Most of us who like Lovecraft have also delved into his contemporaries, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. I think Smith is the better writer, but Howard is hands down the more successful of the two. Sure, it’s mostly due to Conan, but Howard was prolific, and many fans, myself included, find Solomon Kane to be a richer, more interesting character.
That belief is bolstered now by the release on DVD of Michael Basset’s 2009 epic, Solomon Kane, in the U.S. Even Basset claims not to know why it never received a wide release in America when it performed well enough in Europe.While far from perfect, Solomon Kane is a far better realized film than any of the Conan movies, and this is due to a solid if irritatingly linear script, a terrific performance by James Purefoy and the sheer bizarreness of a Puritan swordsman fighting the devil’s henchmen to save his own soul.
I can’t quite make up my mind whether the beginning or end is the weakest; one keeps people from sticking with the film to the excellent middle part, while the latter leaves people with a feeling of having been let down.
Like all comic book/pulp based films these days, there has to be an origin story. I do understand that the greater part of humanity is not as familiar with the backgrounds of these characters as we geeks. Still, I’d like to see someone try to work the origin information into the body of the film instead of loading up the first half hour or so with what is, in spite of any action sequences, exposition. Purefoy has his weakest moments during the initial siege, where he plays the “bad” Kane a little too close to the campy edge. He’s so bad that even Crabby Appleton (“I’m rotten to the core!”) might quake in fear.But when he puts the devil’s emmissary and realizes that his soul is truly damned….well, it’s amazing what a little wake-up call a visit from the devil can be.
We pick up Kane later as he hides from his demons in a remote monastery, his body covered with tattoos of crosses and other hex signs to ward off his pursuers. The fact that it is a Catholic monastery doesn’t seem to foreshadow any commitment to Puritanism. Later, after he’s forced to leave the monastery, he falls in with a group of Puritan pilgrims bound for America. Kane’s first appearance in his famous Puritan outfit is a powerful image, but the clothing is not a personal choice but simply what is available to him. He has renounced all violence and keeps to himself, repentant of the man he used to be, but there’s no evidence of conversion. Puritans weren’t the only Protestant group at the time
But even as he talks about having renounced violence, you know that’s gonna change and quick.
The Masked Rider, a possible ancestor to Leatherface, is leading a band of marauders across the countryside, taking prisoners for slaves and to expand the army. The marauders are mind-controlled by the Masked Rider, of course. Like Spider-man, Kane’s reluctance to intervene in an earlier confrontation with some of the thugs comes back to haunt him as the Puritan family (and especially their daughter, Meredith) are killed or captured.
Ok, so much of that renouncing of violence. Kane swears to rescue Meredith, fails, gets another chance, only to finally confront his old pal the devil, who has come to claim that soul he mentioned some years back.
The final battle with the Masked Rider and the demon seems a tad underdeveloped, and fails to furnish much of climax to the story.
But Purefoy’s performance as the conflicted Kane, both grim and heroic, is dead center. You can care about Kane, but you can’t particularly like him. The ending is, as most ation films are these days, set up so blatantly in the beginning that you can see the essence of what’s coming even if you can’t guess the particulars. Purefoy rises well above these tropes and carries off a few moments of coincidence that might otherwise break the tension of the entire film.
The production is finely designed; Kane’s costume is perfect and iconic. The locations and the mute color palette used in the film save the film from the sense of silliness that pervades films like Van Helsing and Underworld. One of the most realistic depictions of medieval Europe is found in, of all places, Monty Python & the Holy Grail. Kane has that same look of grime and filth. That’s meant as a compliment.
This film was intended as the first part of a trilogy (aren’t they all?) but I haven’t seen any evidence of the producers moving forward on a sequel. It figures. For once, a production company has approached this material with a great deal of respect. It will be a shame if their vision isn’t allowed to be polished and refined.