Ok, no, seriously guys. What the fuck is going on in Conquest?
The 1983 fantasy film Conquest is very much a Lucio Fulci movie, and by that I mean strange and nonsensical and in Italian. Though he's best known for his horror movies (among them Zombie, House by the Cemetery and City of the Living Dead), Fulci worked in a number of different genres throughout his career. It wasn't until the success of movies like Excalibur and Conan the Barbarian, however, that Fulci would attempt the kind of sword-and-sorcery movie that was briefly popular in the early '80s (and which makes this column possible). The results feel just like what you would expect a fantasy movie directed by Fulci to feel like.
Look again at the poster above. A muscular dude faces a hot-bodied lady wrapped in a snake and what appears to be a giant robot shooting lasers from its eyes while fire swirls around them all. It's literally the best movie poster ever made. The movie only delivers on some of that promise; I don't remember a laser-shooting robot, but the snake lady and the muscle dude are definitely in there. It's an image ripped right from the minds of '80s fantasy nerds -- pre-teen boys who spent Saturday afternoons playing Dungeons & Dragons, listening to Ozzy Osbourne, poring over the Frank Frazetta covers of countless fantasy paperbacks. At this point I realize I'm describing my older brother.
So confused was I by the plot of Conquest that I actually went on its Wikipedia page to read the VERY DETAILED plot summary. It did not help. It's telling that even the author of the plot summary uses words like "somehow" and "probably" and "inexplicably" in describing the events of the film. Even the person who has taken it upon him or herself to be the expert on Conquest is left confused about how exactly things transpire.
This is a problem not totally unique to Conquest. A lot of fantasy movies from the '80s feature simplistic plots obscured by nonsense -- elaborate back stories, character names that are impossible to remember, ancient prophecies, blah blah blah. It's one of the things that can sometimes put me off of the genre, as it loses any and all sense of human connection in the sole interest of building a world that in no way resembles ours (hence a FANTASY). When you put that preexisting condition through the filter of Lucio Fulci, you wind up a movie that's practically impenetrable. Fulci applies his usual "dream logic" storytelling approach (the one that makes his zombie movies so popular) to his fantasy film, actively working against the traditional hero's journey he's supposed to be telling. The movie shoots itself in its own sandaled foot with a blue laser arrow.
To its credit, Conquest is one of the few hard R-rated fantasy films of the '80s. In a decade when PG still meant some nudity and violence could sneak into the fantasy genre and guarantee constant rotation on HBO -- just look at The Beastmaster, which I saw dozens of times as a kid despite the fact that there was some imagery too intense and mature even for a goddamn prodigy like me -- Conquest doubles down on the sexuality and gore. Many of the fantasy films of the period would hint at it or dabble in it here and there, but leave it to Fulci to go all the way and make the sex and violence totally explicit.
If nothing else, the movie is notable for one reason (Spoilers for Conquest coming up): the fucking hero gets beheaded 78 minutes into the 88-minute movie. Oh, and it happens off camera. I think. It comes at the end of a sequence that's photographed in almost total darkness, save for the occasional blue filter. So it might have happened on screen, but was so obscured and impossible to make out that I missed it. I'm pretty sure it happens off screen, though. Mace and Ilius are separated for the 10th time when Ilius is dragged out of the cave in which they are sleeping. Mace is led out of the cave by bats and stumbles upon the headless corpse of his companion. That's the reveal, and it wasn't until the villains talk about it in the next scene that I even realized what had actually happened. It does nothing for the movie, thematically speaking, nor does it really have an effect on the character of Mace (except that he was ready to call it quits at one point, but he had already decided to see the mission through prior to his companion being killed). The point is that it's the rare movie with the balls to chop its hero's head off before the climax and leave the musclebound sidekick to close the deal. It would be like if Star Wars killed off Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca had to blow up the Death Star.
Junesploitation this year (the Italians seemed to make more than anyone) and I'm finally starting to turn around on them. I'm still not sold on a specific kind of horror movie (the kind Fulci made), but their exploitation films -- science fiction, westerns and now fantasy -- are crazy and unpredictable in the best ways. There is no apologizing for what they are, no attempt made to be "respectable" or appeal to anyone not in love with this kind of stuff. So while I wouldn't recommend Conquest to just anyone, fans of exploitation cinema and '80s genre aficionados owe it to themselves to see it. The movie doesn't make a ton of sense in the moment, but the standard mythic storytelling beats make it so it can be followed in the larger sense: guy needs to get from this desert landscape to that desert landscape and kill a bad guy. It's just that the bad guy in this case is a bad girl and the guy who has to kill her gets his head cut off so a different guy has to do it. And sometimes it takes weird detours, too.
Lucio Fulci didn't always make good movies, but his movies were always unmistakably his. While Conquest bears a resemblance to everything from Conan the Barbarian to the aforementioned Beastmaster to Deathstalker to Hawk the Slayer, it's rare to see a movie that's so similar to so many others and yet which feels so singular. Again, that's not the same as "effective," but in a genre that tends toward the generic, I'll take singular. No, the movie doesn't live up to that poster. But ask yourself this: what movie could?
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