Maciste in Hell (1926) Directed by Guido Brignone, starring Bartolomeo Pagano
It’s doubtful that Italian strongman Bartolomeo Pagano knew what he was getting into when he signed on for the role of the strongman/slave Maciste in the 1914 Italian epic, Cabiria. For the next twelve years he would play the character in a series of 26 films, becoming so identified with his onscreen persona that he legally changed his name to Maciste before he retired from the screen to devote his time to his family. Though in name only, the character was revived in the 1960s for another series of 25 films to cash in on the popularity of the Steve Reeves Hercules films.
The silent Maciste films lack any continuity other than the main character and his manly values. Each film takes place in a different time period, sometimes contemporary, sometimes ancient, sometimes fantasy and, in Maciste in Hell, in, well, Hell. There is never an explanation for this, never an acknowledgment; Maciste is more or less an eternal hero in the same way that Mickey Mouse could be a knight in one cartoon and a jazz pianist in the next. It’s actually kind of a relief that the continuity geeks haven’t gotten hold of him or, as far as I know, incorporated him into Wold-Newtonry.
Maciste all’Inferno is the third from last of the Pagano films; Fellini claimed that this was the movie that made him decide to be a director.(If he saw it on first release, Fellini would have been very precocious six at the time.) It’s not as big a stretch as you might imagine given the visual flamboyance of many of his own later films.
The film’s plot gets off to a convoluted start. A handful of devils come to earth disguised as a traveling group of Snidely Whiplash impersonators. The leader, Babarricia, has a moustache that for all intents and purposes appears to consist of highly trained nose hairs. Maciste, being physically AND spiritually stronger than most, is his first target.
Needless to say, Barbariccia fails, and so turns to Maciste’s cousian, Rosabelle, who has been “wronged” by the local Prince, and has a baby to prove it. While Maciste pays a visit to the Prince, Barbariccia steals the baby and manipulates Rosabelle into blaspheming. If not for a casually passing friar, that would have been the end of Rosabelle.
At the Prince’s castle, Maciste bursts in without an invitation, kicks the snot out of the Prince’s servants and suggests to the Prince that he ought to do the right thing. “And if I refuse?” asks the Prince; Maciste goes all serious on him: “Refuse? You must be joking.”
Prince agrees to do the right thing; Maciste goes home to find out about Rosabelle’s encounter with Barbariccia; Maciste goes looking for the devil, find him, attacks him and lo and behold, is sent to Hell via 1926 state of the art visual effects.
Hell is a pretty spectacular place, a bit of Doré, a bit of Christiansen, a dragon right out of Lang’s Die Nibelungen, and very well populated. Struggle as he might, Maciste can’t beat back all the hordes of Hell. But what to do with him now that he is there? The rules of Hell state a mortal man cannot remain there more than three days unless kissed by a female demon.
The female demons are, of course, sensual and voluptuous and highly attracted to Maciste’s high testosterone levels. Two take particular interest in him, one being Pluto’s daughter, Prosperpine. It’s a bad time for moral lapses. but Maciste thinks they’re both kinda cute.
In a short time he has been kissed and turned into a demon, destined to remain in Hell forever. But Barbarricia, who had some designs on Pluto’s daughter himself, leads a revolt against Pluto and who do you think steps in to kick ass and take names? As a title card tells us, “Maciste’s strength in Hell has increased a hundredfold.”
Almost singlehandedly putting down the rebellion, Maciste is released from his bondage and allowed to return to earth as a normal human.
But not so fast! Proserpine lays a trap for him, has him chained to the wall and (gasp!) kisses him again. Maciste returns to demon form, but is doomed to be forever chained to a remote cliffside in Hell where only Proserpine can, er, well…..you know.
Years pass, and back on Earth, the Prince and Rosabelle happily prepare for Christmas. Their son, now old enough to speak, says a Christmas prayer for Maciste, and Maciste is released from his torment, returns home and everyone lives happily ever after.
Despite its pulpy plot, Maciste in Hell is not a quickie, ground out over a week just to fill seats at the thetare. It has scope, lots of production value and effects (including a number of beheadings and Lucifer himself frozen at the center of Hell, eating the tiny suffering humans that surround him.)
Pagano is a big, likeable doof of a guy, definitely more brawn than brain, but it’s easy to understand his appeal, even if he has little to do in the way of actual acting.
The dvd is available on eBay. Picture quality is ok, though obviously a vhs tape tansferred to dvd. Its a shame, really, because the elaborate vision of Hell is worthy of restoration all by itself, and as an example of this popular series, it stands head an shoulders above many other contemporary films.