Grier. Originally to be called “Jezebels,” the film is about a femalr street gang, The Dagger Debs, a cohort of the guys’ gang, The Silver Daggers. Eventually, the girls drop the guys and become The Jezebels, who align themselves with a Black power girls’ street gang that has weaponry.

Amazingly, the film’s plot is inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” with Monica Gayle as Patch in the Iago role, sparking jealousy between Dagger Debs leader Lace (Robbie Lee of TV’s “The Six Million Dollar Man”) and gang newcomer Maggie (Joanne Nail of “The Gumball Rally”), who initially is Lace’s friend. The object of the jealousy is Dominic (then-newcomer Asher Brauner of TV’s “Hunter”), Lace’s boyfriend, but who wants Maggie so much that he follows her home and rapes her in her mother’s apartment. (At the time, mother is “entertaining” the apartment superintendent in lieu of rent.) Incredibly, after the rape, Dominic says to Maggie, “You all right? You were asking for it.”

While the girls develop in-fighting, the boys, who still apparently attend high school, are being invaded by a rival gang, led by Crabs (Chase Newhart, who became a second unit director of action films, among them “Death Warrant”), as their high school has been shut down. Crabs, who apparently has political ambition, despite being a perennial high school senior, leads a band of “social activists,” who actually are running a drug ring and are turning on younger kids to drugs by supplying free food from a food truck. Meanwhile, the Silver Daggers are raising their funds by prostituting their girls in the school bathrooms.

The latter is part of the brief nudity “required” in these types of films. Action highlights include a roller rink showdown and a full-on street gun battle, including a cool 1956 Packard Clipper converted into a tank. There also is a fight between the inmates and the lesbian guards at the girls’ reformatory, which actually is a fun, over-the-top scene.

Extras include a new audio commentary by historians/critics Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger and a solid archival making-of feature (39:77) that includes interviews with Hill, producer John Prizer and actors Nail, Brauner and Newhart, as well as casting director Geno Havans, production designer B.B. Neel and stunt coordinator Bob Minor. A featurette has Hill and filmmaker Elijah Drenor revisit locations sued in the film in 2012 (6:52); then there are two interviews: a 2007 one with Hill and Nail at the Grindhouse Film Festival (8:24); and one with Hill, Lee and Nail (4:41). There also are five image galleries. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Death Has Blue Eyes (Greece, 1976, Arrow Video, NR, 77 min.). This paranormal action thriller was the feature film debut by writer-director Nico Mastorakis, with “Island of Death” his second, but released first. A leader in the independent film business, Mastorakis is the founder and owner of Omega Pictures and Omega Entertainment. He also brought us “The Zero Boys.”

Set in Athens, the film has scam artist Robert Kowalski of England (Peter Winter of “Warship”) arrive via stolen plane ticket to meet up with his pal Ches Gifford (Hristos Nomicos of “The Ceremony”). While appropriating the real ticker owner’s waiting limousine and driver, they stop to steal lunch at a hotel, during which they meet Geraldine Steinwetz (Jessica Dublin of the two “Toxic Avenger” movies) and Christine Steinwetz (Maria Alifari), who claim to be mother and daughter. Spookily, Christine appears to be able to read Robert’s mind, which, in fact, happens to be true. Christine can also mentally force people into action, including shooting themselves.

Geraldine “hires” the two lads to protect them, saying they have witnessed a political assassination in Warsaw, and the quartet are chased throughout the movie, with a motorcycle-after-car chase the best. Overall, the plot is a bit scattershot. Because the producer was Gregory Dimitrious, the so-called “king of porn,” Mastorakis was required to have some “t & a” in the film, which contributes a bit to the aimlessness. There is a three-way scene between the guys and Ches’ mostly naked female friend on a circular bed, but it is mostly under a sheet. Overall, it makes one think of those “Cinemax movies” of yesteryear and hippie “freedom.”

There are plenty of bonus features, including a good self-interview by Mastorakis, in English, about making the film (24:40) and how he wrote the script with Aliferi in mind. There also is a subtitled interview with Aliferi, who claims Winter had an affair with a girl on the crew that resulted in a pregnancy. Both interviews are new. Additionally, there are 14 selections from the film’s soundtrack (43 min. -- the composer was Nikos Lavranos -- and an image gallery. The film is restored from the original camera negative and can be viewed in two aspect ratios: the widescreen 1.85:1 theatrical version and the full-frame 1.33:1 version. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 3 stars

Doctor X (1932, Warner Archive Collection, Blu-ray, NR, 76 min.). Director Michael Curtiz is known for such classic blockbusters as “Casablanca,” “White Christmas,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Captain Blood,” but among his 178 credits are three horror films he made in the 1930s. They included the previously reviewed and Warner Archive released “The Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933), “The Walking Dead” (1936) and this film, the first of the trio. Both this and “Wax Museum” starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

The film basically is a murder mystery with some pseudo-science thrown in, meaning an excuse for lots of laboratory equipment. There also is a “haunted” house. The situation concerns a series of six murders, with all the victims cut by an instrument only found at the Academy of Surgical Research, run by Doctor Jerry Xavier (Atwill). There also are traces of cannibalism with this killer, who has been dubbed the Moon Killer by the press. Snooping around the case is reporter Lee Taylor of The Daily World (Lee Tracy of “Dinner at Eight,” “The Best Man”), whose job might depend on the case.

Det. O’Halloran (Willard Robertson) agrees to let Dr. Xavier investigate his fellow professors, using his new, unconventional method that has something to do with a blood response if the crimes are recreated, while the suspects are cuffed to their chairs. The suspects include Prof. Duke (Harry Beresford of “David Copperfield,” “Anna Karenina”), who is in a wheelchair; Prof. Wells (Preston Foster of “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” “The Last Days of Pompeii”), a student of cannibalism who is missing one hand; and Drs. Haines (John Wray of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Each Dawn I Die”) and Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe of “The Phantom of the Opera”), both survivors of a shipwreck.

All move to Dr. Xavier’s creepy manse, along with his daughter Joan (Fay Wray of “King Kong”) and servants Otto (George Rosner, who contributed to the screenplay, uncredited) and Mamie (Leila Bennett of “Mark of the Vampire”). Reporter Taylor follows and sneaks into the house, as he wants to report on the investigation and has fallen for Joan. Curtiz adds humor to the dark film, including Taylor hiding in a room full of skeletons. Curtiz would reuse the hiding in the morgue sequence in a more terrifying way in “The Mystery of the Wax Museum.” There also is creepiness, with the use of synthetic flesh – although it sometimes just looks like mud.

The film was made in 2-Color Technicolor, with the green adding spookiness to the backdrops. The Blu-ray also includes the black-and-white version of the film, which was shot separately and has been unavailable for more than 30 years. There are two audio commentaries: one by Alan K. Rode, author-film historian of “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film”; and the other by Scott MacQueen, head of preservation at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, who headed the film’s restoration. MacQueen also hosts a before-and-after look at the restoration (7:35). There also is a very good look at Curtiz’s horror films with Rode (27:39). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Each Dawn I Die (1939, Warner Archive Collection, Blu-ray, NR, 92 min.). This jailhouse saga paired James Cagney (“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “White Heat,” “Angels with Dirty Faces”) with George Raft (“Scarface,” “They Drive by Night”). Michael Curtiz was originally going to direct, but was replaced by William Keighley (“The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Curtiz, “The Singing Kid,” “Brother Rat”).

Cagney plays crusading reporter Frank Ross, who is after corrupt gubernatorial candidate/current District Attorney Hanley (Thurston Hall of “The Black Room,” “Carson City”). However, Hanley’s cronies kidnap Ross, dump alcohol on him and put him unconscious behind the wheel of a car, which is then sent careening into another vehicle, killing three. Ross is found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 1 to 20 years of hard labor (a rather strange sentence length). In prison, Ross helps save fellow inmate “Hood” Stacey (Raft) from being knifed and the two become friends. Stacey is rather a big deal, who has an old foe in “Limpy” Julien (Joe Downing).

As time passes, Ross becomes more embittered. He has several rants, including one at his trial and another in the warden’s office. The plot gets complicated when Ross helps Stacey escape – but foolishly tips off his newspaper – with a pledge to help find witnesses to exonerate Ross. However, Stacey does nothing for five months until Ross’ girlfriend Joyce Conover (Jane Bryan of “The Case of the Black Cat,’ “Kid Galahad”) pleads with him.

Near the film’s end, there is a lengthy action sequence of the inmates rioting and the police responding with machine guns. Warden John Armstrong is played by George Bancroft of “Stagecoach,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.”

Extras include audio commentary by film historian Haden Guest, as well as Warner Night at the Movies, including 1939 Short Subjects Gallery with a vintage newsreel, WB Technicolor short "A Day at Santa Anita" and WB cartoon: "Detouring America"; the retrospective featurette, "Stool Pigeons and Pine Overcoats: The Language of Gangster Films"; Breakdowns of 1939, a studio blooper reel; the WB cartoon "Each Dawn I Crow"; a radio show with Raft and Franchot Tone; and a trailer for "Wings of the Navy,” the film that is shown to the inmates when one is killed. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.75 stars

The Bloodhound (Arrow Video, Blu-ray, NR, 72 min.). This basically two-person film is weird above all else, but in a weirdly compelling sort of way, and it is overall slow, but that is the mood writer-director Patrick Picard was going for in his first feature film. The film has a chilly aesthetic that I found more than a bit off-putting.

Francis (Liam Aiken of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”), a dispossessed young man, is summoned to the secluded home of his wealthy childhood friend, JP Luret (Joe Adler of “The Maze Runner”), who is suffering from a mysterious affliction. Upon his arrival, Francis realizes that JP and his seldom-seen twin sister Vivian (Annalise Basso of “Ouija: Origin of Evil”) are the sole surviving members of the privileged Luret family, whose legacy has been one of depression and self-destruction. They live in a very Modernistic family estate, complete with an elevator and a downstairs vault.

As the old friends attempt to reconnect after 10 years, Francis’ stay is extended, but a number of inexplicable incidents begin to occur within the house. There also is sleeping-bag wrestling (!) between Francis and JP, as well as overtures that may just be feints. A secret stash of cash also comes into play.

The film opens bizarrely, setting the tone, as a figure is seen crawling out of water, then into and through the house, before hiding in a closet. At one point, JP refers to this creature, seen in his dreams, as “the Bloodhound.” It was not until I watched the behind-the-scenes/making-of feature (45:15) that I realized Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was an inspiration for the film. This is a well-done, informative extra that includes interviews with the director, producer, set designer and actor Adler, but Aiken is nowhere present. There also is audio commentary by Picard and editor David Scorca. There also are four experimental short films by director Picard: “Bad Dream”; The Muffled Hammerfall in Action”; The Mosaic Code”; and “Wiggleworm.” Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

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