The oracle Medea failed to silence the audience during Mario Bava’s 1961 tragic fantasy Hercules in the Haunted World

Holden Caulfield, the original hipster, was a jerk at the movies. He hated them. He thought actors were phonies, screenwriters were prostitutes, and audiences who sniffled during weepies were “mean bastards at heart.”

Holden wasn’t a sucker. He was something worse: a laugher—the kind of disengaged cretin who’d snicker through the rest of the theater’s tears. As Holden admits, “I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I’d probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.”

I thought about Holden this weekend during a supposedly sophisticated movie matinee. The LA Opera projected Italian horror director Mario Bava’s 1961Hercules in the Haunted World on a screen above a 23-piece orchestra and nine singers who made sad music of the dialogue.

This makes more sense than it sounds. The story hits all the notes of high tragedy. To save his true love, a Queen bewitched by her wicked uncle (a young Christopher Lee), Hercules must sacrifice his immortality and sail to Hades to find a cure. But his friend Theseus is also in love with Pluto’s daughter Persephone, enraging the gods, and Hercules must convince his best pal to sacrifice his own happiness to save his own girlfriend and her kingdom.

Bava’s movie is limbo between film and theater. His sets look like sets—he rarely had more than five figures to spend on making a flick—and the big boulders Hercules (Reg Park) flings at his foes are clearly styrofoam. Instead of chasing after realism, Bava embraces artifice. He tints the screen lurid hues of red, pink and green, and trusts that we’ll meet him halfway.

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