Gather round my children and I shall tell ye a tale. T’was an age of myth and legends, the early Eighties, when a B-movie actor held the White House and a wicked witch ruled number ten. In this wondrous time an egomaniacal Italian schlock producer, a right-wing Movie Brat, and a drug addled Vietnam War veteran put their heads together (Clang!) and concocted a film adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1982). It remains the only fantasy epic to feature a quote from Nietzsche (Unless the makers of Harry Potter have something disturbing in the works). Anyway, two things came about as result of their success. One, an Austrian bodybuilder with little discernible talent or charisma turned into a superstar, and went on to become a boil on the backside of cinema, real estate, sexual harassment lawsuits, and American politics. Two, a global craze for sword and sorcery was launched with exploitation veterans (Harry Allan Towers with Gor (1988)), hack newcomers (Albert Pyun with The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)), respected filmmakers (Peter Yates with Krull (1983)) and even Disney (The Black Cauldron (1985)) jumping on the bandwagon.
Some of these were fun, many were dire but, as with every filmmaking trend, the most prolific rip-off merchants were those wonderful Italians. Lacking the megabucks resources of their patron saint Dino DeLaurentiis, these independent produces compensated by cramming their cut-price epics with excessive sex, gore and weirdness. And weirdest of them all was Lucio Fulci’s Conquest (You were wondering when I’d get round to that, weren’t you?).
Conquest opens in a land shrouded in magic and mystery. And fog. Lots and lots of fog. So much fog that, rather ingeniously, it masks the movie’s low budget and transforms some threadbare production values into a hallucinatory landscape of surreal colours and psychedelic excess. Score one for Fulci. The story concerns a young hero named Illyan (Andrea Occhipinti), dispatched by a band of Greek god look-alikes on a quest to prove his manhood. Illyan’s mentors present him with a magic bow. While it shoots regular arrows, the legend goes that if the wielder shows great valour, the sun will enable him to fire laser beams. That’s always handy. Illyan stumbles along, cursing that he was born before they invented fog lights, until he spies his lucky break: a naked cave babe being menaced by a snake. A small snake. Even better, a small snake some distance away. Illyan swiftly shoots the snake. Huzzah! Up yours, Beowulf – that’s one for the history books.
Sadly, Illyan’s skill at slaying tiny reptiles from a few yards away proves less useful when he’s ambushed and beaten up by drug-crazed, psychotic werewolves. Now you’re talking! These wolfmen work for the evil sorceress, Okran (Sabrina Siani) who has the voluptuous body of a Victoria’s Secret supermodel and wears nothing except a metal mask, a python and a leather g-string. Okran spends a compelling amount of screen time writhing suggestively upon a fur rug, plagued by visions of a faceless archer destined to end her reign of terror. So she sends in the wolfmen whose costumes are pretty impressive, resembling Chewbacca’s mangier, anti-social, cousins. After pounding Illyan, they ravage the cave people, bash skulls into a gory pulp, rip a screaming woman in half so her intestines splatter everywhere, and in garbled English, demand protection money. As an encore they grind their victims into powder and snort it for the perfect high. Chewie wouldn’t stand for this, but unfortunately he’s not our hero, Illyan is. Or is he?
Suddenly, barbarian Mace (Jorge Rivero) arrives on the scene. He rescues Illyan and whacks the werewolves with his kung fu moves and swirling, bone nunchakus. The great producer-director Howard Hawks once tried to mould Argentinean actor Jorge Rivero into a third-rate Alain Delon, casting him in his final movie Rio Lobo (1970) opposite John Wayne. Rivero was awful, but the film was a TV staple throughout my childhood and I’ve often wondered what happened to him. Now I know. So Mace accompanies Illyan on a mystical journey that encompasses cobweb monsters, pus-drinking insects, zombie hordes (This is a Fulci film) and Okran’s armour-clad warrior/lover Zora – until the plot takes an unexpected turn, before the surreal conclusion.
Conquest is strange, silly and stupefying, often all at once in every scene. Nonetheless there is a delirious imagination at work here. Highpoints include a drowning Mace rescued by friendly dolphins, and the nightmarish climax where Okran is unmasked revealing her hideous, maggot ridden face. The far from hideous in real life, Sabrina Siani was described by Jess Franco (who directed her in White Cannibal Goddess (1980)) as “the stupidest person I’ve ever met.” A shame, because Siani is usually the best thing in many Italian sword and sorcery, and jungle girl films. One wishes she had played two roles: Okran and her standard heroic Amazon babe, since neither Occhipinti nor Rivero muster much charisma. Fulci’s trademark misogyny towards women is in evidence, with Illyan’s naked cave cutie getting her skull bashed right in the midst of their romantic interlude. Fulci’s anarchistic attitude can irritate sometimes, but on occasion he delivers the goods. Conquest isn’t popular with die-hard Fulci fanatics, but it has sexy, naked witches, coke snorting werewolves and heroic dolphins. Personally, I’d rather watch this than The Beyond (1981).
Italian director whose long career could best be described as patchy, but who was also capable of turning in striking work in the variety of genres he worked in, most notably horror. After working for several years as a screenwriter, he made his debut in 1959 with the comedy The Thieves. Various westerns, musicals and comedies followed, before Fulci courted controversy in his homeland with Beatrice Cenci, a searing attack on the Catholic church.