Putting on an Italian genre movie from the 70s or 80s is like cracking open the proverbial box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get. Will it be something with ambition and artistry, a Keoma or a Suspiria, or something content to wallow in sensationalist shock and sleaze, like The New York Ripper? Usually you can get a rough idea of what to expect if you know your directors. Seeing Dario Argento’s name somewhere on the back of the box generally means you’re in for something a shade classier, for example, but if you see the name Lucio Fulci anywhere, you’d better brace yourself for something high on sleaze and on the gorier side of things, even by Giallo standards. Among his particular caste of filmmakers, Fulci has a particular rep for delivering gore, sex, and overall depravity. That having been said, there’s still room for a Fulci movie to surprise you with its level of artistic ambition….or just plain weirdness – take your pick. The perennial example of Fulci in a more artistic mood might be The Beyond, but today we’ll be looking at something of his that’s even stranger: his lone foray into swords and sorcery fantasy, 1983’s Conquest.
A young hero named Ilias sets out from his mystical homeland into the world beyond on a fairly basic quest for manhood, armed with a magical bow. In the much more dangerous outside world, he befriends a lone wanderer named Mace and battles an evil sorceress called Ocron, who incidentally spends the entirety of the movie nude except for a golden mask. On their somewhat circuitous path to Ocron, the pair battle werewolves, zombies, and various other creatures that defy easy categorization. One of them might just be an angry bush – it’s hard to tell.
Conquest plays out like a mix of Fulci at his more lascivious and his more artful. The film has an extremely dream-like nature, even moreso than other Italian films of the time and type, which are often driven by a bizarre logic (or lack thereof) known only to the filmmakers. Everything is viewed through an incredibly soft focus, and further shrouded by an omnipresent blowing mist, so the visuals are very blurry and soft most of the time. The narrative, such as it is, wanders around a lot. Our heroes go from encounter to encounter, battling one group of monsters before moving on to the next, with the end goal of Ocron only ever a vague notion at best. There’s not much in the way of internal logic – not even the quasi-coherent magical systems of other fantasy movies; stuff just sorta happens. So if you’ve seen this movie even a couple of times and try and think back on it, you’ll probably recall a series of disjointed images or scenes, maybe some notes from the funky electronic soundtrack, but not much else. In this sense, it does a very good job in evoking dreams or half-forgotten legends. This could very well be a heroic fable or myth, something passed down in a folktales – bawdy folktales, specifically.
As can be expected of Fulci, the amounts of gore and nudity are fairly high. Ocron, as previously mentioned, spends the whole movie mostly naked, for no other visible reason than titillation. Her spells and summonings also usually involve writing around on a bed, perhaps with a snake draped over her, in case there was any doubt in your mind about what kind of movie this is. On the gore front, Conquest is certainly something. We’ve got stabbings and slashings a-plenty, but also one poor woman getting torn in half from crotch to shoulder in a disturbingly realistic fashion. Like many of Fulci’s movies, Conquest will sometimes have you looking over your shoulder for fear of getting caught by your parents watching it, even if you’re a grown-ass adult who can watch any perverted weirdness you want.
So why watch Conquest to begin with, if you’re not a gorehound or much of a fan of gratuitous nudity? Well, you watch it in large part because of how singular it is. There really isn’t anything else like it, certainly not among swords and sorcery movies, which are usually either PG to PG-13 affairs or content to rest on violence and sex and leave anything too weird or artsy to other movies. By the standards of what we’ve looked at so far, Conquest‘s vague, almost impressionistic tone and dreamy atmosphere make it closer to an arthouse film than an adventure romp. At the same time, it’s quite indulgent and excessive, and not in a way that’s part of any artistic intent. Ocron is naked all the time because sex sells, and that woman gets torn in half because violence sells more. It’s an odd little hybrid of artistic aspiration, feigned or otherwise, of dyed-in-the-wool schlock exploitation, wrapped up in a package that was popular at the time. Maybe that’s cynical, but it’s probably also true.
Conquest probably isn’t the first movie you should watch if you’re new to the Italian genre scene of this era – the tone or the exploitation, or both, may put you off given how hard the film doubles down on both of those elements. However, if you’re familiar with Giallo cinema or Fulci in general, and you’re looking to add something weird to your fantasy movie lineup, it’s a great oddball entry into the swords and sorcery genre – even if there aren’t actually any swords, come to think of it.