There are three main reasons why, a quarter of a century since its release, Hercules Returns, the funniest film you’ve never seen, is still interesting. One, because it’s a David and Goliath tale of independent, outsider, arthouse cinéastes versus the bland, cookie-cutter corporate mainstream. Secondly, it belongs in a twin lineage of détournement and dub parody, repurposing trash as a weapon against lazy art. And, finally, after all these years, it’s just gloriously, stupidly funny. It’s a one-off, for sure, but where exactly did it come from? Finally, it can be told…
Sydney, early 1986. Recently unemployed 23-year-old Des Mangan sits on his living room sofa with girlfriend Lisa Sweeney. The young couple are surrounded by B-movie posters and shelves filled with VHS tapes – Godzilla vs Gigan, Drive-In Massacre, Rocket Attack USA. An actor since the age of 10, Mangan has credits on “all the 70s soaps, including the Young Doctors, The Restless Years and The Sullivans“, though his adult career peaked two years previously with the role of “workman” in an episode of soap opera Sons And Daughters. He’s embarked on a parallel career as a writer, cutting his teeth at Not Another Theatre Company and more recently for radio stations 2SM and JJJ, but his “retrenchment” from the latter has left him at a loose end. He’s concluded that whatever work he’s going to get, he’s going to have to make for himself, somehow. On the sofa, they fidget and chat, faces illuminated by the movie playing on the muted television. Thoughts of an uncertain future run in the back of his mind as, in the flickering light, the listless Mangan begins to put “silly words” into the mouths of the actors, in the same way, he’ll later reflect, “as everybody has done at some time or other”. Then, like a thunderbolt from Zeus himself…inspiration strikes! Why not do a whole film? “This way,” Mangan reasons, “you don’t have to do petty things like shooting the film or editing.”
Double Take Meets the Astro Zombies debuted at the New Mandarin Cinema, Sydney on March 21st, 1986. “I was always the person asked to imitate a parent and I use different voices to tell a joke,” Mangan told Australian paper The Age in February 1989, by way of explanation, three short but eventful years later. Since that fateful evening in his apartment, the 26-year-old actor, now relocated to Melbourne, had spun a number of live shows based around one central conceit, and his Double Take ensemble had become local heroes of dub parody. Sitting at the back of cinemas like Melbourne’s Valhalla and the Academy Twin in Sydney (both now closed), Mangan, joined by Sweeney (for the first two years at least) and a seemingly constantly shifting cast of performers (including Di Adams, Sam Blandon, Paul Flanagan, Troy Nesmith, Carol Starkey and more), turned the sound down on a procession of “bad” movies and basically took the piss for 90 minutes. Valhalla audience members fondly recall the entire crowd being given paper bags with robot faces to wear over their heads while Double Take did their thing. Mangan preferred the term “lip-sync” over “dub” (“it’s a nicer word”) and, while it was live and thrived on audience engagement, it wasn’t quite improv. He explained to The Sydney Morning Herald, “Obviously, the shows are heavily scripted but, every so often, especially if a character has his back to the camera, you can slip in a new line.”
In 1987, they travelled to the UK for stints in Dublin, London and at the Edinburgh Festival, while Mangan was offered a 10-part television series by LWT, “re-dubbing old and forgotten TV serials”. On top of that, negotiations advanced regarding the filming of Mangan’s original screenplay, This One’ll Kill Ya. Within another three years, the team’s shows would gross over a million dollars.
In the meantime, Mangan and co followed Astro Zombies with Double Take Double Feature, the latter riffing on serial film The Phantom Empire (1935) and Dance Hall Racket (1953). According to Mangan, for a film to be considered Double Take source material, “it has to have lots of dialogue and look silly. It has to have big-looking characters and be obviously incompetently made.” The formula honed to near-perfection, Mangan prepared for his most challenging production yet, Double Take Meet Hercules. A February 1989 interview Mangan gave to Australian newspaper The Age further explained both Double Take’s process and the unique challenge of Hercules. “The script is produced (after six weeks of writing to a constantly rewound videotape)…in this case the script was particularly difficult to write – [Mangan] didn’t know the original plot because it was spoken in Italian.”
A friend had sent Mangan a copy of Ercole, Sansone, Maciste E Ursus Gli Invincibili (Giorgio Capitani, 1964) in the post. The film was a late link in the long chain of Italian sword-and-sandal or “peplum” films which had begun with Le Fatiche di Ercole (Pietro Francisci, 1958). The English-language title of Capitani’s film is Samson And His Mighty Challenge, though the original title translates as Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus: The Invincibles, making it a kind of Peplum Avengers (or, if you ask Mangan, “the Dirty Dozen of the Greek set”). Alan Steel (AKA Sergio Ciani) was the twelth actor to take on the Hercules role in seven years, teaming up with the fantastically named Nadir Baltimore (Nadir Moretti) as Samson, Howard Ross (Renato Rossini) as Maciste and Yann L’Arvor as Ursus. To give the original film its fair due, while it doesn’t represent the pinnacle of its genre, it was light in tone to begin with, just not quite as bright as it would become. The two films share a relationship not dissimilar to that between Zero Hour! (Hall Bartlett, 1957) and Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, 1980); only Mangan and his team could have extracted what would become Hercules Returns from Samson And His Mighty Challenge.
At any rate, Mangan reasoned, “I don’t think any of the audiences who saw Hercules on television in the ‘70s took it seriously. Film-wise people are more educated and more attuned to cliches.” The first run of DTMH was performed by a team that included Sam Blandon, Di Adams and Paul Flanagan alongside Mangan. By the time of the movie, Double Take had become a duo comprised of Mangan and dancer-turned-actress Sally Patience, who’d signed up sometime around 1989. That classic line-up, soon to be immortalised in film, worked so well together and became “so attuned to B-movie production values that they found themselves automatically reworking the CNN reports during the Gulf War.” Mangan, meanwhile, found that the show was “gaining momentum and audiences, so we decided that we’d really love to record it and send it out there. You know, let it go like a little child. And so more people could see it, naturally.”
As luck would have it, American businessman Phil Jaroslow was among the crowds that regularly flocked to see Double Take Meet Hercules in Melbourne. “I was at the Brighton Bay cinema watching 430 people killing themselves laughing. Hey, I said to myself, that’s a good idea.” First-time producer Jaroslow bought Mangan’s script, hunted and secured the rights for Ercole… from an Italian agent, and hired cinematographer David Parker to make his directorial debut with a brand-new wraparound story. Parker had also seen the Hercules show and been “very amused and in awe of what they did.” Mangan, who refrained to direct himself (because he was “frightened” of the scale) realised that because “not everyone knows who Double Take are,” that they would need a story “to explain why these characters end up dubbing a movie live in front of an audience”. He came up with the idea of “having a guy who was unhappy with his lot, working for a big distribution company so he takes over his own theatre.”
As Brad McBain, the listless cinephile who decides to strike out on his own, they cast David Argue (star of Gallipoli, BMX Bandits and Razorback) alongside Mad Max icon Bruce Spence, TV comedian Mary Coustas and Michael Carman as the villainous Sir Michael Kent, of the Kent Corporation. From his own pocket, Jaroslow provided a budget of “well under” a million dollars Australian, which stretched to a crew of 140, 200 extras and a shooting schedule of just eight days, mostly in and around Melbourne’s Palais Theatre. Just as they did in live performances, Mangan and Patience stayed out of the spotlight throughout, with Argue, Spence and Coustas miming to their performance where the two sections of the film overlapped.
Argue explained the material’s attraction for him. “It’s not often that you get to do quality slapstick. And it’s real slapstick, towards the end. Towards the beginning, it’s like, ‘Oh, here’s an interesting Australian film about some decent characters. I wonder where they’re all going?’ And where they all go is the bio box [projection booth] and end up splashing around like three mental cases in a Driclad pool with legs of lamb, belting each other.” He enjoyed working with Parker because of his sense of humour, explaining, “when he laughs his belly shakes and his eyebrows fly off his head. We have to wait ten minutes for his crew to come and sew them back on to his face. So it’s good value. At least that keeps the tension off.”
Australian film critics and TV personalities Ivan Hutchinson and Margaret Pomeranz were given cameos, reviewing the film while exiting the theatre: “I loved it. I’d give it a five.” (in 2003, Pomeranz would lose her position presenting films on Tuesday nights on SBS at the same time Mangan lost his own Monday slot). Critic David Stratton (Pomeranz’ co-presenter on The Movie Show) claimed he’d also been invited to cameo, but couldn’t due to a scheduling conflict. All of which at least suggests a clever scheme to get the critics on-side. If so, while it was a good effort, it was ultimately doomed.
On Thursday January 28th, 1993, Hercules Returns debuted with a midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival, in a strand alongside Peter Jackson’s Braindead (AKA Dead Alive) and Tetuso II: Body Hammer (Shinya Tsukamoto). The Sundance programme proudly claimed that Parker “hits the high-camp bull’s-eye with each shot.” Variety found that “the film has an endearing, slapdash feel to it”. After Sundance, Hercules Returns went on a festival run before its theatrical release, taking in Seattle International Film Festival (1993), Venice International Film Festival (1993), Washington Film Festival (1993), Denver Film Festival (1994), Helsinki Film Festival (1994) and San Diego International Film Festival (1995). The Venice Film Festival provided the first opportunity to gauge an Italian-speaking audience’s response to the (ab)use of Giorgio Capitani’s film. David Parker recalls, “I think given that the Hercules movies from that era – and the original Hercules we worked on – were a bit of a spoof anyway, I don’t think there was any problem with it. There was nothing sacrilegious, that’s for sure, in we were doing film from the Italian point of view. ” Parker continues, “[Capitani] actually contacted me and wished me luck. He hadn’t seen it but he thought it was a wonderful thing to have happened to his movie. Which was a relief – I’m glad he wasn’t attached to the Mafia or anything or had a different reaction.”
Double Take’s movie debut debuted in Australia on 16th September, 1993, and this was when the cold, hard reality must have begun to set in. For The Age, Hercules Returns was “an excessively limited set of variations on one idea”, while Lynden Barber of the Sydney Morning Herald found that, “having erected this awkward structure, the film-makers fail to extricate themselves from it without pain.” David Stratton, writing in The Weekend Australian and perhaps glad he’d dodged his cameo, damned the film with faint praise. “This is not by any means a new concept…but it works well, thanks to some raucously ridiculous dialogue and bizarre Aussie slang.” Hercules Returns was released in UK cinemas on May 6th, 1994. Mark Kermode’s two-star review for Empire magazine was unforgiving, acknowledging the success of the live show but proclaiming the film to be “a sobering aftertaste of a joke best swallowed live and washed down with copious quantities of ale.” Parker later reflected that “the difficulty with that film was that there was something very tactile, I suppose, about a live performance, and that’s not what you have with the film.”
“Everyone laughs at fart gags,” Sally Patience told the Independent in late 1993. “Critics may just go, ‘Oh, it’s toilet humour’, but you know that they’ve secretly been enjoying it.” Ultimately, the film made $318,788 at the Australian box office, something around $555,000 in today’s money (approx £255,000), making it a financial failure and definitively scuppering any plans for sequels. Phil Jaroslow retired from the movie-making business and is currently CEO of Australia’s largest manufacturer of frozen cookie dough.
Mangan and Patience continued performing as Double Take during and after the film’s release, bringing Double Take Meet The Killer Bees to the UK for a run at the Prince Charles Cinema, London in 1993. The Independent described the show, based on Alfredo Zacarías’ The Bees (1978) as “90 minutes of non-stop sabotage”. The Killer Bees was followed first by Double Take Meet The Pirates, riffing on Morgan, The Pirate (André de Toth, Primo Zeglio, 1960), and then Double Take In Outer Space, based on Star Crash (Luigi Cozzi, 1978), before Double Take disappeared into a 10-year hiatus. In 2006, Mangan returned briefly with a new live show, Double Take’s Horror Hospital (based on Antony Balch’s 1973 film of the same name), and a new creative partner, Gabrielle Judd.
David Parker resumed a successful career as a cinematographer, often in collaboration with his wife, the director Nadia Tass, though he returned to the director’s chair once for the spectacularly mis-timed paparazzi-themed rom-com Diana & Me (1997) and then again for 2016’s The Menkoff Method. Filmmaker Mark Hartley, who got one of his first credits on Hercules Returns, as “music video director”, went on to produce a trio of hugely popular documentaries on cult cinema – Not Quite Hollywood (2008), Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010) and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014).
When he passed on directing Hercules Returns, Mangan referred to his mooted directorial debut. “I want to do something like Unbelievable Truth or something, where there’s four people in it. That’ll be my first one. Unbelievable Truth II. With Hercules in it, of course.” It never materialised, nor did This One’ll Kill Ya. Mangan is still best known, in Australia at least, for presenting cult movies on the SBS channel (UK readers may think of Alex Cox or Mark Cousins presenting Moviedrome). He wrote a book, This Is Sweden Calling (foreword by Gina G), based on his experience presenting Eurovision as Australia’s answer to the UK’s Terry Wogan. Recently, he’s reprised his real-life role as cult movie presenter for the Garth Marenghi-esque Top Knot Detective.
Despite the muted critical response and modest financial return, Hercules Returns has that often-coveted, rarely genuine cult status. 26 years later, despite being, officially at least, long-unavailable, fans across the world have an enormous amount of affection for it. Whether on IMDb, YouTube, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, random forums or countless blogs, wherever Hercules Returns pops up, you’ll find dozens of comments along the lines of “funniest film EVER!” or “my favourite comedy of all time,” It currently holds a 95% audience score rating on Rotten Tomatoes – “no critic reviews yet” and still no other film quite like it.
This article originally appeared on physicalimpossibility.com