Review by David Carter
Posted on 10 January 2012
Source Blue Underground DVD
Categories Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell
Lucio Fulci’s ability to make films quickly and cheaply endeared him to producers, who could rely on him to deliver a quality film under budget and ahead of schedule. For that reason, Fulci was essentially a “hired gun” on some of his fifty-two films. These are easily spotted when reviewing his oeuvre; the ones where Fulci served as a writer, actor, or both are the more personal projects. That isn’t to say that remainder of his films are of lower quality. On the contrary, some of his “hired gun” films are standouts in his body of work.
One such film is 1983’s Conquest, which came at the tail-end of Fulci’s most creative and prolific period. Conquest was made for two distinct purposes, both of which were financially motivated. Firstly, it was to be a star vehicle for Mexican matinee idol Jorge Rivero, who had begun working more frequently in American and European cinema. More importantly however, it was intended to cash in on the revived interest in the “sword-and-sorcery” genre after the success of John Milius and Oliver Stone’s Conan the Barbarian. To his credit, Fulci took what could have been formulaic exercise in genre and, as he did with Zombi 2, created a film that is arguably superior to the one it was intended to imitate.
To say that Conquest is unlike the other Conan clones of the early eighties is an understatement. Fulci is quite clearly making every effort to go against expectation and subvert convention. Conquest begins with a still shot of a beach as a small group materializes from thin air. They are transparent, half in their world, half in the film’s world. It is a ceremony to honor young Ilias’ departure on a quest to gain the wisdom to someday return to his homeland and lead his people1. As his weapon, he is given a magic bow once belonging to Cronos and is told if should he find himself in dire need and worthy, the sun itself will leave the sky and become arrows of light to defeat his enemies. Meanwhile, the wolf-men of the sorceress Ohkren attack a tribe of cave dwellers, quartering a young girl with their bare hands and bringing her severed head to their master. Ohkren eats the girl’s brain in order to enter a prophetic trance during which a faceless warrior (Ilias) defeats her. Enraged at the possibility, Ohkren sends her wolf-men to find the warrior and stop him before he can reach her.
Ilias is blissfully unaware of Ohkren and her plot to kill him, and wanders the new land in search of adventure. It doesn’t take long for the wolf-men to find him, however, but Ilias is able to temporarily fend them off using his bow. Out of arrows and facing defeat, Ilias is rescued by the hulking Mace (Jorge Rivero), so named because his weapon of choice is a crude mace (technically a flail) made of stones. Mace is an outcast who travels alone but makes an exception for Ilias, and the two join forces to repel Ohkren’s attacks. Ohkren is displeased that her enemy now has an ally, so she summons Zora, an armored spirit, to her aid. Ilias and Mace are captured by Ohkren’s forces on separate occasions, and after their respective rescues by the other, decide to take the fight directly to her.
From its earliest moments, Conquest visually sets itself apart from all other sword-and-sorcery films. Fulci and cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa (Horror Express, Night of the Werewolf) create an ethereal look for the film, making it seem as if it is all intended as a dream. The entirety of Conquest is filmed in soft-focus through a haze of fog; an optical version of the dream-logic Fulci employed in his “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Furthermore, characters are often filmed with the sun behind them, making their features indistinct. In other films, this would be seen as a mistake of an untalented crew, but Fulci has a dual purpose for these scenes. Chiefly, the obscured features reduce the characters to silhouettes, reinforcing the film’s mythical narrative by highlighting that it deals with archetypes and ciphers, not fully-realized characters. Secondly, it cleverly hides the film’s budgetary limitations. The wolf-men, in particular, are often filmed in this manner, making them far more imposing than if shown clearly, revealing the relative cheapness of their costumes.
Conquest is also narratively more interesting than its fellow genre films. Unlike many in this cycle, Conquest is most assuredly not for children. This is best seen through the character of Ohkren the sorceress, who is completely nude throughout the film, save for a small loincloth and a golden mask. It is also rare that two male heroes would be depicted as being equally matched to a lone female villain and Conquest is unique in that it gives females a role in its fictional society other than sexual objects or damsels-in-distress. Ohkren and her forces are also incredibly violent, and their initial attack on the cave dwellers features levels of realistic gore much closer to Fulci’s Zombi 2 or The New York Ripper than Conan the Barbarian.
The use of gory special effects is not Conquest’s only connection to Fulci’s other films from this period. Throughout his “Gates of Hell” trilogy, Fulci makes direct and indirect references to the work of HP Lovecraft. These references are most prominent in City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, but elements of The House by the Cemetery are also thematically similar to Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft and Conan creator Robert E Howard were both writers for the pulp-magazine Weird Tales, as well as friends and contributors to Lovecraft’s mythos, of which some Conan stories are considered to be a part. Thus Conquest is in some way a pre-history to the “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Fulci was undoubtedly aware of this connection, even making a slight acknowledgement of it in the fact that the mark on Mace’s forehead is a variation on the Mark of Eibon that appears in both Lovecraft’s writing and The Beyond.
Some have dismissed Conquest as being the point at which Fulci’s career began to decline. I would argue that this film and some of Fulci’s later works have merit, but with the caveat that it is difficult to follow the artistic achievements of the films that directly preceded it. The Beyond is a film that can overshadow a career, and the esteem given to it has the unfortunate side effect of diminishing Fulci’s other work. Such is the case with Conquest. While it certainly has its flaws and limitations, it is a mammoth achievement in a genre with few bright spots. The cinema of Lucio Fulci is undeniably an acquired taste, but it is one that more people would enjoy given the opportunity.
City of the Living Dead1980
House by the Cemetery1981
The New York Ripper1982