Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: since the Italian genre film began revving up after the Second World War, filmmakers have been putting Greek hero Heracles into some pretty damn dumb movies anchored by mean noteworthy more for their build than their acting, so at least the newest Hercules can claim for itself the merit of a leading actor who has actually done good work in movies before in addition to having a gigantic chest. There was clearly an inevitable place to take this.

There are a handful of movies that, even having seen them and processed them and understood that they exist, you still can't quite believe it. In that august company, we now find Hercules in New York, variously described as being from either 1969 or 1970, but which really comes from the timeless space in the hearts of all children. Because what child, hearing the classic myths of the great Greek hero Heracles, didn't idly think in the moment between waking and sleeping, "fighting lions and boars is all wonderful, but what do you supposed he'd have done if he was on a date with a modern-day lady in Central Park? Maybe he'd fight a bear!" And the child would then drift off into dreams of Hercules punching a bear in the face while his mortal date sat watching, cooing with staged nervousness like Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons. Only it wasn't a bear, but a kind of bear-man; like, it looked like a bear, but it moved like a man trying to feign being a bear. For in the boundless world of a child's dreams, all manner of things are possible.

Anticipating this, the makers of Hercules in New York really did include a scene where Hercules punches a bear in Central Park, and that bear looks exactly like a man in a bear suit doing his best, but it's not very good; and many more delightful things besides. It's a remarkably fucking bizarre movie altogether, to begin with springing from a question that nobody in history probably ever asked, viz. "What would happen if Hercules arrived in New York? Not for any reason, but just to sight-see?" And the form the answer took functions exactly like a star vehicle, except the the people involved were not remotely the kind of stars you'd build a movie around. They being Arnold Stang, the platonic ideal of the diminutive, neurotic New York comic, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the reigning Mr. Universe, an Austrian bodybuilder with no previous acting skill and an impenetrable accent that had to be overdubbed in order to make any of his dialogue remotely intelligible.

Schwarzenegger, credited as "Arnold Strong", is obviously the reason that this very odd little movie remains somewhat infamous down to the modern day; it was to be his only leading role in a movie until Conan the Barbarian, 13 years later, and it's uncomfortably clear that he had no real idea what to do in front of a movie camera, nor did director Arthur Allan Seidelman have much of a sense of what to do with the enormous man-slab in front of him. There's a vacant desperation on the actor's face that's obvious even in the dubbed version that was for a long time the only way to watch the film; when it was released on DVD in 2000, the original recordings were included as an additional audio channel, making it clear that Schwarzenegger's discomfort was compounded by his complete inability to communicate in English, forcibly coughing out phonetically-learned lines that resemble speech in only the most incidental ways. It's certainly a much funnier "let's watch a bad movie!" experience to subject oneself to the unadulterated Arnold, but it's so outlandishly painful to watch that I will confess that I pretty much relied on the original dub; at least it results in a movie where one can follow the plot.

The plot is sheer fever dream madness. Hercules is bored with the passage of changeless eons on Mount Olympus, and over the objections of his father Zeus (Ernest Graves) - the only mythological figure given his Greek name instead of the Roman one (Apollo doesn't count) - he journeys to the mortal places of Earth for the first time in centuries to have a little fun. Not realising or apparently caring that the worship of the Olympian gods has been over for centuries, Hercules openly admits to who he is, but most of the New Yorkers he meets seem to regard it as just some Greek thing, and take him for a socially underdeveloped fellow with a charming personality. He quickly falls in with a pretzel seller, Pretzie (Stang), because screenwriter Aubrey Wisberg has an amazing facility with names. And together, Pretzie and Hercules decide to jump into the world of professional wrestling, which causes him to cross paths with Helen Camden (Deborah Loomis) and her professor father (James Karen). It also, more explicably, sets him on a collision course with the mob. And this wouldn't be a problem except that Zeus's angry wife Juno (Tanny McDonald) arranges for Hercules to lose his powers at the exact moment that puts him most directly in the path of some angry mob thugs. And despite having Schwarzenegger's comically jacked-up body, Hercules has absolutely no residual strength as a mere mortal.

Hercules in New York is a deliberate comedy, which would ordinarily be the kiss of death for a film like this: bad comedies are virtually never fun bad movies. And this is a deeply, unfathomably bad comedy, addicted to hoary ethnic jokes, opening with the most colorfully caricatured old Jewish lady in the annals of cinema gawking loudly at the naked bodybuilder who has just fallen past her airplane window, and never really letting up; any movie that puts Arnold Stang front and center (he's the top-billed actor, though Schwarzenegger certainly gets more face time) would, anyway, have a very hard time escaping from the shadow of ethnic jokes. It's a very Borscht Belt-ey collection of creaking, awful bits that are too labored even to be corny; there's a chase scene with the punchline that a hot dog vendor has been running after his customer to put sauerkraut on the dog that made me want to set my TV on fire.

The thing the film absolutely has in its favor, though, is that it's so damn weird. In far more ways than I have even begun to imply. For one thing, there's the extremely present score, by John Balamos, dominated by various cues of higher or lower energy, all played on solo bouzouki. It's unmistakably Greek, but very modern Greek - very Zorba the Greek, as though at any moment Hercules was going to take his robust love of life and teach Pretzie how to dance, and if that had happened, Hercules in New York would have become my absolute favorite moment of all time. Since that does not happen, nor anything like it, the music instead sits atop the movie in the most bizarrely incongruous way. And you never, ever can stop noticing it.

Also - and this is not a small thing when we're talking about epically bad movies - it's the one of the most shittily-made things ever. There are a few shots where the camera visibly wobbles on an insufficiently tightened tripod, but the really bad stuff is in the audio. This is exacerbated in the dubbed version, where the anonymous fellow providing a thoroughly bland voice for Schwarzenegger is clearly speaking in a studio, and everyone else is clearly speaking on location, but that's the start of the problems, not the end of them. Because most of the dialogue was recorded on set, and most of the scenes take place outside, the ambient noise is all over the place: in between cuts, the volume jumps or plummets by a huge amount, or one person sounds fine and one person sounds like they weren't facing the microphone. Or in one astonishing moment that I will take to my grave as a happy moment among happy moments, Nemesis (Taina Elg) and Pluto (Michael Lipton) are conspiring at the gates of the underworld, and you can't just hear New York City traffic in the background (that actually happens several times): the sound of the New York City traffic actually starts to overwhelm the characters' speech.

And of course, there are the usual problems with low-budget productions: rinky-dink sets (Olympus looks like it was shot in a hurry in a public park), low-talent actors overplaying everything with no sense of scale or continuity (Loomis is especially bad in this regard), no chance to redo moments that didn't go right the first time.

The sheer volume of things going wrong is more than enough to make Hercules in New York an exceptionally bad movie; the outlandishly peculiar concept upon which everything has been strung, married to the almost miraculous lack of basic filmmaking competence is what makes it memorable above and beyond all but the very worst. I haven't decided if it's so bad it's good, or so bad it's really bad - there's a lot of strained comedy - but I am sure of this: it's a completely singular object. There's a fearless madness at play here, and it makes Hercules in New York a magnetic experience far beyond the joy of watching a future celebrity humiliate himself, and beyond simply laughing at the overwhelming awfulness of it all.