Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Maciste all'inferno / The Witch's Curse

Maciste is unusual amongst the peplum heroes in that his origins are not mythological but literary, making his first appearance in Emilio Salgari’s novel Cabiria. Though a relatively minor character in the novel and Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 film adaptation, Masciste proved a hit with Italian audiences, with dockworker turned actor Bartolomeo Pagano going on to play him in a further 24 films in the silent era.

Maciste’s adventures in these films established the character as unbounded by time and space, setting a precedent for his reincarnations in the peplum boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In Maciste alpino, for instance, Maciste actually fights in the First World War for Italy, while in the original Maciste all’inferno he is presented as a 19th century petit bourgeois type.

The English language title screen

In this remake cum reinterpretation of Maciste all’inferno the action is relocated to 16th and 17th century Scotland.

If this setting is one against which Kirk Morris’s / Adriano Bellini’s pepla wearing, bare-chested Maciste looks somewhat out of place, it is at least consistent with the nature of the character’s previous adventures. For, as we see via flashback interpolations of footage from other Maciste films – none featuring Morris, it might be added – the character’s mission to fight injustice wherever it may be found had earlier saw him face the mythical Cyclops and the historical Mongols.

The choice of setting might also be attributed to either director Riccardo Freda and / or producers Panda film, given that their previous collaboration on The Ghost had also had seen the use of Scottish locations.

As with that film, Maciste all’inferno / The Witch's Curse’s representations of Scotland is unconvincing, particularly through what appears to be the Catholicism rather than Protestantism of the Christianity on display when the priest officiating at the ceremony recites “in nomine patris” and so on.

Some rather un-Presbyterian hand gesturing here

This is excusable given that the purpose of the film was to entertain its target audiences in Italy, not to educate them on religious distinctions that might have interfered with their enjoyment of the film.

It does, however, also provide a further clue to why the typical peplum was unlikely to be well received by anyone emphasising fidelity to myth and history.

The story comes across as something of a combination of two films by Freda’s former cinematographer turned director Mario Bava, Black Sunday and Hercules in the Haunted World.

The opening sequence seems inspired by Black Sunday as a woman is burnt at the stake for being a witch and dies leaving a curse upon the village and its people.

I Vardella, er Martha, will have my revenge!

100 years later another woman is feared to be the re-incarnation of the witch and to have brought her curse to fruition.

While having the same name as the witch, Martha Gunt, she is not a double / reincarnation in the way Barbara Steele’s Asa and Katya are in Bava’s film, with the witch Martha and the innocent Martha being played by different actresses.

With the innocent Martha placed in gaol, tried, found guilty and sentenced to also burn at the stake, Maciste makes a timely entrance.

At this point the film becomes more like Hercules in the Haunted World as Maciste determines that the witch Martha’s curse can be lifted if he enters into Hell itself and bests her there.

The entry to Hell is beneath a tree

The complication is that the witch then ensorcels Maciste so that he loses his memory and cannot remember why he entered Hell in the first place

Although its story has affinities with the two Bava films, Maciste all’inferno is somewhat distinctive in its visual style. In part this is unsurprising when we consider the differences between the black and white expressionism of Black Sunday and the expressive use of colour in Hercules in the Haunted World. But another aspect of the difference appears more budgetary than aesthetic. Freda appears to have had the kind of material resources at his disposal to do crowd scenes denied Bava and to be able to deploy the sort of spectacular Bava had to fake through skilful mise-en-scene.

A relatively populous hell

In this regard it is also worth noting that, despite the film’s historical setting, Maciste all Inferno’s version of hell is a largely mythological one, as Maciste encounters the likes of Sisyphus and Prometheus rather than Satan, leading one to suspect that the lord of this hell is in fact Hades rather than Satan.

Maciste and Sisyphus...

and with Prometheus

One of the ways in which Maciste all’inferno remains distinctive even in its The Witch's Curse is that Maciste goes by this name, rather than being renamed as Hercules or Goliath for the sake of Anglophone audiences unfamiliar with the character and his history.

Maciste crosses a ravine...

to fight a giant; there is some good use of trick perspectives here to make the giant seem bigger than he really is

As a Freda film of this period it is also odd in that it sees him credited under his own name rather than his Robert Hampton pseudonym. This is perhaps because, unlike the cases of the western and the horror film, there was no-one to fool as regards the national origins of the peplum.

In terms of its own influence, meanwhile, Maciste all’inferno’s Scottish scenes are reminiscent of Michael Reeves’s The She Beast and Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General. If this seems co-incidental, it is worth noting the visual similarities between the witch Martha and her She Beast counterpart Vardella. Moreover, Reeves was clearly familiar with Italian horror given his second-unit work on Castle of the Living Dead; the Italian co-production nature of that film and The She Beast, and the casting there of Steele in a distinctively Italian-style dual role.


Simon said...

Actually, Scotland was largely Catholic in the 16th & 17th century, particularly the Highlands. That was one of the reasons for the mini-"civil wars" in 1714 and 1745. Haven't seen the movie, but from what you say, it's not necessarily inaccurate.

K H Brown said...

Yes, parts of Scotland certainly were. Other parts weren't. So maybe the film isn't necessarily inaccurate but neither is it necessarily accurate either? Witchfinder General makes for an interesting comparison here, in that with its English Civil War setting the filmmakers were more aware of religious aspects than here.