Thursday, June 26, 2014



In 1550s Scotland, Martha Gunt is being burned as a witch; she goes to her death proclaiming that the presiding judge, Parrish, is getting revenge against her because she wouldn’t sleep with him and she as she dies, she curses the village, specifically the very ground she is burned on. One hundred years later, a gnarled tree has grown at the spot of her death; the curse causes girls from the town to hang themselves from the tree, which then blooms after their deaths. A descendent of the witch, also named Martha, has arrived in town to marry her boyfriend Charley and spend their honeymoon in the old Gunt castle, but when the villagers get wind of this, they grab their torches and head to the castle to kill Martha, hoping this will lift the curse.

Up to now, this has been a standard 60s horror film as ground out by Hammer Films or American International. But suddenly, who should show up in the middle of the night but Maciste, the Italian muscular, shirtless action hero, riding a horse and ready to kick some torch-wielding villager ass. He saves Martha and Charley from death, but cannot stop the officials from carting her off to jail, where she's to be burned as a witch the next day unless Maciste can break the curse. He heads off to the witch's tree, uproots it enough to go down into the ground beneath it, and enters Hell itself where he looks for the old witch Martha to try and convince her to call off the curse.

There is something almost charming about this odd sloppy hybrid. They don't even try to explain what the Hercules-era Maciste from Italy is doing in 17th century Scotland. The moment when the loinclothed hunk comes riding out of the night to save Martha is jolting in a fun way. The first shots of Hell, with dozens of underdressed people writhing in torture, are impressive, though as Maciste travels on, Hell feels rather sparsely populated. He runs across the old witch Martha who, in a nice touch, is hanging around with Judge Parrish, the man who put her to death. Among his hellish adventures: he meets Prometheus who has his intestines eternally pecked at by an eagle; gets his hands badly burned, then healed by a mysterious lovely lady; loses his memory then has it restored by looking into a magic pool to see his exploits of the past—by way of scenes from previous Maciste movies; and has to deal with an avalanche and some stampeding bulls. Kirk Morris—actually, an Italian actor named Adriano Bellini (pictured)—is likeable and boyishly cute in addition to being lithely hunky. And while I’m on the subject, Angelo Zanolli is quite handsome as Charley, who stands by his new bride even to the extent of climbing up to the stake with her as she's about to be burned. Something a little different for horror and/or peplum fans. [DVD]

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