Saturday, July 28, 2012
"Giant of Evil Island" director Piero Pierotti's "Hercules and the Masked Rider" (** OUT OF ****) is another of those cheaply produced but entertaining Italian peplums that take place outside the standard Greek or Roman setting of the ancient world. Mind you, when American International released this 86-minute Eastman color epic, the hero was named Goliath. Impeccable Italian body-builder Sergio Ciani portrays Hercules with his usual gusto. Presumably, the studio altered the title because Anglo-Saxon audiences remember Goliath as a villain rather than a hero based on his infamous Biblical exploits. Specifically, this adventure occurs in Medieval Spain with our hero passing through town with a gang
of gypsies. The eponymous "Masked Rider" is none other than a Zorro knock-off sporting a scarlet mask! Appropriately enough, Don Juan is a frustrated suitor who joins a renegade band of gypsies to break-up an impending marriage between chief villain Don Ramiro and his bride. Of course, things are complicated because Don Juan and the bride are distant relatives. They don't let these problematical genetics befuddle their thinking. Meanwhile, Pierotti and scenarists Arpad DeRiso, Ernesto Gastaldi, and Luciano Martino knew what they were doing when they cross-bred genres to make "Hercules and the Masked Rider." Aside from the usual production values that we've come to expect from peplums, "Hercules and the Masked Rider" benefits from a charismatic orchestral soundtrack by the dynamic Angelo Francesco Lavagnino who scored the John Wayne adventure "Legend of the Lost," the Gordon Scott peplum "Goliath and the Vampires," and Sergio Leone's "The Colossus of Rhodes."
The action opens with Don Ramiro's army of soldiers on horseback pursuing farmers. They are fleeing from his land because he has been selling them off for service to the king to help fight a war in Flanders. Don Ramiro (Arturo Dominici of "Conquest of Mycene") and Captain Blasco (Ettore Manni of "Chino") are fiercely chasing a pair of newlyweds, Felipe (Piero Leri of "The Condemned of Altona") and his wife Dolores (Dina De Santis of "Romulus and the Sabines"), before they cross a river onto the Valverdate estate of Don Francisco (Renato Navarrini of "The Son of Hercules vs. Venus"), but they don't stop them in time. Moreover, Don Francisco forbids Don Ramiro to cross over and capture them. During this exodus, we see Hercules (Alan Steel) wield a mean quarter staff as he topples several of Don Ramiro's ruffians. Anyway, Don Francisco detests Don Ramiro, but he realizes that the latter has an army assembled. Don Ramiro relinquishes any claim to Felipe and Dolores when Don Francisco's beautiful daughter Dona Blanca (José Greci of "Goliath and the Sins of Babylon") rides up. Don Ramiro gives the newlyweds to Blanca as an admirer. Although they don't an adequate job of explaining this complication, Pierroti and his writers have Don Francisco promise Blanca to Don Ramiro to prevent bloodshed between their families.
When gallant Don Juan (Mimmo Palmara of "Johnny West") returns alone from fighting in the war, he is surprised to learn about his uncle's new marriage plans for Blanco. Incidentally, Blanco had promised to marry him before he left for war a year ago. Don Francisco banishes Don Juan after our hero learns Blanco didn't betray him. Gypsies ambush Juan after he leaves Don Francisco's estate. The leader of the gypsies, Estella, pits Juan in a knife fight against Hercules. The two adversaries battle to a stand-off. Estella befriends Juan, and he joins Hercules and the gypsies. Meanwhile, Ramiro arrives at Don Francisco's and skewers him in a duel. Later, Juan learns from Estrella at her gypsy camp that Don Ramiro has killed Don Francisco and is holding Dona Blanca. Juan convinces Estrella (Pilar Cansino of "Revolt of the Mercenaries"), to help Dona Blanca. Estrella helps Juan because she suspects Ramiro killed her husband. During a festive celebration, Estella, Hercules, and the gypsies enter Don Ramiro's estate to perform. Before Estella's fateful dance, Ramiro pays her to put a spell on Blanca. Estella relieves Blanca about her fears about Juan. During the dance, Estella and her gypsies nearly kill Ramiro in a ceremony when they hurl knives into the air. Blasco rescues Estella from Ramiro's torturous rack. It seems Blasco saved Ramiro's life so Ramiro spares Estella. Ramiro demands Blasco capture the "misbegotten cavalier with a mask." Ramiro warns Blasco he plans to hang Estella if he doesn't bring back the Masked Rider. Of course, Juan and Blasco team up to defeat Ramiro. Nevertheless, Juan winds up putting his head into the noose before he has a showdown on a balcony with Ramiro in a sword fight to the death!
An unusual cross-fertilization of genres, "Hercules and the Masked Rider" isn't the only example of this kind of hybrid storytelling. "The Witch's Curse" transported its peplum hero to another distant time setting. The casual negligence with which Pierotti and his scenarists treat these legendary genre characters by loosing them from the confines of their separate time periods so they can collaborate is as imaginative as it is contrived. Juan appears as Zorro three times and carves a scar in Ramiro's face during their first encounter. Meantime, DeRiso was no stranger to peplums. He wrote several other Hercules epics, including "Hercules Against the Moon Men," "Hercules Against Rome," and "Hercules and the Black Pirate." He wrote "Giant of Evil Island" for Pierotti, too. An uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi contributed to the screenplay; he specialized in Giallo murder mysteries and Spaghetti westerns like "My Name is Nobody" and "The Price of Power." Luciano wrote at least three peplums, "Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus," "Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon" and "Hercules Against the Barbarians."
Altogether, "Hercules and the Masked Rider" isn't as good as either a conventional stand-alone "Hercules" or "Zorro" movie. Pierotti keeps the action moving ahead so the film doesn't bog down in its own complications. Hercules is constantly outnumbered but triumphant. Nonetheless, a competent cast, scenic surroundings, and an energetic musical score cannot compensate for the predictable script with its shortage of surprises.