Erik the Conqueror (1961) Blu-ray Review: Bava Gets Epical

A few years before Mario Bava singlehandedly invented the giallo with his genre-breaking Blood and Black Lace, he created that one thing most Italian filmmakers get a bad rep for doing: remaking popular American films. Of course, when you’re an inventive genius like the late great Mario Bava, the actual story of a film doesn’t matter as much as the manner in which you make it. Taking its cue from the 1958 US Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis box office smash The Vikings, Bava’s 1961 epic Erik the Conqueror eliminates the typical, boring humdrum usually reserved for lavish Hollywood epics, fusing his take on the tale with the rampant popularity of the Italian peplum movement amid generous portions of his own distinctive flair.

Set in the 9th Century, cult actor extraordinaire Cameron Mitchell takes the lead here as Eron, sibling of the eponymous Erik, as played by underrated Italian actor George Ardisson (who also appeared in Bava’s atmospheric peplum Hercules in the Haunted World the same year). Vikings by birth, the pair of brothers are separated after the King of England’s emissary ‒ whom you immediately sense is wicked since he is named “Rutford” ‒ opts to trump their Viking adversaries rather than work out a deal, to wit the Viking King falls in battle. Shortly afterward, the aforementioned shady emissary assigns his assassin the task of eliminating the English monarch himself, leading the mournful and scornful Briton Queen to take kindly to little lost Erik.

Twenty years later, Erik has been raised under the emotionless care and diplomatic guidance of the Limeys, replacing evil Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi) as leader of what is basically an early prototype of the British Navy. Meanwhile, Eron has aged 40 years in the last two decades and aspires to follow in the footsteps of dead ol’ dad, which could have some rather severe consequences considering the two kingdoms are now at war with one another once again. Washing up in Viking territory after one of the film’s standout warship battle sequences (brought to life by full-size replicas and cinematographer Bava’s own knack for cost-saving effects), Eron soon finds himself in the hands of vestal virgin Rama ‒ whose twin sister Daya is betrothed to Erik.

True to form, Bava uses the least costly split-screen process ever to bring the twin virgins to life by hiring actual twins: Alice and Ellen Kessler.

Full of action sequences, lots of sweaty beefcake goods, Bava’s patented form of colorful (and slightly hallucinogenic) imagery, and some freshly bleached locks for Mr. Mitchell (Spoiler Alert: Cam doesn’t make for a very convincing blond), Mario Bava’s Erik the Conqueror ‒ originally released in Italy as Gli invasori (The Invaders) ‒ is a venerable feast for most of the human senses that just about anyone can enjoy. While it may not be as career-defining as many of his other works, the iconic Italian auteur nevertheless guides his large-scale Viking vessel right on track and far below budget along with screenwriting colleagues (and regular contributors to the peplum genre) Piero Pierotti and Oreste Biancoli. All in all, it’s good clean bloody Italian fun.

When Erik the Conqueror (not to be confused with Erik the Viking, despite the fact Arrow Video has now released both titles to DVD and Blu-ray in the UK) washed up on American shores in 1963, American International Pictures (AIP) did what they frequently did with Italian imports ‒ snipping nearly twenty minutes no one would ever miss and replacing the original Roberto Nicolosi score with something entirely other courtesy AIP stock composer Les Baxter (not to be confused with Tarzan actor Lex Barker). For this offering, however, Arrow Video dives right into the original Italian negative, scanning it in 2K so as to present every frame as clearly as can be.

Well, almost every frame. While the runtime of this Arrow Video release varies against the purported length of the film upon its theatrical debut in Italy, it appears to be intact with one exception. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Previously released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 2007, this High-Definition upgrade is a substantial one at that, making Bava’s garish color palette all the more enthralling and alluring throughout. While the credits are in Italian (and reflect the original Italian title, Gli invasori), I noticed an English-language title card as we make the transition from backstory to main parable. That said, the ending for Arrow’s presentation of Erik the Conqueror is a few seconds shy of footage (as in, the very last goddamn shot) owing to the fact the scene was not present in the Italian negative. In the Anchor Bay release, the absent moment was re-inserted from a VHS copy of the film loaned to them by Bava biographer Tim Lucas.

Since there’s a stark contrast between VHS interweaved into 480p DVD as opposed to inserting it into a 1080p Blu-ray presentation, the aforementioned scene is included as an extra here, as the more-than-noticeable drop in quality would have likely raised a few hackles amongst some. Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Erik comes-a-conquerin’ with audio options in Italian and the original (non-AIP) English dub, and both of the soundtracks are encoded in 1.0 LPCM. The Italian audio ‒ featuring newly-translated English subtitles ‒ is livelier than the English track (which features its own set of [SDH] English subs), but for some reason, you cannot switch from one to the other while the movie is in play without accessing the pop-up menu.

Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark author Tim Lucas provides another one of his entertaining and informative audio commentaries for this Region Free Blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Video, which is a different recording the narrative track he made for the 2007 DVD, but it isn’t as if Mr. Lucas has ever run out of interesting things to say about his filmmaking idol. After all, how many directors can you think of who employed such cost-saving measures as cutting photos directly out of National Geographic Magazine and pasting them on a sheet of glass in front of the camera? That’s something only Mario Bava could pull off, and the fact he always did pull it off is just one of many reasons we’re still reveling in his work today.

Another extra from Mr. Lucas, an excellent audio interview with Cameron Mitchell (who passed away in 1994), has been ported over from the previous Anchor Bay DVD, but is well worth your time. It is clear the late cult actor had quite the fondness for his filmmaking friend, who departed for a surely garishly-hued afterlife in 1980. Lastly in the bonus materials department is the newly-produced featurette Gli imitatori (whoever came up with that title, I owe you a drink) comparing Bava’s historical adventure to its American counterpart. Wrapping up the attractive package from Arrow is a collectible booklet (exclusive to first pressings only) with an essay by critic Kat Ellinger and a reversible sleeve featuring newly-commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.

Highly Entertaining, Highly Recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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