This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – Maciste in Hell (1925)
The Hercules-like character of Maciste, one of cinema’s oldest recurring characters, first hit Italian screens in the 1914’s Cabiria, with Bartolomeo Pagano playing the central role. Throughout the silent era (27 films starring Pagano before 1927), and again in the 1960s, the physically and morally strong hero was placed in fantastical situations, usually involving evil rulers and black magic, and the macho Maciste needing to rescue a beautiful damsel. It’s all very much the stuff of boys’ pulp fantasies.
On rare occasions Maciste would venture into the horror realm, sometimes literally. In 1925’s Maciste in Hell, the hero (once again played by Pagano) is kidnapped by a demon and sent to the underworld where he must use his bulk to battle his way out. The movie borrows heavily from the images of 1911’s L’Inferno, a feature-length adaptation of Dante’s work in which the author is shown through the levels of Hell via a series of imaginative special effects (coincidentally, it was the first feature length Italian movie and the first feature length film shown in its entirety, in one screening, in the United States). Maciste in Hell borrows that film’s volcanic landscape, the tortured souls chained and tormented by demons, and even the giant Satan snacking on souls like they were milk duds. We even have a giant help the hero get to another level.
Yet whereas L’Inferno was a serious film, Maciste is an adventurer’s romp where the bruiser smashes his adversaries and smiles at the metal-bikini clad she-devils. Truly, the special effects are both terrific and creative, such as when Maciste punches off a demon’s head, which then lands on a trident and is healed, thrown back to the standing body, and reattached to allow the demon to keep fighting. Other special effects are just as impressive and add to the sense of fun, and any young boy can’t help but smile as Maciste uses his brute force to push a crowd of demons over a precipice.
Where Maciste doesn’t excel is in the story itself, which is understandably simple and geared towards younger viewers, where the line between good and bad is clearly drawn. When the demons take human form they become the mustache-twirling villains in black capes and black top hats that early silent comedies employed as their antagonists, famously tying people to railroad tracks or saw tables. While many people today associate these Snidely Whiplash-like characters with silent cinema, few understand that these archetypes were seen at the time as products of clichéd Victorian melodramas and were used purely to comic effect, and the same is true in Maciste, where they come off more as pranksters trying to get people to blaspheme than truly potent menaces. Children watching the movie could feel confident in resisting them as well as Maciste himself.
Maciste no doubt influenced and was influenced by pulp fiction, and probably had a hand in creating comic book heroes in the following decade. Likewise, we would begin seeing many of the same tropes in blockbuster cinema of the late 1970s and 1980s, from Princess Leia’s slave attire to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ultra-macho shows of strength, such as in Commando (1985). Likewise, the idea of an otherworldly being playing with their severed head would arise in a movie like Labyrinth (1986).
Maciste in Hell is another example of silent cinema pushing creative boundaries even as it retreads earlier works. With the advent of “talkies” and therefore bulky sound equipment, it became more difficult for filmmakers to create the spectacle of chaos that silent films could muster, where the sounds on stage or at a location didn’t matter. It would be a few more generations before movie technology and directors’ visions could once again catch up to the standards of fantasy set by movies like this.