Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Beefcake or Death?

Let me state upfront that I like Italy. I’ve spent time there, I enjoy the cuisine, the culture, the landscape and architecture, and I find their politics more entertaining than Bravo’s entire lineup of reality shows. So I don’t mean to perpetuate any stereotypes when I say that if you’re a Greek small businessman who operates a Mom ‘n’ Pop pantheon, you really shouldn’t allow more than three Romans inside at a time, or they will shoplift the crap out of your gods. And not just the major, big ticket deities either – they’ll swipe the demi-gods and heroes off the impulse rack near check-out, too.

Hercules, of course, is a Roman knockoff of the designer demi-god Heracles (you’ll note that when filching intellectual property, the Romans are smart enough to change the names a bit so they don’t get a takedown notice from Viacom). But they don't confine themselves to taking the Greeks’ theological sloppy seconds; no, they even knocked off their own knockoffs, as witnessed by the long and undistinguished film career of Maciste.

Created for the epic Italian film Cabiria (1914) and played by a moonlighting longshoreman, Maciste was a super-strong slave who just got stronger and more super and less slavey as the decades wore on, until by the 1960s his physical prowess was the equal of Hercules. But despite his enormous popularity in Europe (okay, Italy), in the U.S. Maciste remained the moral equivalent of a regional store brand of soda – the Shasta Cola to Hercules’ Diet Rite.

"You ever considered manscaping?"

Which is why Embassy Pictures, which started the whole greasy beefcake craze with its release of the Steve Reeves Hercules, bought up all the Maciste films after the craze cooled and slapped on new titles, giving the off-brand demi-god a variety of assumed names (Samson, Colossus, Goliath) and making it very difficult for Maciste to qualify for even a subprime mortgage. They packaged the whole mess for syndication under the rubric “The Sons of Hercules” and added a kickass theme song, an earworm so fiendishly catchy that once heard, it is never forgotten:

The mighty Sons of Hercules,
Were men as men could be!
These men of steel,
Had curb appeal,
And skin-tight Beefy-Ts!

Okay, maybe I don’t actually remember it all that well…Let’s just get on with our feature presentation, originally titled Maciste, l'uomo più forte del mondo (Maciste, the Strongest Man in the World).

Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules (1961)
Directed by Leonviola
Screenplay by Marcello Baldi and Giuseppe Mangione, Based on a Story by Leonviola

Maciste stands at the shore and pulls on a big rope, grunting and squatting and flexing as he plays tug of war with the ocean. Eventually he hauls in a blue whale, which is pretty good for surf casting, particularly since he’s using fairly light tackle – 11-foot rod, Penn Spinfisher reel, and a 4/0 circle hook with a sliding egg sinker on 40 lb test line.

He stares dumbly at the leviathan for a moment, trying to figure out how to stuff it into his creel, when two groups of horsemen approach. Group A are typical Greeks – swarthy men in micro-mini tunics, while Group B are mysterious masked figures dressed in white robes (which I understand were widely available in 1961), who are busily shooting arrows into Group A.

With no clue what’s going on, Maciste pulls his blade from the whale (and is rightwise declared King of Sea World) and just decides to start killing, stabbing one from Column A, and one from Column B. But before he can work up a decent body count, the sun rises and the Klan members shield their eyes. moan histrionically and writhe around before collapsing into the whale-flavored surf. So, these drama queens are the Mole Men, eh? I wouldn’t have expected a burrowing species to wear white, especially after Labor Day, but perhaps they’re big Tom Wolfe fans.

Maciste goes to Group A’s village, and finds that the Mole Men have razed it to the ground and abducted the inhabitants. He resolves to hunt down the bloodthirsty albinos and punish them for getting top billing.

He finds his quarry standing around in a clearing at high noon, which is confusing, because we’ve already established that sunlight makes Mole Men melt, but the filmmakers would appreciate it if we’d pretend it’s night time even though they couldn’t be bothered to put a blue filter on the lens and shoot day for night because jeez, do they have to do everything around here? Maybe we’d like them to tie our shoes and wipes our butts too, huh?

Anyway, the M&Ms have got a big, brawny black man tied to a tree, and are prancing around him in their white robes. Maciste cuts their victim free before squaring off against the Dancin’ Klansmen, so we can get a gladiatorial twist on The Defiant Ones, a delicious and ass-kicking chocolate-vanilla layer beefcake. Despite his muscular, well-oiled physique, however, the black dude just pops his eyes like Mantan Moreland and shinnies up the tree.

Oh well, that just means more Mole Men for Maciste to manhandle, and he proceeds to drive them off, but not before their leader loses his mask, revealing that he’s actually David Bowie from the Thin White Duke era.

Maciste coaxes the frightened bodybuilder out of the tree, and the man promptly flings himself on the ground and tenderly places Maciste’s foot on his own neck, whimpering, “I will be your slave forever.” Hmmm. You know, I should probably check the Freshness Date on this thing, because I’m beginning to think there was a typo on YouTube and it was actually made in 1861.

Anyway, the black guy is named “Bangor.” I’m a little disappointed by his lack of an authentic Down East accent, but I’ll meet the filmmakers halfway and just imagine all his lines being spoken by that guy from the Pepperidge Farm commercials. Bangor, by the way, is played by Paul Wynter, who was crowned Mr. Universe in 1960 and immediately cashed in his fame for a role in this piece of shit, a decision which later made Vanessa Williams feel much better about her bumpy reign as Miss America.

Next morning, Bangor serves Maciste breakfast in bed. Bangor has obviously been up for hours, because he’s had time to split a coconut and apply a fresh coat of glistening body grease. The two engorged specimens eye one another over the rims of their respective nuts as they gulp down the milky contents.

Okay, sorry, just had to get that out of my system. I should be fine for the rest of the movie.

The Mole Men have cleverly disguised the secret entrance to their hidden base, but they made one fatal error: they left all their still-saddled horses tied up next to it, so even a lead shot-for-brains like Maciste can figure it out. He immediately hatches a brilliant plan to get inside, which involves taking a nap.

Meanwhile, the Thin White Duke’s dad performs surgery on him without anesthetic, while Bowie screams and writhes and drips poster paint. It’s supposed to be harrowing, but I was too distracted by dad’s headdress, which eerily resembles the hat worn by the Grand Poobah of Fred Flintstone's lodge.

The cameraman finds the blue filter so it can be night again, and the M&Ms sneak up and surround Maciste, who lies on his back, pretending to be asleep, confident for some reason that these guys won’t all just stab their swords into him like so many ruffled toothpicks plunging into a chafing dish of Vienna Franks and cheese fondue.

Instead, they tie up Maciste and Bangor and take them underground, where they find Group A being forced to work in the M&M mines, and to listen to that one Midnight Oil album.

The prisoners castigate Bangor, who was supposed to be guarding their ruler, Princess Salubrious, and not practicing Japanese rope bondage with photophobic Klansmen, or sucking coconut milk with his beefy new friend.

Maciste and Bangor are put to work with the others. For the purposes of this film, “mining” means pushing around a giant wooden merry-go-round while screaming with excitement like you’re on a rollercoaster. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a long line for this ride, and even without a Fast Pass the wait is often less than half an hour.
"This is so bogus."

Meanwhile, Queen Bouffant, the evil but shapely monarch of the Mole Men makes a pass at Princess Salubrious, then snaps, “Put this girl in chains!” and suddenly I couldn’t love this movie more. Who needs Persian Kitty?

Queen Bouffant is betrothed to the Thin White Duke, but spends most of her time peeping through the drapes and watching Maciste and Bangor sweating, bulging, and glistening as they run around the merry-go-round. This comes as a surprise, because she doesn’t look like the kind of chick who would normally date carnies.

Later that night, the Queen’s black handmaiden, Sophocles Jones, goes to the prison cells and tells our heroes that the Queen plans to sacrifice Princess Salubrious, then make Bangor and Maciste fight to the death, because apparently achieving orgasm was a lot more involved back then.

Cut to a gravel quarry, where Queen Bouffant unveils a cage which contains a huge and savage ape (and the worst gorilla suit this side of the Nairobi Trio), and announces that anyone who defeats it gets to be her husband.  I'm sorry, but this is the wackiest episode of The Bachelorette I’ve ever seen, and I’m seriously tempted to switch over to Ice Road Truckers.

Bowie can’t fight the monster because he’s still on the 15-day DL, so Queen Bouffant tells Maciste and Bangor they can fight each other, and the winner gets ten minutes in the cage with the monkey. Suddenly it’s the end of Spartacus, where Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis are forced to duel, each trying to spare the other a long painful death by crucifixion by stabbing him. Except here Bangor and Maciste are fighting over the right to wrestle J. Fred Muggs, and they don’t really fight so much as they just sort of squat there and repeatedly trade light slaps, like they’re auditioning for a Skin Bracer® commercial while suffering from a bout of diarrhea. Hilarity ensues, however, when Bangor takes a fall, and rises with sand sticking to every inch of his baby oiled body, making his pecs resemble two panko-encrusted chicken breasts.

It all finally ends when Bangor head-butts Maciste, and knocks himself out. Maciste realizes his friend was only trying to save his life, and he honors this beau geste by squatting on the unconscious man’s chest like he’s about to deposit a Cleveland Steamer.

After the implied German fetish video, our hero gets in the cage, kills the gorilla costume, and is declared the rightful fiancé of Queen Bouffant. But Maciste is a confirmed bachelor, and he runs off with the comatose Princess Salubrious in his arms and escapes on a surprised horse who didn’t really want to get involved, and was just there to watch the primates wrestle.

Maciste takes Salubrious to Cypress Gardens, Florida, where they shower under the waterfall and watch The Go-Gos perform a precision aquaplaning exhibition. Then he heads back to the Mole Men’s subterranean empire, where he plans to stick a garden hose down their hole and drown them.

Meanwhile, the Grand Poobah wants Bouffant to punish the Mole Man who let Maciste escape. The Queen sentences him to lay on a beach towel until dead, and sure enough, the condemned guard doesn’t get through even one Top 40 hit on his Panasonic Toot-A-Loop transistor radio before the rays of the sun burn all the flesh off his bones, leaving nothing behind but the great smell of Sea ‘N’ Ski.

Hey, anyone hungry? Because we’ve got a steam tray full of plot nuggets over here. Grand Poobah tells David Bowie that Queen Bouffant isn’t actually a Mole Man – she was born on the surface, which means she’s got melanin, so the Thin White Duke has to breed with her, so his children will grow up to frolic on the beach and get their pants pulled down by a Scottish terrier.

Bowie baits a trap for Maciste by tying Bangor to a tree again. And again, Maciste arrives to free his steroidal sidekick, except this time he falls into a Malay Mole Mancatcher, then he gets hoisted up in a net, and then presumably minced and canned in spring water.

We cut to a Mole Man hitting a giant gong, and experience a brief surge of hope that we might have somehow switched over to TCM in time to catch a Rank Organisation film.

Nope. Queen Bouffant wants to see if Maciste is actually the strongest man in the world like it says in the title, and fortunately, Mole Man Land has a machine designed to test that very thing. It’s kind of a Rube Goldberg device, and the only thing I remember about the scene is the part where Sophocles Jones runs to give them water, and we get to watch two muscle men tongue a sea sponge.
I think I had a dream like this in Junior High...

But Maciste busts out some awesome feats of strength, and the Queen gets so turned on we suspect her throne could benefit from a few sea sponges. She frees Maciste so he can be her husband, because Bouffant doesn’t know she’s actually an above ground model, like a Doughboy Pool, and figures if she mates with our hero, then her kids will be able to tolerate sunlight. And if not, at least they'll look good in skin bronzer.

The Grand Poobah is pissed, and sets “the sacred lions” on them. But Maciste grabs the mallet from the gong and bonks the lions on the head, knocking them silly and dealing the worst blow to leonine dignity until Daktari.

Saved from certain death, and even more turned on by his ability to stun large cats, Queen Bouffant commands her minions to conduct Maciste to the Royal Booty Call Suite. But Poobah and Bowie slip him a roofie, then dump his body on that conveyor belt that Lucy and Viv worked at in the chocolate factory, except this one leads to a Bronze Age auto press.

Finding her booty call is getting a busy signal, Bouffant fears that Maciste has run off to be with Princess Salubrious (remember her?) and she decides to ride to Busch Gardens. But the other Mole Men (except for Bowie) refuse to accompany her because it’s almost dawn and they have to get up and go to work in the morning.

Back at the conveyor belt, Maciste regains consciousness and throws a spear through four guys who were walking single file because he woke up hungry and in the mood for shish kebab.  Then he frees all the slaves. But it turns out that Mole Man Land is a gated community, because the Grand Poobah locks all the exits, trapping them underground, and this is the signal for Maciste and Bangor to hold hands and stare into each other’s eyes.

It goes on for quite a long time, but they seem really comfortable with it, so who am I to judge? Suddenly, Maciste gets the idea to use a chain and the merry-go-round to pull down the ceiling, and everybody escapes.

Meanwhile, back at Bouffant, Bowie dies from third degree dawn (and it’s a prolonged and overacted death, according to ancient Mole Man tradition), while Bouffant realizes that she’s not actually an albino, and probably will be fine with just a little Bain de Soleil. She sees the world flooded with sunlight for the first time in her life, and it is glorious. A rainbow arches overhead as the awestruck queen walks to the edge of a waterfall, her once stern features softening into a child-like look of wonder. Then the sun gets in her eyes and she falls to her death.

The end.

So what have we learned from all this? Hell if I know – I’m too heavily medicated.  What do you guys think?


Green Eagle said...

What do I think? Stick with the medication- it seems to be doing you a lot of good.

M. Bouffant said...

I can't decide if I should deny or admit I'm related.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Have you realized yet that you're not an albino, M.B.?

Chris Vosburg said...

Whoa, glad Maciste remembered to wear underwear. At least I think he is.

Nice one, Scott!

grouchomarxist said...

The Sons of Hercules: now that's a real blast from the past. I think I was probably six or seven years old when one of our local stations ran those SoH -- I mean, Maciste -- flicks on tv. Oddly, this was the only one I remember -- besides never being able to dislodge that damnable theme song from a dusty pigeonhole of my memory. And the only thing I remembered about it was the execution scene. There was something about the notion people could really get fried by simple daylight that appealed to my ghoulish young sensibilities.

Anyway, great review, Scott. You make it sound so magnificently goofy that I'll have to watch it again. Funny thing is I owe my life-long fascination with bronzed, oiled muscle men -- er, I mean classical history and mythology, at least in part to those screwy old sword-and-sandal movies.

And Maciste in Hell -- which I first saw a couple of years ago -- is hands-down the coolest, weirdest silent film I've ever seen.

Dark Avenger said...

Hercules vs the Moon Men has possibly one of the best understated descriptions in the Wikipedia:

The film "blends" elements from a number of mythologies. Roman, Greek, Ancient Egyptian and Cretan elements are all thrown in.

Chris Vosburg said...

grouchomarxist writes: And Maciste in Hell -- which I first saw a couple of years ago -- is hands-down the coolest, weirdest silent film I've ever seen.

I knew I'd heard the name somewhere before, and it was in descriptions of Dwain Esper's astoundingly inept and funny Maniac (1934) which superimposed footage from this old italian silent over scenes of the main character losing his shit.

Weird Dave said...

So many bad movies,

so few oxys.

Dr.BDH said...

Wow, this is available from Netflix -- and not on MST3000, either. I'm gonna put it at the top of my queue then make my kids watch it. Having gone through multiple volumes of MST3000 DVDs, they've perfected the running commentary ala Joel and Mike, but with more poop and penis jokes. Thanks, Scott!

Anonymous said...

Biocafe !
In my youth, there were these dives in town where you sat behind a table and got a coffee or Coke to drink and could buy "food" to eat. There were movies running continuously and so a great place to escape if you were playing truant from school/work.
They were filthy and home to many advanced perverts but what made them even more attractive were the movies they ran.Steve Reeves and Jeffrey Hunter flashing their pecs in short skirts is all I can remember about them - one's eyes had to be constantly on the lookout for rats and pervs.
So, that's what I think - I Remember Biocafes.

Anonymous said...

Also, too, when they stopped making those movies, there must have been a huge glug -er - glut on the Italian olive oil market. Maybe that's why they started seriously exporting.

Scott said...

As grouchomarxist points out, the top photo is from the 1925 silent Maciste in Hell, reportedly the movie which suffused a then six year old Federico Fellini with the urge to one day become a filmmaker. And you can easily see why it appealed to him, because the picture is nutty as all get out. Maciste, as the title promises, goes to Hell (which is a mixture of Roman and Christian theology), rides a flying, fire-breathing dragon (Hell's public transit system), spies on his still-living relations via "television," decapitates a man with a single punch, and kisses a she-devil, which condemns him to remain in the hoary netherworld, and causes him to instantly grow a thick pelt on his hairy nether regions. Highly recommended.

And Suezboo: Yes, Maciste and his sidekick were two of the most thoroughly basted slabs of beefcake I have ever seen on a peplum -- it's like they came packed in grease from an auction house and the crew didn't bother to wipe them down with shop rags before the cameras rolled. (And bioscopes AND biocafes? I sense a theme here...)

Doctor, I hope you'll let us know what your kids thought of the movie.

Carl said...

"Maciste" sounds like something you seek a urologist for.

Carl said...

Cretan elements

I'm-a thinking 'at's not-a da way to spell dat woid, boss.

Stacia said...

Terrific stuff. Your write-up, not the movie, which sounds like the well-oiled remake of Golden Dawn. There is so much hilarity here, but for some reason I completely lost it at "kills the gorilla costume." There is just so much to love about that concept.

Weird Dave said...

So, Sundays with s.z.?

Scott said...


Thanks for for the gentle reminder, Dave. I have fallen down on the job -- in more ways than one -- but I will remedy that this weekend. I think I know just the perfect post to pull from the archives...