Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has an idea for a fantasy movie: It is yesterday, and a little fairy came down and warned him not to watch Conquest.
"When a man meets a man, you never know which one will die."—Mace
All movies can't be great ones. If that were the case, DVD Verdict would be out of a job and people could just watch anything to be entertained. But that is not reality: Some movies are great, most are okay, and some are bad no matter what criteria you use.
Conquest is a movie in the sense that it contains 90+ minutes of moving footage, it has an identifiable protagonist and villain, and the scenes flow together in a manner that approximates coherence. You can latch onto a specific scene and reasonably guess what's occurring, then vaguely tie it to scenes that come before and after. That is where the kinship between "movies" and Conquest ends.
Facts of the Case
Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti, Amor de hombre): Noble youth who runs around in a leather miniskirt wielding a bow. He enters a foreign land where range weapons and agriculture are unknown. His bow gives him both tactical advantage and loads of sex appeal to the ladies.
Mace (Jorge Rivero, Ice): Long-haired pseudo-savage with perfect teeth and a red ink blot on his forehead. He wields two rocks tied together with string, which he spins around in a figure-eight pattern. This scares his enemies so much that they keel over whenever the rocks get too close. Mace detests men and loves beasts, until he develops a man-crush on Ilias.
Ocron (Sabrina Sellers, 2020 Texas Gladiators): Nubile chick who wears a papier-mâché mask covered with metallic paint. She writhes around and moans while a snake slithers across her belly. She periodically dispatches henchmen to roam the land and haul in any foreigners in possession of ranged weapons or agricultural knowledge. She eats the brains of her victims, which puts her in the "Evil" camp.
Chew-Bacchaus: The chapter titles refer to them as "Dog Soldiers," but I will not demean Dog Soldiers through association with Conquest. In lieu of using their actual name, let's refer to them by their appearance, which is very Chewbacca-like. Anyway, this group of men in dog suits stumbles around the plains, assaulting any humanoid in their path.
Various groups of humanoids: If the Humanoid Group (HuG) is grubby or disheveled but has some sort of body paint and/or clothing, they are good. If they have green bug eyes or uniform coloration, or if they spawn from the water or weeds, they are bad.
These various entities wander around and interact with each other in amusing and/or gory ways. Eventually most of them die, and the few who are left go home and eat Chew-Baccha jerky.
We hardly expect cinematic excellence in a sword-and-sorcery B movie. The fantasy genre is often maligned, which irks fantasy fans, but Conquest single-handedly earns a large portion of this critical ill will.
We must, unfortunately, begin with the plot. It is tattered, threadbare: a rag thrown over Conquest's shoulders as an afterthought. Very few scenes have direct bearing on subsequent scenes. There is a central idea that Ilias is good and Ocron is bad, and when you see Chew-Bacchaus there will be blood.
The introduction (which, by the way, is wretchedly composed) informs us that an ancestor of Ilias went on a quest. In an overwhelming battle he ran out of arrows. When he refused to cave in to fear and stood his ground, he became a man. He harnessed the power of the sun and slew his enemies with arrows of fire.
This sketchy tale becomes a template for the rest of the movie. Ilias "chooses the way of sacrifice and bravery," which apparently means that he is to walk off in a random direction with only a bow and leather miniskirt. Do you suppose that Ilias will encounter an overwhelming battle where he will run out of arrows? When that happens, do you suppose he will find inner reserves of bravery? And if those events should come to pass, do you suppose that his bow, the very same one used by his ancestor, will spit out flaming arrows? If you grasp this subtle foreshadowing, any mystery of plot has been yanked away from you. You become a mindless droid, absorbing the predictable images that Conquest throws at you.
The worst part is that the legend and the actions of Ilias are founded in stupidity. Let me get this straight. His ancestor encountered a fierce battle and did pretty well for himself until he ran out of arrows. Then the dude waits around, with no weapons, for a horde to converge on him. We want to reward this type of thinking? How in the name of Ocron is this conclusion logical? "Hmm…out of arrows, pissed-off horde…let's be brave and stand our ground! Surely a timely tornado will happen along to wipe out yonder horde, or mine enemies will be blinded by an inexplicable plague, or the sun will take pity on me and shoot out little laser beams!"
Fantasy stories are often based on a quest. Since Conquest provides us with none, we must look elsewhere for its merit. There must be some deep character portrayals to make up for the lightweight plot.
Well, you are in luck, because Conquest provides just that. Take the character of Ocron. How quixotic is woman! First she has a vision of Ilias and gets kind of hot, which leads to a writhing, self-pleasuring-with-a-snake session. She orders Ilias brought to her unharmed. A few minutes later, for no discernable reason, she sends henchmen out to kill him. I'm still pondering the depths of her character.
I also appreciate the subtlety of the Chew-Bacchaus. Many fantasy epics give us colorful enemies with distinct personalities to confuse us. But the Dogmen say so much with so little. When they growled with menacing emphasis, like "rwrrrRWWWRRRRrr," a little shiver went down my spine. Sometimes the Dogmen would encounter Ilias and Mace and be all "Rwwwwa-haa-haa!" Then Mace would wave his little rocks around and Ilias would shoot them with sharpened MacDonald's straws, and their tone would turn befuddled, like "Rwwrrr?" When Ilias and Mace delivered a beat down, the Chew-Bacchaus became downright guttural: "grghhhhh-ahhhhhhhh-hhhiisssssss-grggggllll!" Linguists will find weeks of enjoyment deciphering the various intonations.
If you happen to be neither a linguist nor a herpetologist, then you might be disappointed in the depth of characterization in Borefest. Will the lush visuals distract you? Oh, yes, but not in a good way.
There are three color modes used in Conquest. The first is light, which is used when educated or innocent characters are onscreen. These scenes have a hazy, transparent quality. The transparence is achieved through double exposure. One take is performed with just the scenery, and another take uses the actors. If this technique periodically results in image offset (like a bad 3-D comic), it makes up for it with the dramatically transparent people walking around with brush and limbs poking out from their spinal columns. Hazy effects are typically achieved by placing fine gauze over the camera lens. Apparently there wasn't enough money in the budget for gauze, so they used cheesecloth instead. This gives the odd impression that the scenes are wrapped in a massive burlap bag.
The second color mode is middle key, which is used when bad guys or grubby HuGs (Humanoid Group, remember?) are onscreen. In these shots, the art directors said something to the effect of "let's go with brown," and the set dressers poured brown paint everywhere, draped brown fabric over things, and swabbed brown body paint over the HuG, so that we have to squint to make out any detail. This is used to dramatic effect when Mace is walking through a canyon of gray boulders and a HuG draped in gray flannel seems to emerge from the ground.
The third color mode is a fantasy standby: darkness. Dark scenes put us on edge, bring out our fear of the unknown. That is, when we can see what is happening. Are you familiar with the contrast button on your remote? If not, better dig out the manual, because one third of the movie takes place in such low light that you have no chance of deciphering events without it. I'll save you some trouble: Most of the dark scenes feature the same cheesy fight scenes as the rest of Conquest. Just watch one of the middle-light scenes and refer to it in your mind.
I think I have firmly established that Conquest is not high cinema. Fine…why not punt and give us plenty of sex and gore? Fulci tries, a valiant effort that is as successful as the plot is vague.
Let's start with the gore, which is Fulci's trademark. He goes for the "oozing wound" vibe in this film. The occasional oozing wound is good for a gross-out or two, but everyone in Conquest seems to have cheeks full of red syrup or little fountains of silicone tubing buried beneath their clothes. One blow by any weapon is enough to render instant death, and the corpses usually twitch and spurt brown fluid. I really enjoyed one scene where a Dogman knocked off a guy's toupee to reveal a blood-soaked brain, but most of the effects were not up to such high standards.
In fact, it is not only the gore but all effects that suffer. One particularly amusing (and inexplicably repeated) effect is the birds. See, Mace hates men, but he loves animals. When a bird is downed (which seems to be a live hawk covered in syrup), Mace picks it up and pets its head. We then watch him pick up a stuffed bird, part its feathers, and blow softly around its neck. If I had to guess what is happening, Mace's breath somehow rejuvenates the bird and "breathes life" into it. (Maybe the bird caught a buzz from alcohol fumes.) He then throws the stuffed bird into the air, and we are treated to an artistic shot of three stuffed birds dangling on strings to suggest "flight." (This shot is rendered in the light color mode, so the cheesecloth partially disguises the strings.)
The movie's defining effect is the sun arrows. How do I explain this…Dungeons and Dragons meets Star Wars? Basically, the bow glows blue, and neon arrows appear, and they dart out among three boulders. It is semi-nifty the first time, but by the third repetition of the exact same shot, we have to wonder why the bad guys keep hiding behind the same three boulders. This is ignoring the anticlimactic nature of the effect in the first place.
So much for the effects. Surely, surely, Lucio delivers the goods in the breasts department? Well, yes and no. The main baddie is mostly naked throughout the film. Her sleek body is open to our gaze, save her face (papier-mâché mask), pubic region (bikini bottom with plastic spikes), and belly (pet snake). There are brief erotic moments when her nubile buds stay in frame for a few seconds.
Other women bare their torsos, but such scenes are invariably marred in some way. We see lots of fair-skinned HuGs demolished by evil HuGs, and we get a vague sense that the ladies are naked, but they run around haphazardly while the camera moves wildly. The closest thing to a sex scene is between Ilias and a mudwoman. She is cute enough, but her body is caked in gray mud. Kissing her would be like kissing a bowl of flour, and the gentle curve of her bosom is cracked with caked-on dirt.
The "pristine" master that gives us this glorious transfer isn't necessarily in poor shape; it just reveals how bad Conquest really is. Aside from the self-imposed lack of detail or contrast, Conquest features a distinct lack of color depth, richness, or detail. Black blots plague the film stock, and everything looks washed out. Black levels are laughable, except in the "dark" scenes that feature primarily black.
I've yet to mention the "pulse-pounding score." Your pulse pounds with an increase in blood pressure. Blood pressure can be increased during arousal or excitement, but it is also increased through frustration, ire, or rage. Claudio Simonetti evokes a fight-or-flight mood with his score: The viewer must decide whether he wants to fight through the aural pain or flee the room. The tinny, screeching quality of the audio does little to smooth out Simonetti's toneless, three-note attack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Blue Underground has done an impressive job with some movies that would be considered suspect. Little is done to buoy this undeserving film. They are at least honest with the marketing, giving facts without drumming Conquest up too much. It is a fantasy film released at the height of the sword-and-sorcery craze. It does feature a score by Claudio Simonetti, and it is directed by Lucio Fulci. Nothing to argue with there. This film is brought to DVD primarily to appease fans who have only scratchy VHS tapes. Nothing more is implied.
Conquest was never meant to be scrutinized on DVD. The laughable effects might look better in lower resolution. We can't deride a low-budget movie for lack of future-proofing.
If Conquest had come out after Legend, I would have railed against its derivative nature. However, since Conquest is a precursor to Ridley Scott's moody fantasy classic, it deserves a wisp of grudging thanks. Whatever its flaws, Conquest did help refine the genre, using synthesizer music, surrealistic imagery, and off-kilter tones to weave a cerebral world. Conquest tried hard to achieve magic, but failed miserably. Yet some of the same techniques and themes show up in Legend. Coincidence perhaps, but maybe Scott refined ideas that Conquest presented.
Jorge Rivero has screen presence and really nice teeth.
Conquest is devoid of emphasis, drama, mystery, or mystique. It is a painful exercise in genre adherence that will please only the most forgiving fans. Perhaps if I was drunk and had a handful of drunk, sarcastic friends with me, we might derive some small pleasure in making fun of it. But Conquest is far too easy to conquer for such sport to last long.
I dispatch a horde of Chew-Bacchaus to hunt you down! They will beat your women with foam clubs, grunt ominously at you, and possibly even spurt syrup all over your nice clean shirt!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
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