Review: Erik the Conqueror

Blu-ray & DVD: Erik the Conqueror (1961)

It would be crude to the point of offence to call renowned Rabid director Mario Bava the Asylum of his day, but his 1961 foray into the historical adventure genre, Erik the Conqueror, is – in essence – a schlocky, low-budget, copyright-swerving unofficial remake of 1958 Kirk Douglas juggernaut The Vikings. Character names have been changed and story beats juggled, but the plots, themes and conclusions are too similar for Erik to be seen as anything other than capitalising on a bankable hit.

But this is not to write off Bava’s production as a second-rate rip-off. This is no Atlantic Rim to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific-set kaiju blockbuster, for this loud, bright and often luridly chaotic swashbuckler has many merits to conquer its lack of narrative originality. Arrow Video wouldn’t have gone to the extensive effort of supervising a brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative if Erik the Conqueror were nothing more than vacuous celluloid plagiarism.

George Ardisson plays the strapping eponymous warrior, son of a slain Viking king. For two decades, Erik is raised as a Christian by the English Queen, as her own. When Erik’s estranged brother, Eron (Cameron Mitchell), assumes leadership of the “blood giants” across the sea, he sets his sights on avenging the Viking’s previous defeat. But when he comes up against a familiar face, will his lust for revenge be tempered by the bond of blood?

With hyper-stylised sets, crowds of rowdy extras and a deafening cacophony of background noises, it is clear that Bava is having a ball dressing up Norse legends for a late twentieth century Italian audience. The Viking stronghold looks like a gaudy hell replicated for a Strictly Come Dancing routine, and the rest of the set design is equally ostentatious and rainbow-coloured. It’s grandiose nonsense, but a joy to behold, with cliff-top wrestles, tarantula traps and apocryphal vestal virgins (played by the Kessler twins).

Erik the Conqueror is the epitome of a cult curio, and Arrow have gone all-out to grant it a blockbuster dual format blu-ray and DVD presentation, featuring both original Italian and (dubbed) English audio options, an hour-long audio-only interview from 1989 with Mario Bava – All the Colours of the Dark author Tim Lucas, a 12-minute video essay which compares the film to its (unacknowledged) Hollywood inspiration, and a standard definition presentation of the film’s missing final shot, sourced from a VHS copy and thought lost. Finally, as is the norm with Arrow’s lavish first pressings, early physical copies will come packaged not only with a reversible sleeve but also a collector’s booklet which includes a new essay on the film by critic Kat Ellinger.

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Review by Chris Howard from a disc kindly supplied by Arrow Films.