In the ’70s and ’80s, the Italian genre film mill was as trend-conscious as it got. Whatever the new commercial cinema craze was – crime films, post-apocalyptic action, cannibal movies, you name it – would get pounced on as producers quickly put together their own cost-effective entries into the latest trend.
The sword and sorcery genre spurred by the success of Conan The Barbarian is a good example of a trend that the Italians explored to its fullest: everyone from Umberto Lenzi to Joe D’Amato cranked out a bunch of these films in a few short years. To Schlockmania’s eyes, the results were seldom successful: the quick nature of production, tight budgets and errant attention to detail resulted in a number of silly films with actors running around in animal skins and looking goofy against the backdrop of national parks that were unconvincing stand-ins for the expected fantasy landscapes.
That said, there was one notable exception: Conquest. This production stands out as one of the quirkiest, most surreal films to emerge from this cycle, thanks in no small part to the direction of Lucio Fulci. He was doing director-for-hire work here but still managed to infuse his cinematic personality into the finished product in a number of ways.
Odd as this description may sound, Conquest is at heart a buddy movie. The prime mover of the story is Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti), a young adventurer who sets out to rid a fantasy kingdom of the evil that haunts it. As he finds his way through a surreal landscape, he is joined by Mace (Jorge Rivero), a lone wolf type who is a skilled fighter and friend to the animals. The evil this duo faces is represented by Ocron (Sabrina Siani), a sorceress with a golden mask who uses every supernatural means at her command to stop the heroic duo.
That simple plot description in no way prepares you for the sensory assault of Conquest. For starters, it has the most unusual look of any of these Italian fantasy adventures: cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa devised a strange look incorporating fog machines, soft lenses and unusual color filter effects that makes the entire movie look and feel like a drugged-out hallucination. The script enhances the dreamlike quality by taking what would be a sturdy plotline in normal circumstances and laying it out in this odd, ebb-and-flow manner that also weaves in dream sequences and poison-induced hallucinations. Between this story and the visuals, you’ll feel like someone put something in your drink as the film progresses.
And then there’s the “Fulci” of it all: the director might have been a hired hand but it definitely feels like his work. Conan-style fantasy adventures could be violent but Fulci pushes the envelope here with immolation, people getting their the tops of their heads bashed off, brain eating, oozing sores and one squirmer of a moment where a primitive girl gets split up the middle by Ocron’s minions. The surreal look and mood Fulci establishes with Ulloa isn’t that far removed from what he was doing in The Beyond or City Of The Living Dead. Speaking of The Beyond, Fulci adds a nod to that film here by having a symbol tattooed on Mace’s forehead that happens to be the same symbol on the Book Of Eibon.
That said, surreal style alone can’t make a movie work – and thankfully, Fulci and company deliver on the excitement a fantasy adventure needs in Conquest. There’s at least one action scene or eye-catching shock every reel, usually more: highlights include attacks by supernatural soldiers with budget-conscious but interesting looking monster masks (wolf masked soldiers as well as some kind of bug-eyed fish men) and a scene where Mace has to take on his own evil doppelganger. There are some pretty good visual effects (laser arrows!) and Occhipinti and Rivero make for an appealing hero team. The film even takes time to build their friendship so there are moments of uplift when one rescues the other.
In short, Conquest is a weird and wonderful treat for anyone interested in the quirky side of ’80s Conan knockoffs (I haven’t even mentioned Claudio Simonetti’s pulsating, “New Age on steroids” synth score or an amazing underwater scene involving dolphins). It’s a fun barrage of continental pulp where Fulci’s distinctive style shines through at all times.
Blu-Ray Notes: this title finally got its long-awaited blu-ray debut courtesy of Code Red. The transfer does well translating the film’s hazy, misty look to high definition and the same can be said for the presentation of the film’s 2.0 stereo English dub, which comes through with real punch, especially in the music. Extras include a trailer, a new commentary track by Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth and a pair of new interview pieces with Rivero.