Arrow Video: Erik the Conqueror (1961) - Reviewed

The knockoff picture, or more specifically the Italian knockoff film, isn’t always the most easily definable subgenre of film as the quality of such can range either from creatively inspired or plagiaristic and tiresome.  For the most part people think of multi-titled incarnations like the shameless Jaws ripoff otherwise known as The Last Shark, Great White or even Jaws Returns.  Or you get unofficial sequels such as Alien 2 or Zombi 2, some rising above the expectations of a knockoff while others fall far below the bottom tier.  In rare cases, however, such as horror maestro Mario Bava’s Caltiki: The Immortal Monster and not long thereafter Erik the Conqueror, the so-called ‘knockoff’ being presented actually manages to improve upon what was done before while differentiating itself just enough to be regarded as it’s own piece.

Made three years after Richard Fleischer’s 1958 swashbuckler sword-and-sandals epic The Vikings starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, Mario Bava’s Erik the Conqueror more or less follows the same trajectory of Flescher’s film while serving up what would soon become Bava’s own visual panache of kaleidoscopic colors and gothic drenched atmosphere.  If you’ve seen Fleischer’s film, you’ll be familiar with the story beats involving two long-lost Viking brothers in the 9th century who find themselves on opposing sides of the battlefield between the Scandanavians and the Britains, all the while falling in love with the same woman and inevitably sparking a triangular romantic rivalry.  It’s the stuff swashbuckling fodder is made of, mixing history with old fashioned spectacle.

Bava’s Erik the Conqueror doesn’t necessarily better Fleischer’s film in terms of acting and characterization, yet the cast’s shortcomings are made up for with Bava’s opulent and openly artificial visual style.  Shooting in widescreen himself with the help of Ubaldo Terzano with a brilliantly decadent production design and neon-fluorescent lighting predating the likes of Dario Argento by over a decade, Bava transforms the archaic Viking underworld into a kind of technicolor phantasmagoria you can’t take your eyes off of.  Also startling in the pantheon of sword-and-sandals epics of the time yet germane to Bava’s work is the level of graphic violence and gore.  Take for instance an early sequence involving a Viking raid where a mother and her infant child are shown being impaled by a spear in graphic close-up.  Other scenes later involve soldiers’ bodies being riddled with arrows and images of blood drenched beaches riddled with dead bodies will also raise a few eyebrows not used to seeing this level of violence from this era.

As a Bava fan, admittedly, Erik the Conqueror isn’t the place most viewers should begin indulging in the director’s oeuvre.  That honor lies somewhere between Black Sunday or Planet of the Vampires, keeping more in line with his traditional gothic horror fare.  As it stands, the film plays more like a director-for-hire piece than something borne out of the Italian horror master’s soul.  Despite being an outlier in his career, Erik the Conqueror for Bava completists is an interesting aside, giving viewers a glimpse into a scenic widescreen detour from his usual output and providing cinephiles with a bona fide example of a knockoff picture that actually winds up bettering the source which inspired it.

- Andrew Kotwicki