Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Cannon Files, Special FerrignoFest Edition: HERCULES (1983), THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS (1984), THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (1985), and SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1990)

(Italy - 1983)

Written and directed by Lewis Coates (Luigi Cozzi).  Cast: Lou Ferrigno, Sybil Danning, Brad Harris, William Berger, Rossana Podesta, Ingrid Anderson, Mirella D'Angelo, Bobby Rhodes, John Garko (Gianni Garko), Yehuda Efroni, Delia Boccardo, Claudio Cassinelli, Frank Garland (Franco Garofalo), Gabriella George (Gabriella Giogelli), Steven Candell (Stelio Candelli), Eva Robbins, Roger Larry (Rocco Lerro).  (PG, 99 mins)

When THE INCREDIBLE HULK ended its five-season run on CBS in 1982, two-time Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno wanted to achieve the big-screen success that his PUMPING IRON rival Arnold Schwarzenegger was enjoying with the hit film CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  The opportunity presented itself when he was approached by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus about several projects for Cannon, including a new version of HERCULES.  It was a dream come true for Ferrigno, who got into a bodybuilding during his teen years as a way of building his self-confidence and to combat bullying after an early childhood ear infection caused him to lose 80% of his hearing.  Ferrigno discovered what would become one of his biggest inspirations when his father took eight-year-old Lou to see Steve Reeves in HERCULES in 1959, so he couldn't turn down the chance to make his own mark with a remake of a film that was such a milestone in his life.

Perhaps wanting a more traditional "Hercules" feel (but probably doing the math and realizing it would be cheaper to do it this way), Golan and Globus farmed HERCULES out to their Italian branch, which was being run by John Thompson, now an executive with Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium/NuImage.  According to a 1992 Starlog interview with co-star Sybil Danning, the original script for HERCULES was filled with generous amounts of violence and sex, much like the very R-rated CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  But as the project was near and dear to Ferrigno's heart and he likely didn't want to risk turning away the younger fan base he amassed from THE INCREDIBLE HULK, he and his wife Carla instituted some changes to make the film much more PG-ready and kid-friendly.  What resulted was a bizarre collection of vignettes with a distinct sci-fi edge, with the retooled script liberally borrowing more from STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, and CLASH OF THE TITANS than it did from CONAN (Danning referred to the completed film as "a bad episode of FAERIE TALE THEATER").  Former Dario Argento associate Luigi Cozzi (using his regular pseudonym "Lewis Coates"), who had a minor drive-in hit with 1979's STAR WARS ripoff STARCRASH, was hired to write and direct the film and brought with him STARCRASH special effects designer Armando Valcauda, whose stop-motion animation and time-lapse photography techniques were antiquated at best, and laughable at worst, even more so coming at the end of a summer ruled by RETURN OF THE JEDI.  So what began as a full-blooded sword-and-sandal saga for grown-ups turned into a cheap-looking, childish sci-fi adventure whose pitiful visual effects and cheesy dubbing (even Ferrigno, his natural voice affected by his hearing loss, would be dubbed by someone else in all of his Italian-made Cannon productions) got it laughed off multiplex screens nationwide when it opened in US theaters in late August 1983.  Instead of Schwarzenegger-sized stardom, Ferrigno and the film were rewarded with a slew of Razzie nominations, including Worst Film, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Actor, with Danning winning Worst Supporting Actress (shared for this and her work in CHAINED HEAT) and Lou being named Worst New Star over such competition as Reb Brown in YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE and Cindy & Sandy, the Shrieking Dolphins in JAWS 3-D.

Good luck following the plot:  on the moon, Zeus (Claudio Cassinelli) hurls a ball of light to Earth below and it enters the body of a newborn child of royal lineage who becomes baby Hercules.  Then Hercules' parents are killed at the behest of the wicked King Minos (William Berger) and his scheming daughter Adriana (Danning), who orders flunky centurion Valcheus (Gianni Garko) to kill the child.  When Hercules is sent floating down the river in a basket, a soldier is about to shoot an arrow at him when the idiotic Valcheus instructs him to just let him go, that "the river will take care of him for us."  Hercules is then found and raised by childless couple Ma & Pa Kent...er, I mean, Father and Mother (Stelio Candelli, Gabriella Giorgelli).  Years later, the grown Hercules finds his father being killed by a wild bear, which Hercules promptly hurls into space, creating a new constellation.  When his mother is killed by a flying robot sent to Earth by King Minos, Hercules decides to forge his own path on his way to exacting vengeance on Minos and finding love with Cassiopea (Ingrid Anderson), daughter of the honorable King Augeias (Brad Harris, himself a former 1960s Hercules and another inspiration to Ferrigno), and briefly being turned into a giant by Circe (Mirella D'Angelo).  This all leads to a showdown on a narrow catwalk over a bottomless pit with King Minos, who swings a multi-colored laser-y flaming sword that strongly resembles a light saber in a sequence that in no way is meant to look anything like a certain memorable part of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  Hercules then defeats Minos by pulling a sword from a golden stone ("This sword consecrated to Zeus fears nothing!"), but it's in no way meant to remind you of EXCALIBUR.

HERCULES is just dreadful, from the lousy special effects to the copious amounts of stock footage from other sword & sandal epics that were at least 20 years old with completely mismatched film stock.  Sure, there's some Bad Movie Night value, but it doesn't really get goofy until the climax.  Until then, it's deadly dull despite a committed physical performance by Ferrigno, whose as effective-looking a Hercules as his idol Steve Reeves.

(Italy - 1984)

Directed by Bruno Mattei.  Written by Claude Fragass (Claudio Fragasso). Cast: Lou Ferrigno, Sybil Danning, Brad Harris, Dan Vadis,  Carla Ferrigno, Barbara Pesante, Yehuda Efroni, Mandy Rice-Davies, Robert Mura, Ivan Beshears (Emilio Messina), Jody Wanger (Giovanni Cianfriglia), Michael Franz (Sal Borghese), Gary Levine (Raul Cabrera). (PG, 86 mins)

When HERCULES was released in theaters at the end of the summer of 1983, it was supposed to be Ferrigno staking his claim to Schwarzenegger-level big-screen fame.  When that didn't exactly pan out, his subsequent Cannon films didn't get nearly the same rollout as HERCULES.  THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS made it into a handful of US theaters exactly a year later in August of 1984, but it was shot before HERCULES, which Cannon and Ferrigno clearly deemed the more important picture in their new partnership.  A CONAN-inspired remake of both Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and its own remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS is surprisingly straight-faced and competently-made, considering it's directed by veteran Italian schlock king Bruno Mattei and written by future TROLL 2 director Claudio Fragasso.  Mattei and Fragasso worked together throughout the '80s on such revered trash classics as HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (1983), RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR (1984) and the legendary STRIKE COMMANDO (1987), and its 1988 sequel, just to name a few, but THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS finds the dynamic duo in rare, restrained form, even making effective use of mostly outdoor locations.  Even 1983 Cannon was big-time for these two, so maybe the additional money and answering to Golan & Globus helped them buckle down and stay focused (it also helps that the film necessitates relatively little in the way of inevitably hilarious visual effects), but I'll be damned if Mattei and Fragasso didn't turn in a generally serious and thoroughly watchable film not aimed for the kiddie crowd.  Cheap and cheesy, yes...but surprisingly okay, very respectful of its sources, and other than the villain's clothing, not demonstrating much at all in the way of unintentional laughter.

The premise should be familiar to anyone who's seen the older films.  Sadistic despot Nicerote (Dan Vadis) raids a village yearly to steal their food.  Unable to defend themselves, the citizens, ruled by Nicerote's blind mother Anakora (Barbara Pesante), use a magical sword to guide them to the chosen one who will come to their aid.  That turns out to be enslaved gladiator Han (Ferrigno), who brings along aging buddy Scipio (Brad Harris), and the two recruit five more magnificent gladiators along the way, including Julia (Sybil Danning). Ferrigno, Danning, and Harris would also go on to star in HERCULES, though Harris didn't have much to do.  Oddly, it's Scipio who gets romantically involved with Julia, while Han only has eyes for village maiden Pandora, which isn't all that surprising when you consider that she's played by Ferrigno's wife Carla.  Danning has said in interviews that she and Ferrigno didn't get along very well on either of these films, which may have resulted in her getting a different--and smaller--role in HERCULES than was originally intended.   And that's a shame, because she's perfectly cast, even if she's dubbed by Pat Starke, who's here along with most of the golden era Italian dubbing icons. 

Dan Vadis (1938-1987)
Vadis, himself a former Hercules and peplum regular in the '60s who had fallen on hard times by the '80s, is suitably hateful is the evil Nicerote.  With the '60s muscleman craze finished, Vadis was acting infrequently in the early 1970s until Clint Eastwood started giving him small roles in some of his films (Vadis appeared in 1973's HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, 1977's THE GAUNTLET, 1978's EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, and 1980's BRONCO BILLY and ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN), but the troubled actor was already losing a battle with alcohol and drugs.  He was no longer in bodybuilding shape and was rather thin and gaunt-looking by 1983, and wasn't getting much help from his character's ludicrous wardrobe.  As was the case with Harris (who also guest-starred on a final-season INCREDIBLE HULK episode), Ferrigno was a big fan of Vadis' old movies in his youth and probably pulled some strings to get him the part.  THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS proved to be Vadis' last film:  he died of a drug overdose at just 49 in 1987, his body found in his car in the Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, CA.

(Italy - 1985)

Written and directed by Lewis Coates (Luigi Cozzi).  Cast: Lou Ferrigno, Milly Carlucci, Sonia Viviani, William Berger, Carlotta Green (Carla Ferrigno), Claudio Cassinelli, Nando Poggi, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Venantino Venantini, Laura Lenzi, Margi Newton, Cindy Leadbetter, Serena Grandi, Eva Robbins.  (PG, 88 mins)

Operating under the utterly false assumption that audiences were demanding a sequel to HERCULES, Ferrigno and Cozzi reunited for 1985's THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES, released in some parts of the world as HERCULES II.  Golan and Globus didn't even put their names on this one, and it doesn't look like they put much money into it, either.  With an even more paltry budget than the first go-around, Cozzi relies on quite a bit of recycled footage from the first film (not to mention using the same Pino Donaggio score), so much so in the early going (the eight-minute, whoosh-filled SUPERMAN-inspired opening credits sequence contains highlights from the first film) that it's 17 minutes in before we get a new shot of Ferrigno, and you can tell when Cozzi's using stock footage from the 1983 film because in the new footage,  Ferrigno's hair is cut shorter and he isn't nearly as bulky--his shoulders and neck aren't quite as huge and his chest is noticeably smaller.   Cozzi's script is just as incoherent as the first:  four rebel gods have stolen the seven thunderbolts of Zeus (Claudio Cassinelli), who calls on Hercules (Ferrigno) to recover them and stop the evil and chaos unleashed by their theft.  Hercules teams up with two adoptive sisters, Urania (Milly Carlucci) and Glaucia (Sonia Viviani) to help him in his quest.  The four rebel gods:  Hera (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), Flora (Laura Lenzi), Aphrodite (Margi Newton), and Poseidon (Nando Poggi) resurrect the dead King Minos (William Berger), who is given a protective shield of "cunning, connivance, and chaos" by his snarky sidekick Daedalus (Eva Robbins).  Hercules battles various types of weird creatures and is kidnapped by the Spider Queen and imprisoned in her magnetic web before escaping for his final battle with King Minos.

Here's where Cozzi just loses control of the film and lets things go completely bonkers.  Just as Hercules and Minos face off--it's important to note that it's bulky 1983 Ferrigno at the beginning of this sequence--there's a couple of odd closeups of a grinning Berger before Minos and Hercules both turn into neon animated figures and begin dueling.  Yes...Cozzi and his effects team simply used cheap rotoscoping effects over Hercules and Minos' climactic battle in the 1983 film to present it in a weird neon animated form and pass it off as a new confrontation.  But that ends quickly as the animated Minos turns himself into a T-Rex and the animated Hercules becomes a giant gorilla and they start wrestling.  The T-Rex Minos then turns into a giant snake and is hurled into space by Gorilla Hercules. 

But Cozzi's cut-rate hackery doesn't end there!  Cozzi recycles footage from the 1983 film where Circe turned Hercules into a giant, as Zeus calls upon him to "save mankind!" (cue destruction footage from the 1960 Steve Reeves version of THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII) and proceeds to awkwardly construct a climax around inferior-looking, unused workprint footage of Ferrigno from the first film.  In other words, the last 20 minutes of THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES consist of two climactic action sequences that were assembled completely without Ferrigno's participation.  Cozzi managed to have a Hercules/King Minos showdown with neither Ferrigno nor Berger anywhere near the set.  I would've liked to have been in the room when someone said "Hey, a rotoscoped T-Rex and a gorilla!  We can do this!"

Considering that Ferrigno isn't really even in the first or last 20 minutes, it's probably a safe bet that they didn't have him for very long or, given the universally negative reception the 1983 film got, maybe he just wasn't all that into it this time.  It's hard to believe anyone wanted a sequel to such a dismal film, but it must've been a hit somewhere.  In an odd way, THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES is more entertaining than HERCULES, largely because of the batshit looney tunes climax.  It's not quite as STAR WARS-influenced as the first film and some of the sets have a more traditional peplum look to them.  Cannon didn't give this one the nationwide rollout that HERCULES was granted, only dumping it in a handful of theaters before it appeared on video store shelves and on cable.

(Italy - 1990)

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari.  Written by Tito Carpi, Enzo G. Castellari, and Ian Danby.  Cast: Lou Ferrigno, John Steiner, Roland Wybenga, Cork Hubbert, Enio Girolami, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Yehuda Efroni, Alessandra Martines, Teagan, Leo Gullotta, Stefania Girolami, Donal Hodson, Melonee Rodgers, Romano Puppo, Daria Nicolodi, Giada Cozzi, Ted Rusoff. (PG-13, 93 mins)

Luigi Cozzi had a script ready for SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS, which was set to be shot as a miniseries for Italian television right after HERCULES but Cozzi and Ferrigno ended up doing THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES instead.  After that, Cannon relieved Cozzi of his duties and turned SINBAD over to veteran journeyman Enzo G. Castellari (STREET LAW, 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS), who rewrote Cozzi's script with frequent collaborator Tito Carpi (with additional rewriting by dubbing veteran Ian Danby), with Cozzi retaining a "Story by" credit under his "Lewis Coates" pseudonym.  SINBAD was shot in 1986 and, according to an interview with Cozzi, Castellari had six hours of raw footage that Cannon deemed unusable and the entire project was shelved.  Three years later, in an attempt to salvage something of the wreckage, a struggling Cannon rehired Cozzi to take the Castellari footage and construct a 90-minute feature out of it, which obviously explains the disjointed nature of the resulting film, released straight-to-video in late 1990.  An attempt was also made to haphazardly tie it into a brief and mostly botched Edgar Allan Poe revival that was taking place (over 1988-1991,  there were two new versions of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, plus THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA, THE HOUSE OF USHER, BURIED ALIVE, and Cozzi's own THE BLACK CAT, plus the George A. Romero/Dario Argento collaboration TWO EVIL EYES) by adding a pre-credits crawl claiming the film was based on Poe's short story "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade."  Cozzi shot new wraparound sequences with Daria Nicolodi as a mom reading a bedtime story to her daughter (Cozzi's daughter Giada), with extensive voiceover narration valiantly attempting to hold things together.  As in THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES, stock footage was utilized to tie up further loose ends (including snippets from two older Ray Harryhausen SINBAD films and even Argento's PHENOMENA), with one amazing shot of Ferrigno's clean-shaven Sinbad about to dive in the water followed by a cut to stock footage from HERCULES of a fully-bearded Ferrigno swimming.  Sloppily assembled and with no oversight at all (at one point, courtesy of some careless or desperate editing, Romano Puppo's character is in two places at once), it's a miracle that Cozzi was even able to assemble anything, considering the apparent mess left by Castellari, who's got a number of beloved genre films to his name (including the original 1978 cult classic INGLORIOUS BASTARDS) but was having a really off-day with SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS.

The resulting film understandably feels made up as it goes along, with Ferrigno's heroic Sinbad on a quest to defeat evil wizard Jaffar (John Steiner), who casts a spell over the Caliph of Basra (Donal Hodson) in an attempt to steal his princess daughter (Alessandra Martines) from Prince Ali (Roland Wybenga).  Sinbad faces all manner of danger, from zombie knights to styrofoam rock monsters to a wicked sorceress (Melonee Rodgers) and is aided by his faithful companions:  Ali, along with the "Viking warrior" (Enio Girolami), Poochie the Dwarf (Cork Hubbert), "the bald cook" (Yehuda Efroni), and "the Chinese soldier of fortune" (played by Japanese Haruhiko Yamanouchi).  Sinbad eventually meets the lovely Kyra (Castellari's daughter Stefania Girolami), daughter of a wacky comic relief magician (a shamelessly mugging Leo Gullotta), and is forced to fight an evil clone of himself created by Jaffar. Despite Cozzi's Herculean efforts, SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS makes 90 minutes feel like 90 days, and the whole thing would be a complete washout were it not for one saving grace:  Steiner's incredible, insane performance as Jaffar.

Unlike Ferrigno's past Italian efforts, some of the actors in SINBAD were recorded with live sound and not dubbed over (though Lou remains dubbed).  British actor Steiner had a long and busy career in Euro-cult cinema (SALON KITTY, SHOCK, CALIGULA, TENEBRE, and countless others), sometimes dubbing himself, sometimes not.  His magnificent voice is on full display here, as his perpetually wide-eyed Jaffar preens, sneers, grins, hisses his S's and rolls his R's with mad glee, turning all of his scenes into his personal playground and conducting a virtual seminar in how to perfectly play a camp movie villain, which he dials up even more with the mid-film arrival of his bitchy sidekick Soukra (female bodybuilder Teagan Clive), who asks "Have you taken your medication this morning?"  In that respect, we should thank Cannon for rehiring Cozzi to piece together what he could from the stagnant remains of the shelved miniseries.  Otherwise, we'd be deprived of Steiner's truly inspired histrionics:  watch him shake his fist and yell "I'm winning!" or threaten Sinbad with "You are forcing me to carry out my most devastating act of magical madness!" or the way he yells "Guards!" or, in one of the greatest moments in all of cinema, getting in the princess' face and proclaming "No one, not Prince Ali, not even his friend Sinbad, the man who I hate more than hate itself, will stand between me...and my heart's desire! (long pause) HA!"  Steiner doesn't just chew the scenery--he gorges on it with the rabid fervor of Mr. Creosote after skipping breakfast and lunch.  Steiner's fully aware that he's in a shit sandwich of a movie, and where most actors would just punch a clock and move on to the next gig, Steiner acts like he's taking center stage in a Cecil B. DeMille production,  just blowing everyone off the screen with his deliriously crazed acting.  It's surprising that he never attempted to work in major Hollywood movies--there's any number of big budget '80s and '90s action movies where he could've played a perfect over-the-top villain.  Steiner's hysterical Jaffar was a bit of a last hurrah for the veteran actor.  A few years after SINBAD, he would grow bored with the lack of decent roles and the diminishing paychecks of the declining Italian film industry, prompting him to retire from acting in 1991 and make a completely unpredictable career and life change:  at 50, he moved to Los Angeles and became a major Beverly Hills real estate mogul.

Is there any caption that will do this shot justice?

The marriage between Cannon and Ferrigno didn't really work out for either party, though each of the four films have their charms, and THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS, despite a recipe for disaster with Mattei and Fragasso, is the unlikely best of the bunch.  Ferrigno has said in interviews that he enjoyed working on all four of these films and has nothing but nice things to say about Cozzi and Castellari.  After his ill-fated journey through the Italian B-movie industry, Ferrigno returned to the US and appeared in several INCREDIBLE HULK TV-movies until star Bill Bixby's death in 1993.  He also teamed with YOR's Reb Brown in the 1989 cagefighting actioner CAGE and its 1994 sequel CAGE II.   Now 61, he's a regular guest at fan conventions as well as a sought-after motivational speaker about overcoming disabilities, and he's also proven willing to poke fun at himself, even spending some time on the Kevin James sitcom THE KING OF QUEENS as next-door neighbor "Lou Ferrigno." 


  1. Bad article, really bad, you don't know how to appreciate these movie at all, just how to crap on them like some hack critic. And obviously some people did go see Hercules 1983, now bugger off you sodding hack critic with your hack blog of crap.

  2. Silly article, but whatever, you obviously can't have fun with B-Movies anyway. You hack critic with your hack blog.