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The December 2014 Fantasy Movie Marathon

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December is a great month for fantasy movies, considering that most Christmas flicks have a large dose of fantasy in them.  Moreover,  within the next few weeks at least three fantasy films are being released: the final installments of The Hobbit and Night at the Museum trilogies, and Into the Woods. ( So I'll have a good excuse to get out of the house and see a movie!)  And let's not forget the upcoming  live broadcast of Peter Pan on TV.


In addition to the more traditional fantasy material, I'll be reviewing five peplum movies,  which I found in the Mill Creek Sci-Fi collection.  There's not at bit of science fiction in your typical peplum (well, maybe a little in one of the five), so I'm not sure how they ended up in there -- possibly because they didn't fit in anywhere else.  Peplum do have a lot of fantasy mixed in with the muscle-flexing, so they're just right for this month's theme.


Don't know what a peplum movie is?  Neither did I.  So I did a little on-line snooping and came up with some info. (Thanks, Google!)


The peplum genre is also called sword-and-sandal, the more polite term being "neo-mythology".  Most peplum flicks are Italian in origin, and usually deal with legendary, mythological, or Biblical events.  You might think of them as historical epics on a budget.  The central character is a hero with unusual strength, such as Hercules or Samson; other characters are a damsel in distress, a wicked tyrant, and the occasional monster.


The origin of the peplum genre goes back to the silent film era, with a movie called Cabiria (1914).  A Hercules-type character named "Maciste" was the sidekick to the movie's hero, but became so popular that he got his own spin-off series.  Maciste, played by Bartolmeo Pagano, featured in about two dozen films through the 1920's, and achieved the status of Italian folk hero.  One curious thing about the character is that he is not tied to any particular time or place -- Maciste can crop up anywhere, at any time. (In that respect, he's a bit like The Doctor, only far more muscular and not as smart.) 


The popularity of the sword-and-sandal movies waned in the early thirties.  Then, in 1957, Steve Reeves starred in Hercules, which became popular enough to set off a craze for peplum flicks. Hercules was the featured hero in many; Maciste was revived; there were also Samson, Goliath, Ursus and a whole bunch of others.


The pepla I have available are all from the revival era, although I hope to be able to see Cabiria soon. I'll be back tomorrow with Hercules Unchained.



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This flick is the sequel to Hercules (1957), the movie that started the sword-and-sandals craze of the late 50's and 60's.  Alas, I haven't been able to view Hercules yet; from what I can gather it's based on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, making Herc the main character (which, in mythology, he isn't).  In the first movie, Herc also gains a wife, named Iole, who also appears in the sequel, along with many other characters from the original film.


As we open, Hercules and Iole are headed for Thebes, Herc's home town, along with the strongman's young protege, Ulysses.  Ulysses's father, King Laertes, gives him a parting gift of some homing pigeons; if he's ever in trouble, his dad tells him, tie a note to a bird's leg and release it.  The pigeon will unfailingly return home with the message.  


So off the trio go, in a horse-drawn wagon.  Iole plays the lute and sings, Uly is driving the wagon, Herc is taking a nap in the back.  Just your typical family road trip, when their journey is interrupted by a giant named Antaeus.  He wants their horses and their gold and he might just help himself to Iole while he's at it; he and Hercules get into a fight, with Herc winning, but every time he throws Antaeus to the ground, the giant gets back to his feet, as strong as ever.  Finally, Uly -- he's the brains of the group -- says he thinks that this highway robber is in reality a son of the earth goddess, and is therefore revived when he touches the ground.  So Herc picks up the giant and throws him into the ocean.  Problem solved.


But that's not the end of their adventures :  as they approach Thebes, they find a large number of non-Theban soldiers hanging around a usually quiet grove.  It's a sacred spot, because the woods surround a cave in which there is supposed to be an entrance to Hades.  Herc enters the cave to find out what's going on and stumbles upon a family -- and political --  drama.


Inside is King Oedipus, a very old man who has been forced to abdicate the throne of Thebes in favor of his sons.  Oedipus has come here to end his life by throwing himself into the chasm that opens into Hades itself.  But before he could do that, his son Polynices came to him for help.  The two sons were supposed to rule alternate years, but the current king, Eteocles, refused to step down when his year was up.  Polynices thinks his father might be able to influence his son, but Oedipus wants nothing much to do with either one of his ungrateful and disrespectful offspring.  Well, says Poly, I've got a lot of soldiers out there, and I'm going to attack Thebes.  Hold on, says Herc, let me try a little diplomacy first.  So Poly agrees to wait , Herc heads for Thebes, and Oedipus goes to his death.


So Hercules and his companions arrive at Thebes, and Herc has a chat with King Eteocles, a sadist who enjoys throwing people into pits with hungry tigers.  The king agrees to step aside for his brother -- agrees a bit too quickly, actually, so he probably has something nasty up his sleeve.  Herc and Uly leave to bring the news to Polynices, leaving Iole behind.  Which  isn't that smart, really.


On the way to the war camp, the pair stop for a meal, and Herc drinks water from a stream, but what he doesn't know is that the water is enchanted -- anyone who drinks from it loses his memories.  Herc passes out and suddenly there's a bunch of soldiers and he and Uly are taken prisoner.  They end up in the court of Omphale, Queen of Lydia.


Omphale has some peculiar practices in regards to her husbands.  Once a man has drunk from the waters of forgetfulness, her soldiers drag him off to Lydia.  She has her current husband killed, embalmed, and made into a statue.  Then she takes up with the new one, giving him every luxury.  So Hercules, who can't remember anything about his past, becomes her plaything.  Meanwhile, Ulysses has been pretending to be a deaf-mute; the Lydians think he is Herc's servant, and let him hang around, although he's locked up at night.  He's been allowed to keep the pigeons, and sends one off, hoping his father will get the message in time.


Meanwhile, back in Greece, Polynices hasn't received any message from Hercules, so he prepares for war.  Eteocles thinks Herc has betrayed him, so arrests Iole.  The homing pigeon reaches Laertes, who gathers together all the old company of Argonauts and sets off on a rescue mission -- but will he arrive in time?


This actually is a pretty good movie, production values are high, and the performances aren't bad.  Hercules is played by muscle man Steve Reeves (who held a number of bodybuilder titles, including "Mr. Universe").  Reeves is no Olivier, but is an adequate actor.  So, entertaining movie, but how does it compare to ancient Greek mythology?


The Theban story line  -- pretty close to the legendary material, but what the movie fails to mention is why Oedipus got kicked off the throne; he had committed both patricide and incest, albeit unwittingly.  When this became known, Oedipus was persona non grata. Hercules actually had no role in this particular myth, although he was raised in Thebes.


The battle with Antaeus -- again, pretty accurate.  Antaeus was, by some accounts, the son of Poseidon and the Earth.


Ulysses  -- was, indeed, the son of Laertes, one of the Argonauts.  He had no connection with Hercules, though.  Ulysses  was one of the warriors of the Trojan War, renowned for his cleverness.


Omphale and Iole -- A few inaccuracies here!  Let's start with Hercules's first wife, named Megara, a daughter of Creon of Thebes. He had several children by her, and seemed to be content, but the goddess Hera, who hated him because he was her husband Zeus's son, caused him to go mad.  In his frenzy, he murdered his family.  As a penance for the murders, Hercules was sent on his famous twelve labors.


Having completed his penance, Hercules looked for a new wife.  He heard that King Eurytus was offering the hand of his beautiful daughter, Iole, to whoever could win an archery tournament.  But when Hercules won the contest, Eurytus refused to let him have Iole, because he had heard about the murder of Herc's first family.  Hercules left town, vowing revenge.  About the same time, some valuable horses were stolen from Eurytus, and, naturally, Hercules was the prime suspect.  Iphitus, one of Eurytus's sons, went looking for the horses and encountered Hercules, who killed the lad in a fit of rage, particularly sad because Iphitus actually thought he was innocent.


Now Hercules had to do penance again, and this time he was to be a slave for a year. He was purchased by Queen Omphale of Lydia, who was nothing like the evil queen of the movie.  Herc's year of slavery was not too onerous as he became Omphale's lover.  Rumor has it that they enjoyed dressing in each other's clothing.


Hercules then married Deianira, a princess of Calydon, but he never forgot about Iole, the wife he was denied some years ago.  So, when the time was right, he led an army to battle King Eurytus, defeated him, killed all his family except Iole, and carried her off.  She became his very reluctant mistress.  So his relationship with Iole was not that of loving spouse, as we see in this movie.  He was her abductor and rapist.


I'm sorry to say that the Hercules of mythology was often a very brutal person.  He's far nicer in this movie.


Rating: 3/5 Recommended.

Edited by miles2go
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Back sometime in the mid-sixties, a company called Embassy Pictures purchased the rights to a number of pepla -- fourteen in all -- and repackaged them for syndication on American television. Sons of Hercules was the name of this series, with the premise that Herc had fathered a number of sons (100, if we take the theme song literally) who had inherited his great strength and courage. They traveled the ancient world righting wrongs, fighting monsters, rescuing damsels in distress, etc.  Each movie was retitled, dubbed, and given a standardized theme song for opening and closing credits.  (A very catchy tune by the way; I have a hard time getting it out of my head.)  Originally, none of these flicks were about Herc's offspring; the heroes were Hercules himself, Ursus, Perseus, and a number of others, including, as in this particular movie, Maciste.


In the English dubbing, Maciste is actually called "Majestus", but since this is really a Maciste film, I'm going to call him that, or "Mac" for short.  Our muscle-bound hero is played by Mark Forest, stage name for Lorenzo Degni, an Italian-American born in 1933.  Like Steve Reeves, he was a body builder, but his great love was for opera.  He eventually quit his acting career to study music, and ended up teaching opera in California.


Our film starts with Maciste alone on a beach, just before dawn.  He's just harpooned a sperm whale and is now pulling him onto shore.  Okay, 'strongest man in the world" says the title, and that's pretty darn strong; also a little thoughtless.  What does he want with a whole whale?  There was no endangered species list in the ancient world, but still . . .


Mac's efforts are interrupted by several galloping horses.  Some strange-looking men with white hair and white robes are chasing down some people that Mac evidently knows.  He comes to their aid, but does not succeed in saving them.  He does knock a couple of the white-haired dudes off their horses.  As the sun comes up, they make sounds of distress, and then sort of shrivel up and die. Khur, one of the men Mac tried to save, turns out to be king of Aran.  As he dies, he begs Mac to rescue his son and daughter.


Mac has evidently been living in the city of Aran for a while, as these people seem well known to him. (So maybe that whale was intended for the citizens of Aran?  Possibly they had a food shortage?)  Anyway, it turns out that while Mac was out whaling, the city was attacked by these odd folk known as Mole Men.  They're albinos, live underground, and can't live in the rays of the sun.  The Mole Men have destroyed Aran, either killing or carrying off the whole population.


Mac puts his tracking skills to good use, and follows the attackers to their underground city.  Along the way, he rescues Bangor, Princess Salirah's bodyguard, who is about to be sacrificed by the Mole Men.  The grateful Bangor becomes his best bud.  Bangor, by the way, is almost as muscular as Maciste, so we now have two scantily-clad strongmen to look upon.


Mac and Bangor gain entrance to the Mole People's underground city by allowing themselves to be captured.  They discover that the captives from Aran, along with many other victims of previous raids, are being put to work as slave labor.  Most work at turning a  huge wheel which somehow operates some complicated mining machinery.  Gold and precious gems are the final product, although it's not entirely clear to what use they are being put.  It hardly seems likely that the Mole People could engage in any lucrative trade, unless they had a trusted middleman.


The Mole People are ruled by Queen Halis Mohab, who is not albino.  Kahab, the high priest, is her closest advisor, who is lobbying for her to marry his son, the warrior Kathar.  She's not too keen on the idea, especially when she gets an eyeful of Maciste, who's been put to work on the big wheel with the rest of the slaves.  


Maciste, meanwhile, has not lost sight of his goal of rescuing Salirah, her brother, and all the enslaved people in the underground city.  His strength and battle skills are going to be tested to the utmost!


Much of this movie is silly and non-sensical, but it's sufficiently amusing for an evening's entertainment.  Recommended for bad movie lovers only.


Rating: 2/5






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PETER PAN (1953) animated


You know you're getting old when you sympathize with Captain Hook more than with Peter Pan.


But consider the situation:  Even before the movie begins,juvenile delinquent Peter has cut off the Captain's hand and fed it to a crocodile.  Is that a vicious act or what?  If that's not bad enough, Peter sneaks through the bedroom window of some innocent children, gets them flying on "pixie dust", and lures them to his underground lair.  This dismal place is already populated with Pan's gang of "Lost Boys", who are well-armed and, as part of their gang affiliation, dress in animal costumes.


And what qualities does the renegade Peter have that all the females in his vicinity fall for him -- mermaids, an Indian princess, and the run-away Wendy are all crazy about the boy who won't grow up.  Let's not forget the homicidally jealous Tinkerbell, who arranges for Wendy to be assassinated.


Wendy survives, only for her and her brothers to be caught up in the gang warfare between Pan's crowd and the Pirates.  Captain Hook and company are, of course, not entirely guiltless in this matter, but they do get the worst of it.  Hook, after all, has a crocodile stalking him.


It's been awhile since I've had any exposure to Peter Pan;  I saw the Mary Martin TV broadcast when I was a kid, and have vague memories of seeing it performed on stage.  I'm not sure if I ever saw this Disney animated version -- it didn't leave much impression if I did.  


I know it's considered a classic, but it left me underwhelmed -- maybe I'm just too old to appreciate it.  Certainly the animation is great, as one would expect from a Disney flick.  The acting is fine.  The storyline is okay, although not in the same league as other Disney movies (e.g. Bambi, Snow White).  Part of the problem, I think, is the over-use of slapstick humor, although, admittedly, that was very common for children's entertainment in that era. Another turn-off is the highly bigoted depiction of Native Americans; even allowing for the era (early fifties) it's still pretty awful stuff.


Rating: 3/5  


I plan on watching Peter Pan Live! tonight;  very curious to see how it compares.

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PETER PAN LIVE!  (2014) TV Broadcast


I don't suppose any production could live up to the sort of hype that enveloped last night's Peter Pan.  Not that it was bad -- certainly not the train wreck many predicted it would be -- but it wasn't all that good, either.  


Good:  Allison Williams is great in the musical numbers

Bad:  She's a dull actress.  Her spoken lines couldn't be flatter if she had put them through a tortilla press.

Good:  Christopher Walken is a fine actor and did a great job with Captain Hook  -- as long as he wasn't singing.

Bad:  Walken just isn't much good as a song-and-dance man.

Good:  Sets and costumes, fine.  Choreography, good.

Bad:  Many cast member too old for their roles, especially Wendy and the Lost Boys.


On the whole, I enjoyed Peter Pan Live!, but I wouldn't bother watching it again.


The Peter Pan of last night's production is certainly quite different from Disney's cocky hooligan.  While I couldn't help thinking of the animated Peter as a young street gang leader, Williams's version is more lonely and sad.  He claims to be happy, defiantly insisting that he won't grow up, and will always dwell in Neverland, and, yet, something drives him into the real world, where he hangs around bedroom windows listening to conversations and stories.  In truth, he hungers for nurturing, and temporarily gains a surrogate mother in Wendy -- "temporarily" being the important word.  In the end, he not only loses his mother, but his companions as well, as Wendy, her brothers, and the Lost Boys choose to leave Neverland for the ordinary world.


On the other hand, Peter Pan is -- or should be --  a high-spirited, independent soul with a sense of adventure and fun.  It's this side of Peter that last night's drama couldn't get across.  Thus when the eternal boy defeats Captain Hook, and proclaims "I am youth . . joy . . . freedom, "  the line just falls flat.  The actress playing the role needs exuberance to pull that off,  and Allison Williams just doesn't have it.


Walken's version of Hook is a welcome contrast to what we see in the Disney movie, bringing to it a strange combination of quirkiness and gravitas; Disney's Captain is pure buffoon, and not very interesting.  Walken's Captain Hook even approaches tragic stature; like that other captain, Ahab, he can't give up on his quest for revenge, and ends up destroying himself.


Recommended? Maybe; the musical numbers are generally pretty good.  


Rating: 3/5

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Here we go with another peplum! This one stars Reg Park, a British-born body builder who later moved to South Africa.  He only did a few sword-and-sandals movies, being more interested in bodybuilding than making films.  Probably a good thing -- Park's not much of an actor, but neither is anyone else in this flick.


Both titles for this film are inaccurate; there's only one captive woman, but a whole lot of captive men.  And Atlantis isn't actually conquered.  


This version of Hercules is a middle-aged man, settled down (well, sort of) to domesticity with wife Deianira and teen-aged son, Hyllus. Strange portents and oracles indicate that some terrible calamity is about to fall on the whole of Greece, so Herc, Hyllus, a dwarf named Timotheus, and King Androcles of Thebes set out to find the source of the threat.  The four become separated when their ship founders in a storm.


Hercules swims to the shore of a mysterious island, only to find a damsel in distress.  She's chained to a rocky cliff, and appears to be dissolving into it.  She at first begs Herc to kill her, to spare her this misery, then urges him to flee and save himself.  The young woman has been placed here as a sacrifice to the monstrous deity Proteus, who lives on human blood. He can also take any form.  Just then, a giant lizard comes  a'growling, changing to a raging fire, which changes to a snake, then a lion, then an eagle, and back to a lizard.  Hercules fights with each form of the god, and eventually kills him. Now Ismene, the young captive, is free and she brings Herc to her mother, who just happens to be Queen Antinea of Atlantis.


Antinea gives Ismene and her rescuer a lukewarm welcome, which Herc finds to be a very strange way for a mother to act.  It seems that Proteus, in return for regular meals of fresh young humans, shields the island  with a heavy mist.  Now that he's dead, Atlantis can be viewed by outsiders. Moreover, Proteus is the son of Uranus, the divine patron of Atlantis, who is not likely to be pleased at his offspring's death.  It also turns out that Antinea has given up her own daughter to sacrifice because of a prophecy:  if a child of the queen should ever survive her, Atlantis would be destroyed.   Herc doesn't know about this last part, neither does he know that Antinea has bound and gagged Ismene and sent her off to be re- sacrificed on some remote part of the island.


It just so happens that Hyllus and Timotheus washed up on the same shore upon which Ismene is being bound to a stake.  A rescue ensues, of course.  And, of course, Hyllus and Ismene start to fall in love. Meanwhile, Hercules finds Androcles in the royal palace, but he's lost his memory and has absolutely no recollection of his old companion.


More strange stuff happens, but Herc finally finds an ally in a priest of Uranus, who dislikes Antinea's imperialistic plans, for, yes, Atlantis is the source of the threat to Greece.  There's a sacred stone that was once splashed with the blood of Uranus.  Those who touch the stone either turn into blond super warriors or become deformed.  Antinea keeps the blond supermen with her as a private army, the unfortunate rejects are thrown into a pit and kept captive there, and it turns out there's a lot of them.  Hercules, Hyllus, Ismene and Timotheus must rescue them all, free Androcles from the spell he's under, and destroy Antinea's power.


This isn't a bad flick if you can get through the first twenty minutes of so, which is full of a lot of time-filling silly stuff.  Also, the quality of the performances isn't too good.  So I'll recommend it for bad movie lovers only.




So --how does this compare to "real" mythology?


The family of Hercules -- He and Deianira had several children, Hyllus being the eldest.  Don't confuse him with Hylas, who, in Herc's younger days, was his squire (and , according to some, his lover).  


Uranus -- a primordial deity who was the sky.  He mated with Mother Earth to produce a number of beings, including the Titans and the Cyclopes.  He didn't like the latter, so banished them to Tartarus.  Angry at this, Earth conspired with the Titans to destroy the power of Uranus.  Cronus, the youngest Titan, castrated his father with a flint sickle; the blood that fell to Earth produced the Furies and some other creatures. Uranus's genitals fell into the ocean and begat Aphrodite, the goddess of love.


Proteus -- is being much maligned in this flick!  He was the son of the sea god, Poseidon, not Uranus. Proteus could not only take any form he pleased, but also had the gift of prophecy, although he  was reluctant to give out information.  Those who needed his knowledge had to grab him and hang on while he transformed himself into a series of frightening creatures.  When he realized he wasn't going to get away, Proteus would give the querent  the information he needed.  Proteus was not a malevolent deity, he simply wanted to be left alone.  And he certainly didn't demand human sacrifice.


Atlantis -- described in the works of Plato.  Supposedly, the Athenian lawgiver Solon visited Egypt and there learned the story from some priests.  Atlantis was a large island, especially blessed by Poseidon (not Uranus).  It became very powerful, conquered an empire, then lost the favor of the gods, who caused it to sink under the sea.  


Androcles -- there was no recorded Theban king of this name.  The name was most likely borrowed from the folktale "Androcles and the Lion"


Antinea --  apparently borrowed from the horror novel Atlantida, by Pierre Benoit.  According to the synopses I've read, Antinea is a descendent of the rulers of Atlantis.  She kidnaps men and turns them into statues. (It sounds like Hercules Unchained also borrowed a lot from this novel.)


Ismene -- a name borrowed from other Greek mythology.  Ismene was one of the daughters of the incestuous marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta













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