ERIK THE CONQUEROR (1961) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: Mario Bava
Arrow Video USA

Mario Bava fans will discover that he could inject his brand of gothic style into even a costume epic with Arrow's Blu-ray/DVD combo release of ERIK THE CONQUEROR.

With Viking fleets controlling their seaports, King Lotar of England (Franco Ressel, SABATA) tasks the Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi, BLACK SUNDAY) with negotiation peace with Viking King Harald (Folco Lulli, THE WAGES OF FEAR) only for Rutford to wage an ambush on the Vikings and defeat them in a cruel massacre in which Harald is felled by an arrow fired by Rutford's marksman from his safe vantage point. Shocked at the brutality, Lotar relieves Rutford of his station and takes back his promise to put him in charge of the North Seas. Rutford's marksman assassinates the king and blames a dying Viking. While fleeing the massacre back to sea, Harald's child sons Eron and Erik are separated. While Eron is taken back home, Erik is discovered by the mourning Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe, SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE) who swears her lady-in-waiting to secrecy about his origins and raises him as her son. Twenty years later, old Viking king Olaf (Jean-Jacques Delbo, THE 1,000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE) is determined to crush Queen Alice and grown up Eron (Cameron Mitchell, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) wants to lead the battle and succeed Olaf as king not only to avenge his father Harald but also for the right to marry vestal virgin Daya (Ellen Kessler, SODOM AND GOMORRAH). In England, Queen Alice gives son Erik (Giorgio Ardisson, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH) the title of Duke of Helford and reluctantly allows him to lead the sea campaign against the Vikings. Rutford, whose offers of marriage Queen Alice has refused, has arranged for a traitor aboard Erik's ship to sabotage it and sink it, allowing the Vikings to make their way to land and storm the castle. Unaware that Rutford was responsible for his father's death, Eron appoints him regent in his absence and returns home to marry Daya, taking Queen Alice as hostage. Meanwhile, Erik has washed up on the shore and been found by Daya's twin sister Rama (Alice Kessler, DOUBLE DECEPTION) who directs him to the safety of a fishing village on the outskirts of the Viking kingdom. Upon discovery of Erik's identity, Rama – who has also been appointed lady-in-waiting to the imprisoned Queen Alice – agrees to help them escape, fleeing with them back to England. Queen Alice, Erik, and Rama ally with the Scottish army and return to the castle only to find Eron – and conflicted bride Daya waiting for them along with Sir Rutford – waiting to engage Erik in a dual to the death.

Although acknowledged in the disc's extras as owing heavily to the Richard Fleischer's THE VIKINGS, ERIK THE CONQUEROR is as much informed by Italy's peplum films and gothic horror traditions by way of director Bava's visual style which contrasts the sumptuously-lit and composed England sequences with the Viking kingdom that looks like something out of Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD with red, green, and blue gels, a ceremonial grotto dominated by a massive black tree with exposed roots where lovers who have betrayed Odin are bound in thorns to be fed to the vultures (with only Rutford's dungeon adopting a similar lighting style as he threatens Daya with one of the many deadly spiders of Italian exploitation cinema). The battle scenes on the sea and on the land also benefit from Bava's expertise in visual effects with plenty of glass mattes utilizing cut-out photographs from National Geographic and LIFE Magazine to achieve surprisingly convincing illusions of scale and scope. In 1960, Bava was hired to do some reshoots on Giacomo Gentilomo's LAST OF THE VIKINGS which also starred Mitchell and Ardisson, and he would reuse some of his own footage from that film in ERIK THE CONQUEROR to beef up the action scenes. While American costume epics like THE VIKINGS spread their sprawling narratives over two hours or more, ERIK THE CONQUEROR keeps moving at a fast clip to the ninety-minute mark, thanks to a streamlined plot, functional performances (only Mitchell makes a real impression), Bava's visuals, and a grand score by Roberto Nicolosi (BLACK SABBATH). Mitchell would subsequently appear in Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and both would return to the Viking genre with KNIVES OF THE AVENGER.

Released theatrically by American International Pictures as ERIK THE CONQUEROR – a version that presumably ran roughly eighty minutes going by the PAL timing of the UK tape release under that title (although a longer tape was also available in that country as VIKING MASSACRE) – the film disappeared like a lot of AIP pick-ups until its export version THE INVADERS was released on tape here by Panther Entertainment (the short-lived company that also gave us a VHS of THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG). The film was finally restored to its scope dimensions in 2007 with an Anchor Bay DVD edition boasting an anamorphic transfer, English and Italian audio tracks, audio commentary by Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas, and an audio interview with Mitchell (this was released separately from Anchor Bay's two Mario Bava box sets because it was licensed from the Italian rights holder rather than Alfredo Leone). Arrow's dual-territory Blu-ray/DVD combo is derived from a brand new 2K scan of the negative. Bava's colors are richer than before although the image is often as grainy as a 2-perf Techniscope film even though it was shot in anamorphic Dyaliscope (the fall-off in sharpness on the edges of the frame with the line's wide angle lenses is more apparent in high definition) owing to the heavy use of fog, smoke, low light and garish gels during the Viking kingdom scenes, and magic hour exteriors with a russet filter. English and Italian LPCM 1.0 audio options are available and English SDH or English subtitles for the Italian audio are available from the menu depending upon the audio option chosen.

The audio commentary provided by Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas is a revised 2017 version of the one he recorded for the Anchor Bay DVD. He cites not only THE VIKINGS as one of the film's inspirations but also the Sergio Leone-penned DUAL OF THE TITANS (noting some of additional plot similarities). As usual, he goes down the roster of Bava collaborators in front of and behind the camera, along with the locations reused from film to film (as well as props), points out the various "twin" visuals throughout, and also discusses the differences between the export version and AIP's release (which for once retained Nicolosi's score). The audio interview with actor Mitchell (63:19) is more than twice as long as the version on the Anchor Bay DVD and appears to have been the source of Lucas' print interview with the actor featured in an early issue of Video Watchdog. Mitchell expounds upon his admiration of Bava's expertise in cinematography, make-up effects, and make-up effects, touching upon both ERIK THE CONQUEROR and KNIVES OF THE AVENGER. He also provides some anecdotes on working with other filmmakers, including prepping with Ingmar Berman an adaption of Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha" that fell through because of the director did not feel he had the freedom to make changes he felt necessary while the author was still alive.

"Gli Imitatori" (12:06) is a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie who illustrates the film's visual and narrative debts to THE VIKINGS while also discussing the ways in which they differ, contrasting Cardiff's location photography and Bava's economical visualizations, and the ways in which the Bava film's plot actually bested its model. The original ending (1:24) features an additional shot of Eron's ship in flames that was not part of the negative and included here from a letterboxed UK VHS (this bit had been restored to the DVD editions but was left off because of the greater gulf in quality). Not supplied for review were the reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys, and the collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Kat Ellinger that is only included with the first pressing. (Eric Cotenas)