Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Brokeback Barbarians vs. the Metalheads: CONQUEST (1983)

 "No one can rule the sun!"

As DJ Stevie Wayne said, "there's something in the fog."

It's Day 11 of the 12 Nights of Ed Wood, a series I began back in October. but inexorably, it gets bogged, fogged, and waterlogged. But, there's so much to see - even when seeing the same things. Just like melting polar ice reveals strange prehistoric tundras on our Google Earth, so too does the ever-clearer and ever-sharper HD 2K-4K restoration of once pixelated, panned, scanned and streaky old bad movies reveal whole new vistas.

Of course, not everything is better for all the clarifying. This is especially true for a lot SFX that involve overlays, where a sharp outline around, say, giant ants or insects in Bert I. Gordon movies or Harryhausen movies where the background rear projection of the live actors in the background now look faded and washed out by contrast. Sometimes the harsh clarity of 4D after tge comforting fog of analog VHS, makes films look like Blanche Dubois suddenly exposed by the bright lights of a 2 AM closing time bar.  

Luckily (?) no amount of HD sharpening can pierce the 1983 Lucio Fulci entry in the post-Conan sweepstakes, Conquest.  It's fogged forever. Maybe its volcanic rocky surface still cooling, its oceans still condensing from the steam clouds, but fog obscures everything. On the one hand, did they not check the film stock? On the other, pretend it's intentional and embrace it. Suddenly everything is alive with the possibilities inferred by obscured perception. The result: Conquest becomes a big glowing, steaming fissure in the surface sword and sorcery genre. Genre traits and cliches creep out and/or tumble back in to be cooked and baked and boiled around it until the air is thick with steam and smoke and all that's left is a sticky crust of dried blood, burnt fur, dead bats and bromance that survives beyond death. Not unlike the silhouette animation of Lotte Ellinger or some kind of primordial cave wall shadow puppet show, our unconscious projectionists fills in the details the clouds obscure, or our convulsive DT-addled mind just grooves on the absence of any detail that might make us nauseous. Even primordial Tom Jones-style sexy meat eating, people being torn in half, or roasted on beds of coals, doesn't make us the least bit nauseous, as the fog makes it no more troublesome than a dream safely woken from. 

Meanwhile, like a blind person developing keener hearing, our ears tune deeper in than normal to the soundtrack and are deeply, satisfyingly rewarded with a rich tapestry of howls, squawks, distant animal grunts, whispered chanting, moans and murmurs. Claudio Simonetti's music churns up the mud with pulsing mellotron, an echo-drenched flanger and some gorgeous little synth moments. There's so little dialogue that when someone finally speaks it sounds odd, it's as if words have only recently begun to form like rivers condensing from the fog of inchoate growling. A wearying slog through blood and mud turns into drug dream poetry, especially if you watch it, as I like to do, while half-asleep, with good headphones on, the setting sun in blazing in your eyes through the open window. 

On the wise and 'good' side of the river, civilized but naive warrior youth Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti) is given a boat (looking suspiciously like a repurposed gondola prop) and a bow and arrow set by his sophisticated peaceful village and then launched on his evil-fighting rumspringa. Barely has he landed before his presence disrupts the mystical reverie of the lady who runs these forbidden lands, the brain-eating sorceress Ocron (Sabrina Siani) With her black feather cape/boa and regular boa, naked body, and metal head, she looking a bit like Shanghai Lilly giving reverse-birth to an Oscar while recreating that 1981 Nastassja Kinski photo. The weird misogynistic subtext of her iron mask and naked body is perhaps the only really galling element, partially undone by her all-consuming power. Hanging around in her Abel Ferrara-does-Thulsa Doom smoky cavernous orgy den with her wolf-headed and iron masked minions, snorting powdered brains through a straw (I think) to get high, she's got the whole world believing the sun depends on her morning salutations to rise. Yet even the full head of a tasty, ripped-apart peasant girl can allay her mounting dread over the wanderer with his glowing blue bow. Look out, Ilias! You're about to get attacked by waves of Ocron's posse of genuinely weird and wolf muppet Chewbacca-style raiders and their iron masked associates. You're gonna need back-up. Enter Mace, (Jorge Rivero) who wields a great nunchucks-bolo-sling shot combo bop bop bop. Mace will be the Xena to Ilias' Gabrielle, the Robin to his Batman, the Jake to his Heath. Mace can talk to the animals. 

One of Fucli's secrets--one of the reasons his best films are so revered and hold up so well to repeat viewings (besides the gore)-- is his gift for paring out all the boring linear story-advancing subplots and details and 'suspense' crosscuts and character arcs that follow the hack auteur's idea of what a 'story' is all about. He does this by presuming you're familiar with these fantasy worlds. We don't need to know why Mace can communicate with animals because of The Beastmaster (an influential hit in Italy). We don't need to know why Ilias is sent across the river or why he's so much more civilized than everyone else in this haunted land, because of One Million BC. 

And yet, the film we're seeing is far from predictable because the plot and film language are so fractures. We're never quite sure who is who or what's going to happen. Connecting tissue like character backstory and cohesive mise-en-scene are jettisoned in order to put the viewer in a mindset similar to tripping, being asleep, schizophrenic, or having a flu-boosted nightmare, where signifier chains and logic are totally disrupted. If you need handrails to vault down the unlit cellar stairs, maybe Fulci isn't for you. If you just jump, heedless of a fractured skull, down into the inky darkness, then you love the minutely-etched ambiguity, where every reaction shot carries the DNA of a dozen possible meanings, including accidental, i.e. we're reading too much into it. Chances aren't we are. 

Usually, as per Deleuzian cinematic theory, film editing either operates on either the 'time-image' or 'movement-image' principle. In the movement image, we see X walking from across the street from a neutral vantage point; we see X open the door and walk inside from across the street. We follow the man from place to place as if a neutral observer. In time-image, we see the door from X's perspective; we see a close-up of X's hand turning the knob (if the filmmaker can afford inserts) and then X's view of the inside, then X's face as he sees the inside, and so on. Of course most films use both methods and we're used to both methods. But then crazy horror maestros like Fulci come along and use our comfort with these methods and they slam our fingers in the window jamb of these methods and boom! Half the critics feel miffed and blame their alienation on authorial incompetence, but others 'get' the disruptive 'nightmare logic' at work in his weird editing / story approach. They realize that even if the alienation is unintentional it's reminding them of a time when they hadn't seen enough movies to be predict what was going to happen next. Suddenly instead of a familiar world (i.e. the hero will survive to the final reel to kill the villain, who will surrender moments before being killed, the hero will walk away, the villain will then pull out a knife and try to throw it, the hero will whip around and kill him, etc.) we're in a world of vivid kinetic action and reaction - nothing is certain. Main characters can die at any time. That's why a film like Conquest holds up so well to repeat viewings... we never really see the same movie twice, regardless of how many times we watch it, because its pattern never follows a recognizable trajectory.  That blend of borrowing motifs from other films and yet abstracting what they add up to, simplifying yet complicating the overall impression by a refreshing lack of morals and messages or cumulative logic.

So we know Mace talks to animals  
Because The Beastmaster has been a hit in Italy, Mace is also loved by all animals. A hawk overhead warns him of approaching monsters; dolphins bite off Mace's bonds when he's crucified at the bottom of the sea; a snake shows Mace the way out of a rocky pit. As a reward, Mace won't kill animals, but on the other hand, he he no problem eating the ones someone else has killed after killing their killer --a guilt-free PETA-approved carnivore diet!  

Ilias and Mace's bond settled, and the film clicks into the gear at which it will stay for the rest of the film: Mace will teach Ilias of the ways of the wild and the dangers of this new land; Ilias will show Mace his magic bow. The animals shall look out for danger; the endless growling wolf man minions of Ocron shall come at them making actual "Grrr!" noises and always... always... in a cloud of murky fog. What could go wrong? Love? A volley of venomous demon darts!? 
Conquest gets a bad rap, the common consensus is it's too foggy; but it's a guilty pleasure for me and for many critics whose word I value.  I love how deftly it stays free of the detailed ponderous plotting that oft bogs these things down. There are no intro plot scrolls about days of olde; no voiceovers, no duplicitous courtiers, despotic generals, mustered extras, horses, dopey sidekicks, slapstick escapades, rollicking tavern fights, mickey mouse scoring, dungeon incarcerations, children, jugglers, rape, or extended macho torture sessions. A lot of people and monsters die but mostly it's just two dudes who like each other on a journey of amiable forward momentum, pausing every half a mile to bash a bunch of thugs and werewolves squarely on the sconce with a satisfying crunchy sound. 

We never learn what is in the straw Ocron and her posse pass from nostril to nostril, 
but the slow languid heavy way everyone moves gives us several interesting options. 

A bit like Clu Galager and Lee Marvin in The Killers (if Ronald Reagan was a metalheaded naked woman snake handler) they're cool enough you kind of want to be hanging out with them, even if three would probably be a crowd. A groovy homoerotic subtext thrives on close reading, depending on how much you want to feel around for it in the white-out fog. Hunky Mace knows some rivers are best left uncrossed ("your world is better than mine," he bemoans at one point, "but this is where I come from.") You can imagine the same scene in the third half of Brokeback Mountain with Heath Ledger as Mace, i.e. too repressed to suck venom out of Ilias's leg wound, the way, say, latter barbarian lavender soulmates like Xena and Gabrielle would do in nearly every episode (admittedly a decade later). Mace probably wouldn't even give him mouth-to-mouth if it was needed. He'd ask a bear to do it.

Still he's not afraid to pick his beau friend some healing lavender flowers when he's sick. Look at him there (below) - gazing pensively around in the early morning mist while Ilias pines away in engorged agonies back on the riverside. As you see below, the mist adds an impressionistic, almost Matisse-esque lyricism to the image. 

In today's more enlightened times, the closeted-even-to-itself sublimation of the Mace-Ilias bond seems quaintly timid, while the choice of making the most powerful woman in the film a naked, faceless monster is problematic. Good thing that the sort of critic who would dig deep enough to be offended by either reading will probably never take this fogbound journey into the unknown. Long hard to see (figuratively as well as literally), it's been remastered and made available online and in Blu-ray only because Fulci has such a fervent following. But even Fulci disowned it, walking away right after shooting. Hardocre Fulci apologists would rather champion something like The New York Ripper, wherein Fulci finally justifies his misogynistic accusers. It was his first in years without his go-to screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, who was pretty pissed to be left off the team. The legend has it Fulci was losing his health and his damned mind and this was the proof. 

But what a run he'd had! Surely some of the classic Fulci magic had to spill over, even if no one saw it yet in that opaque fog. And there are plenty of touches that make it unmistakably Fulci: the idea that he almost never films from the expected angle or distance. The camera is seldom at eye level; usually it's kept low so the boys loom as giants with the magic hour sun behind their heads, or it swoops high up on a crane, as if some friendly giant beaming down at their foggy folly. The gore is always satisfying in its crunchiness. Callbacks to classic Fulci films abound: the way Ilias goes "yayayayayayaya" when batting away at the cave bats references Fulci's House by the Cemetery; the 'Eibon' symbol on Mace's forehead references Fulci's The Beyond; the gross close-ups of Ilias's venom and pus-engorged dart wound reference City of the Living Dead; the eerie center-screen-eyeless-head shot close-ups of the zombies resembles, you guessed it, Zombie. All in all, a Fulci capstone to a brilliant seven film / four year run. 

It's not perfect. I do wish we got to see Siani's pretty face, and I wish we got an occasional break from the fog. But any old film can be in focus, and we can see Siani in Ator, the Fighting Eagle and Throne of Fire. Two movies that are like the PG-13 daytime and Conquest is the R-rated night. 

I also find that, watching online, with pop-up ads, is the key. That's when it all comes together in some divine Woodsian masterpiece. Grubhub + half-asleep eyes + pareidolia fog + the Brooklyn accent of the voiceover artist doing Ilias's dub (the same guy who does Trash in 1990: The Bronx Warriors) + Chase Visathe primordial synths + the Clan of the Cave Bear make-up on the cute girl who lives just long enough to almost shag Ilias + So Clean for sleep apnea +  someone getting ripped literally in half + the web people emerging from their cliffside crevice, looking like Pillsbury snowmen and talking like Herve Villechaize. 

Maybe that scene sums up the appeal, the way it reminds me of childhood bonds: "Where is your friend?" the monster asks a crucified Mace. "I have no friends," Mace says. "You lie!" the monster shouts back.  It's so weird and basic and may evoke the realization that these guys are mentally ten years-old and making their first friend in school. Suddenly there he is: Ilias, rowing back to his Mace like a romantic gondolier as the moody Assault on Precinct 13-ish synth chords oscillate, shouting up at his crucified friend "Mace, I've come back! I'm not afraid!" My fellow Conan-loving friend Alan and I would have loved this movie, had we not been such snobs about dubbing. 

Prepared with rock bottom expectations, I loved it the first time I saw it, and I always will love it. I have been turning to it for sleep and stress relief ever since to the point my girlfriend rolls her eyes when she hears some of those cycling Simonetti synth riffs. As B&S's Sam Panico says: "Conquest is either the worst film you’ve ever watched or a batshit insane descent into mythical archetypes. There can be no middle ground."  Studied through a jeweler's lens, it may seem a cloudy piece of junk, but we of terrible vision know it's a rare jewel whose facets are best appreciated via indirect gazes i.e. like a ghost you can only see in reflections on your silverware. And man, is it ever relaxing - resisting the brain's attempt to memorize and overthink it through its mythic parade of the warmly familiar and the forever unknowable. Like half a Remeron chased with a smoke shop shot of kratom, it's the next best thing to being asleep. In his chapter on the film in his his Fulci book Beyond Terror, the amazing Stephen Thrower writes: "Half the fun of sleeping pills is in fighting the effects, staying awake to experience their weird pharmaceutical slurring: but few would want to feel that way whist trying to crawl through a Conan the Barbarian rip-off. " (183). 

Count me one of the few, Stephen. Let the fog come and rub the clarity from out my heart until all is fuzzy brain straw reverie. 

Yayayayayaya!  I'm not afraid! 

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