When CONAN THE BARBARIAN was released in 1982, it was an unlikely hit. Based on the series of pulp stories about a horny and temperamental raven-haired swordsman by Robert E. Howard, the property gained heat during the 1970s thanks to Frank Frazetta’s libidinous paintings and Marvel Comics’ somewhat-squarer adaptations. A pre-SCARFACE, pre-PLATOON, pre-everything-else Oliver Stone wrote the script. The director was John Milius, a real character (you know him as Walter from THE BIG LEBOWSKI). Milius had some success in films before and some after, but CONAN was his mission statement. A bold, lusty, often-ridiculous film, CONAN has a lot to say about myth and masculinity, and John Milius meant every moment. You may find it a little silly, but I respect the movie’s passion.
It’s also vastly entertaining, a story well told. The production design by Ron Cobb is top-notch, thoroughly believable as a tangible world that never existed. The score by Basil Poledouris (ROBOCOP, STARSHIP TROOPERS) is straight-up brilliant, one of the all-time most evocative film scores. Even the parts that are absurd – pro-surfer Gerry Lopez as a Mongolian archer, Conan punching a camel, James Earl Jones as supervillain Thulsa Doom morphing into a giant snake during an orgy – are somehow thoroughly of a piece with the best bits.
Of course, most people, if they know the movie at all, know it as part of the one-two punch, along with 1984’s THE TERMINATOR, that, for better or worse, made Arnold Schwarzenegger an international star. Let’s face it, Arnold is a terrible actor, but people love looking at him, and he got where he got because he was well-cast early on by some remarkably-savvy filmmakers. Like James Cameron and John McTiernan, John Milius used Arnold perfectly – he worked around the obvious limitations and perfectly showcased the areas where Arnold was most convincing as Robert E. Howard’s creation.
All of this is to say, CONAN THE BARBARIAN is a far better movie than you probably expect it to be.
When CONAN hit, the floodgates opened. Don Coscarelli’s THE BEASTMASTER wasn’t actually one of the many imitators (judging by the timeline this one was more of an OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN/ WHITE HOUSE DOWN situation) but Roger Corman’s DEATHSTALKER films most definitely were. The He-Man toys weren’t a direct response to CONAN’s success, but the fact that they eventually made a MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE movie starring Dolph Lundgren definitely was. Of course there was an inferior sequel – no offense. People wanted more of that CONAN mojo, one way or another.
And in the previous century, if there were cinematic imitations to be made, the Italians were right on top of that shit. Again, no offense. If the Italians didn’t imitate American Westerns, we’d never have gotten the DOLLARS films. And if they didn’t imitate CONAN THE BARBARIAN, we’d never have gotten CONQUEST.
CONQUEST is kind of a sword & sorcery buddy-comedy between two characters with absolutely no sense of humor. It’s funnier than 2011’s YOUR HIGHNESS but absolutely, positively not on purpose. It’s about two men who face down all manners of deviltry in their shared quest. Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti) is the younger, more untested warrior, while his eventual best pal Mace (George Rivero) is the Conan-esque figure, a wanderer and a loner with a lifetime of battle experience. Ilias is sent by his people to dispatch an evil sorceress named Ohkren – or Ocron, depending upon which source you consult – and Mace is a friend he makes along the way.
Ohkren (Sabrina Siani) has been having visions, partly due to the fact that she ingests massive amounts of drugs, partly because she’s read the script. She knows that a warrior who carries a bow that shoots arrows made of sunlight is coming to end her evil reign. She’s right about that – Ilias carries a bow that shoots very STAR WARS-y blue lasers – so she has her army of wolfmen hunt down and kill scores of villagers. Yeah, that’s right – wolfmen. Hang on. I have more to tell you.
One thing I have to tell you about Ohkren is that she always wears a featureless solid gold mask. The other thing I have to tell you is that she is always naked. So if you’ve ever wanted to see a movie that has a naked lady hanging out with wolfmen, you’re in luck. You’ll get to see a naked lady and wolfmen doing heavy drugs together. That happens in the first ten minutes of this thing. And it gets weirder. (The wolfmen have fantastic jumping skills.)
This is a movie that has dogs, snakes, hawks, zombies, monkey masks, bats, and dolphins. It’s what I call a “kitchen sink movie.” It doesn’t make a lick of sense to have all of these things in one movie, but maybe we need movies like this, to show us WHY that doesn’t make sense. It’s a pretty illustrious example.
The director was Lucio Fulci, renowned among horror fanatics for movies like ZOMBI 2, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, and THE BEYOND. Fulci is by far one of the most aggro of Italian horror directors, which is saying a lot. He specialized in staging brutal acts of wince-inducing violence, a talent that certainly carries over to CONQUEST.
An old man’s scalp gets swiped off. A lady gets drawn and quartered by wolfmen. A guy gets shot in the dick with an arrow (not a blue laser one.) If you think movies like CONAN THE BARBARIAN are too violent, you may not be ready for this one. CONAN THE BARBARIAN is JULIE & JULIA next to CONQUEST. But it’s so thoroughly bizarre that it’s difficult to get too worked up over the gore. The “What the FUCK?” factor far exceeds the “Ew, gross!” factor.
The film is a co-production between Italy, Spain, and Mexico, but that hardly begins to explain how mixed-up and crazy it is. CONAN was financed by Americans, starred an Austrian, produced by an Italian (Dino de Laurentiis) and filmed in a multitude of countries, yet it is completely coherent. There’s never any question who’s doing what to whom and why. By contrast, CONQUEST is aggressively dreamlike. The music by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin keeps things moving, but the editing is noticeably choppy. The action scenes are chaotic, and not in a realistic way, and the story itself has an episodic, occasionally meandering feel. There are actual dream sequences in CONQUEST but it’s not always easy to tell them apart from the rest of the movie.
That’s because of the way it all looks. The cinematography is by Alejandro Ulloa (credited as Alejandro Alonso Garcia), who previously shot films like COMPAÑEROS! and HORROR EXPRESS – it’s not like the guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. But the movie is shot in soft-focus like no movie before or since. Apart from all the ultraviolence and the fucking, CONQUEST looks like a Nancy Meyers movie. A Nancy Meyers movie under attack by THE FOG. CONQUEST hgs the gauziest look you’ve ever seen. Quite frankly, it looks like somebody came all over this movie. Maybe one of those perverted wolfmen – or is that too much damage done with the mental images already? It’s to the point where you have to strain to see what’s going on sometimes. But you want to, because of all the incredibly strange sounds this movie has going on.
Strange sounds… Damnit – that’s right! Knew I forgot something.
I’ve been writing about CONQUEST all afternoon and I haven’t even mentioned the whining stone monsters. Yeah, at one point Mace gets captured by these giant white snowman-looking things who are made out of rocks, and they have this bizarre high-pitched robotic diction, like C-3PO after snorting helium. Honestly, it sounds even more like Prince’s “Dearly Beloved…” sermon at the start of “Let’s Go Crazy.” Seriously, check the tape if you don’t believe me. It’s hilariously stupid and that’s exactly why it’s so necessary.
CONQUEST. Go see that.
CONQUEST is playing tonight at 7:30pm. The reason to go is to watch it with an audience. If you can’t make it, that’s okay. But you kind of need to see it. There are ways. Find them.
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Tags: Archery, Barbarians, Claudio Simonetti, Diane Keaton, Dino De Laurentiis, Dolphins, Fantasy, Goblin, Jon Abrams, Knockoffs, Lasers, Lucio Fulci, Monsters, Movies Of The Damned, Naked Ladies, Nancy Meyers, Snakes, Soft-Focus, Sorcery, Swords, Werewolves, World Cinema