Have you ever watched a movie and been disappointed that no one throws a man in a bear suit into space? After watching Luigi Cozzi's "Hercules," I realized that I'll forever be disappointed in movies that don't include a man in a bear suit being thrown into space. It's rare that a movie embodies the mercurial beauty of "So Bad It's Good" cinema the way Cozzi's "Hercules" does. Cozzi is a director whose career is studded with knock-off films: "Starcrash" is his "Star Wars," "Contamination" is his "Alien," and this movie is his "Clash of the Titans." What sets Cozzi's knock-offs apart is the fact that they are crammed to bursting with STUFF HAPPENING--you may be baffled by what's on screen, but you are guaranteed to never, ever be bored. Cozzi's muse is all hopped up on sugar cereal and sparkles with gloriously absurd ideas, every one of which the director is dedicated to capturing on film, always punctuated with an exclamation point.
That's a man in a bear suit at the top center of this image. In space. A MAN IN A BEAR SUIT IN SPACE.
"Hercules" starts off by disorienting its audience with a melange of repurposed alchemical mysticism, patchwork Greek mythology, and dicey astronomy that attempts to explain the creation of the universe. To sum up: the fire of chaos created four elements (day, night, air and matter) which in turn created Pandora's Jar which exploded and then that created the planets--all of which is presided over by the space-deities Zeus, Athena and Hera. In order to fight the evils that have been unleashed by the breaking of the jar, the gods create Hercules and then proceed to fuck with him for pretty much no reason at all until he can prove he's really a hero. By flinging so much nonsense at the audience within the movie's first minutes, the filmmaker cleverly establishes a base level of insanity that will be maintained throughout the film. There's a rhythm to the weirdness here, and that rhythm is the blast beat--relentless, overwhelming and fast.
"My God, it's full of stars!"
Armchair scholars should be forewarned that any resemblance between what happens here and any Greek mythology they might be familiar with is purely coincidental. If you're the type of person who likes to point out that King Minos was not a science-loving spacelord hell-bent on destroying Hercules and that Daedalus was not a hot babe in plexiglas armor who made stop-motion steampunk monsters to aid in Minos' misdeeds, then you should probably stay far, far away from this film. It will do nothing but cause you devastating head pain and consternation, above and beyond anything Steve Reeves ever had a muscley hand in. If, however, you are like Dear Friend of the Empire Vicar of VHS, and believe that "Starcrash" outclasses the "Star Wars" movies, then you are in for a whopper of a treat.
"You cannot pay me with Masters of the Universe toys."
Once Hercules begins impressing the world with his feats of strength and bravery, the forces of evil conspire to put an end to his do-good-ery. Hercules falls in love with Cassiopeia, a beautiful princess, but the two are separated when King Minos kidnaps the princess in order to offer her as a virgin sacrifice. Motivations get pretty muddy at this point--Minos is allegedly obsessed with science and reason, and yet his primary mission seems to revolve around a supernatural ritual. Also, he uses magic. Theological issues aside, the story is clear-cut in the way only a kids' film can be--bad guys are bad guys on account of doing bad guy stuff, and good guys are defined by the fact that they help the hero, who is the dude the movie is named after.
Absolutely everything about this movie is engineered for maximum silliness and delight. The costumes include space-deity getups that would do the Unarians proud and skimpy outfits for the leading ladies that manage to stay just this side of the movie's PG rating. The sea witch Circe (who becomes an unlikely ally of Hercules') wears body armor over her torso that includes sculpted nipples and mons pubis, while Cassiopeia dons what looks like strategic Christmas tinsel after she is kidnapped by Minos and his evil daughter Ariadne.
Captain Hercules von Steamingham versus the ratchet-powered Clankerbug of Thebes
The special effects work is rickety but entirely lovable. In the absence of a Ray Harryhausen to bring his monsters to life, Cozzi's FX team cobbles together some stop-motion robots (all of whom would look more at home in "Starcrash" or maybe "Flesh Gordon") and an occasional puppet to provide the movie's whimsical bestiary. These tin-toy creations may not be convincing, but it's pretty much impossible not to smile as they menace Hercules and his companions.
The casting is B-movie bliss, putting "Incredible Hulk" actor Lou Ferrigno front and center as the legendary muscle-man and allowing him to flex his way through feat after feat of superhuman strength. One of my fave Euro-heavies, William Berger, hams it up as King Minos, pulling an impressive series of facial expressions throughout. I loved Berger's eyebrow-arching, finger-tenting turn as Father Vicente in Jess Franco's "Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun," and he's in equally fine form here. In a one-two punch of inspired villain casting, Sybil Danning plays Minos' wicked daughter Ariadne. Like Dyanne "Ilsa She Wolf of the SS" Thorne, Danning achieves a base level of haughty cruelty just by showing up in front of the camera.
As if this wasn't enough, there's an appearance by Bobby "Tony the Pimp in 'Demons'" Rhodes as the King of Africa, who adds nothing to the story except the fact that he looks awesome being carried around in a palanquin made of dinosaur bones.
This movie didn't have to show a baby fighting papier mache snakes, BUT IT DID.
The only reason I can think of that Cozzi's "Hercules" hasn't achieved fame as a cult classic is that it's been relegated to the stacks of kids movies due to its lack of gore and nudity. Allow me to assure you that this film doesn't require gore and nudity to achieve mind-bending weirdness. "Hercules" doesn't need to be as bizarre as it is, but it goes there for no other reason than someone thought that was a good idea. And for that, I salute this movie and everyone involved in its creation.