Monday, January 31, 2011

If You Want Something Visual, That's Not Too Abysmal

Once again, it’s time to delve into my giant Mill Creek box sets and see what comes from them. This time, unlike last time, I’m going with a film that is completely unknown to me – the 1925/6 Italian fantasy romp, Maciste In Hell. From what I have read up on the character of Maciste, he is basically and Italian take on Hercules, and has been used as a film character since around 1910. The use of the character fell out of favour towards the end of the 20’s, and had a resurgence following the popularity of Hercules films in the 60’s. Today’s film was the third last and most well known in the silent era series, and tells the tale of Maciste being taken to hell, so the Devil (that rapscallion) can try to test his morality.

Right off the bat, you are thrown into the story, with the forces of evil coming to Earth to have a little bit of fun (stealing babies and the like) and make an offer to a man whose good deeds are putting Hell on edge. Soon enough, the devil himself seeks out Maciste and engages him in a battle – brain v brawn, with Maciste’s virtue being the prize. Unlike the traditional “Hollywood” portrayal of Herculean like characters, Maciste is portrayed as a stocky country boy, with nary an oiled muscle to be seen. This really helped to show him as a human, rather than a glorified god. Finding himself on the losing end, the devil kidnaps a local maiden and baby, thus it is up to Maciste to follow, rescue them and put right what was set wrong. Maybe the devil shouldn’t have hidden the baby in a nearby clearing.

Upon his successful rescue, Maciste finds himself tossed down into Hell. Once there, he is confronted with a writing mass of devilish pitchfork wielding extras and just about every classical representation of hell and demons that one could think of. Flames, steam, giant demons, people being crucified on the ground – and so much more.  These is the kind of things that I think of when I think of “Hell”, so I was enjoying the whole in Hell segment quite a bit. While down in Hell, Maciste is temped with all manner of things to get him to give up his good ways and join Team Lucifer, all to no avail. In fact, the opposite happens, and he ends up tempting many of the demonic forces away from the dark.

Maciste soon returns to Earth, but finds himself strangely missing what was offered in Hell. From there, it is a giant battle for the man’s soul. Which is no easy task for the devils, as even when his is in Hell, Maciste cannot resist defending the weak and doing good deeds. It does not stop them, however, as Maciste is shown what is going on up on Earth. He eventually gives in to the temptation of a lady demon and becomes transformed into a demon himself (looking more like a barrel chested satyr than anything else). Eventually a giant riot breaks out in Hell, for reasons not adequately explained to us, between warring demons which leads to an awesome battle. However, this leads to Demon Maciste kicking everyone’s ass and shoving them all into a giant pit. And as a reward – back to Earth for him, but not if the lady demon has her way, keeping him imprisoned for several years. However, by using that old dues ex machina of a child’s prayer on Christmas Eve, he escapes and heads back to Earth.

Now, being that this is a Mill Creek release, the film quality is nowhere near what one would call “good”, but on the whole it’s watchable. It is a real shame that the quality is so bad (with possibly no chance of ever seeing a cleaned up version), as there are a LOT of really awesome visuals and costuming involved in this. For example, every time the devil or one of his lot were featured on screen, it was under a red/orange screen tint, which looked quite good. Granted, most of the special effects amount to no more than the usual stop-frame trickery one got in the era, but it worked. Hell, there is even an awesome papier mache stop-motion dragon (“Hells aeroplane”).

As for the acting, while nothing stands out as being great – and also being rife with the over-dramatic arm waving and gesturing that one would expect from silent era films – is mostly bearable, given the fantastical nature of the story. Bartolomeo Pagano plays Maciste with a good natured charm and almost innocence that you can’t help but root for the guy and this adds even more to the charm of the overall film.

As is the style of silent films, at some point someone laid a series of classical pieces over the film, so you get a treat for the ears even if the film is not a treat for the eyes and mind. Thankfully, this film is pretty damn good, in terms of visuals at least. Sure, the story is a little thin, but it works as a charming enough little fairy tale. I would be quite interested in seeing some other films from the Maciste series, at least the silent era ones.

I have to say, outside of one film that I watched before I started this little thing, I haven’t been steered too wrong by Mill Creek...yet.

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