Mario Bava was a night-time poet par excellence, dreaming wide awake and sharing his blood splattered, fog-seeped images on the screen for all of us to enjoy. While he was at his arguable best when exploring the night-side of the psyche, exploring the rocky summits of the mind and its supernatural manifestations, he was equally adept at creating suspense, comedy, and high adventure. The later were best represented by his two Viking pictures, both of which preserved the force and fury of their source material. It seems Bava's love and knowledge of folklore also included historical detail if the background details and story elements of Erik the Conqueror are any indication. A rip-roaring descent into honor, betrayal, and savagery, this lesser known title in the Bava cannon is a treat, illustrating how well his technical know-how and directorial approach served his desire to create entire worlds, something out of nothing. Marrying a plot devoted to Old Testament-like morality and Nordic history/myth with visuals seeped in fog, mystery, and icy fury, this is also a bold piece of costume drama. Each of these elements is emphasized by Anchor Bay's impressive release, which makes it apparent just how closely -- and to what depth of effect -- Bava married the psychological conflicts of characters with his imagery, cheap but never less than effective.

Released in conjunction with The Mario Bava Collection (Vol 2), this lavish 1961 drama is an artful (if rather shameless 'borrowed') rendition of The Vikings (1958), starring the ever reliable Cameron Mitchell. Like Knives of the Avenger (1966), Erik was something of a departure from Bava's customary subject matter. The energized story is charged with the director's trademark atmospheric flair, use of color, and intense narrative rhythm. Sexually charged borderlands between hate and love, redemption and sin are emphasized by the basic story and Bava's choice of camera placement and narrative flow. Character's sins and motivations are brought close to home, daring us to sympathize with them despite their classically tragic pasts. Whereas Bava's Giallos operate in an emotionally cold wasteland where the identities and motivations of the killers are closely guarded until final revelations and his supernatural epics focus on a marriage of occult tragedy with intimate character flaws, this historical adventure rotates between the violence of steel and warmth of compassion. A somewhat typical entry in the Sword and Sandal 'Viking' sweepstakes of the era, the story is saved by Bava's unique interpretation of the genre, combining pseudo history with more personal themes of redemption and familial honor.

In a plot focusing on outward action and setting, Bava manages to instil beautifully arranged sequences with psychologically adroit meaning and inner conflicts. When the warring Scots destroy a Viking settlement on their coast, Viking head-hancho Harald (Folco Lulli) falls in battle. His two sons are separated as a result, one escaping to their home in Denmark, the younger adopted by Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe). Many years later, Eron (Cameron Mitchell) defeats Garian (Joe Robinson) to become the new Chief and prepares to lead a savage battle against the British Isles. Erik, his brother, played by George Ardisson, casts his lot with the opposing side, making way for several exploitable moments of familial strife and Greek-like friction. After many battles and heroics, said brothers find themselves in love with Daya and Rama (the smoking hot Kessler twins), sexy if somehow pure seeming Viking twins. Unaware of their shared ancestry and heritage, the brothers come closer to ill fortune, spurned on by Sir Rutherford (Andrea Checchi), the skunk who killed the previous king and wishes to steal the throne from Queen Alice. Will this feud between nations turn into a funeral dirge between brothers?

Erik the Conqueror lends a rather dull sub-genre of chest pounding and pretty damsels eloquence and ferocity, bringing it closer to authentic Nordic storytelling than did other films of the same ilk. A true tragedy, classically structured, the film focuses on the family unit (a re-occurring theme in his work), and spicing up the more internalized drama of relationships with some blistering fight scenes. In addition, concepts of pride, honor, and savagery are treated both honestly and with the gusto of pure showmanship. Of course Bava's artistry with camera and effects, design and lighting are at the forefront, and show him in find condition. Mature in tone, the theme supports no clear cut moralistic dividing line, no good or bad. Loyalties, like time and feelings, change. Irony is developed in a naturalistic manner. Bava's use of scene and color are paradoxically grimly realistic and expressionistic, blurring differences between the fantastic and realistic in look if not in content. Bava's ability to make much out of nothing cannot be overemphasized, and his skill with trick photography doesn't get much better than this. It's near impossible to distinguish props from real locations, and who else could make a handful of models appear to be an entire fleet of ships? A triumph of slight of hand and strong storytelling!

Anchor Bay presents Erik the Conqueror with skill and respect, giving us a wonderful transfer that preserves the color and wide-angle imagery of the story. Free from grain or scratches, the colors are rich and vivid. Audio is also well represented, including Italian and English tracks, the former with optional subs.

Extras a surprisingly extensive for a single disc, especially following on the heels of the extra material that filled out the second Bava box set. These include a lengthy but worthwhile audio interview with Cameron Mitchell. Conducted by Tim Lucas, this chat covers the thespian's impressions of the late master, other actors, and the director's technical gifts. Also covered is Bava's friendly nature, mastery on set, and the respect with which his people treated him. Two trailers are on hand with a still gallery, followed by an informative, well written Bava Bio by Richard Harland Smith. Of course the biggest supplement -- and the most comprehensive -- is Commentary by Tim Lucas, which covers more than you may even want to know about the film and its director!

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by Starz/Anchor Bay
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review