by Michael J. Bassett
Isn't it funny how in just trying to relay the events of a movie you realize how much more is wrong with it than you initially thought. I mean this is still better than Van Helsing but that's unfortunately the first thing that came to mind instead of Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter which I'm sure Michael Bassett would have liked. I'll start by saying that I had too much fun watching Solomon Kane to rate it less than the C- it's going to get. I greatly enjoyed it when the big crowds of evil warriors are laid flat by James Purefoy as the Mon with no Kane. Purefoy is terrible for a lot of this film but when he's just grunting and looking like a medieval badass, which is when it matters most, I had no problem with him. Postlethwaite and Max Von Sydow are good even when slumming in the likes of this or The Wolfman, but unlike that film, the movie wasn't so terrible that I spent the whole film wondering what they were doing here. Von Sydow only has two scenes after all and he's laying down in one of them. And it isn't even that the film itself is particularly egregious. It's a lot of fun in parts even when treading down a path so eroded by time that you wind up ten feet underground when walking it. The problem here is Michael J. Bassett's script has either stayed far too true to an 80 year old pulp fiction which may have been novel when it was released but now seems like a supernatural western with a change of setting. So in other words there's nothing here you haven't seen done better or much, much worse. In the better category, how about that big red satan creature Kane half-heartedly fights in the climax. When will filmmakers learn not to bother with CGI if they can't afford the good stuff? The final battle reminded me of the very first CG shots in Young Sherlock Holmes or the remarkably awful ones in Mortal Kombat, which is never a good thing.
But returning to the script Bassett puts too much in here that the story can't support. There's the great scene where Kane seeks sanctuary in a church only to discover that the priest has keeps his flock locked in the basement because they're all zombies. It comes out of nowhere and the story comes to a halt for it but it's one of the best scenes in the film. Bassett also makes the mistake of trying to stage a conclusion like the ones in Witchfinder General or any of Hammer's Dracula films but giving it no relevance to what we've already seen. Out of nowhere in a country supposedly overrun by Satan comes two or three guys who've put together a small revolution and are going to ride right into Malachi's castle to deliver it to him. Kane overcomes his cynicism and helps them but it ultimately doesn't matter because, and correct me if I'm wrong, but if Satan's behind this why the fuck should it matter who's going to try and stop him? He's Satan!!! He and God have been knocking each other around for who knows how long to no avail. If Satan can turn guys into zombies by touching their heads (which one of his minions does), why can't he just reign down pestilence on everyone including the rebels? That's my problem with unambiguous religious horror films. The best films in this vein about being possessed by Satan, Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil, et al. work because the big guy never shows himself. Or if he does it fails to do anything but derail the movie (The Devil Rides Out) unless he's completely shrouded in mystery (Blood On Satan's Claw). Solomon Kane makes Satan quantifiable and thus makes their hero invincible and the conclusion totally tensionless. In effect, what it says is that Satan can be scared and defeated in small doses. Not the scariest or most effecting idea is it? And so what if they've defeated one of Satan's minions? He's not Voldemort, he doesn't need a decade to recover. He's fucking Satan! Who's to say he didn't just crawl up Queen Elizabeth's ass and really get some work done rather than waste time with the duke of some hamlet in the middle of nowhere. Solomon Kane wants to simply exist as a western in Shakespearian clothing but it opens way too many doors it can't close. And frankly there's a fucking culture war on and any film that actively seeks to shut your brain off and fails is on the wrong side.
by Chris Smith
Though their noticeably less intense, the men in Ulric's band are equally as unwelcoming. Of the five men who follow him Wolfstan seems to be human under all that armour. Their first encounter with civilization outside the monastery sets the tone for their journey. Osmund sees a group of people preparing to burn a woman to death because they believe she's a witch who poisoned their well. She claims she meant to bless it, but the villagers won't be appeased. Osmund won't stand by while they kill her and only when Ulric intervenes on her behalf are they quieted. But when he gently leads her away from the group and then slits her throat with his sword a horrible quiet falls over the scene. After this Osmund starts to have second thoughts about his chosen path if these are the men doing god's work. When they make it close enough to the clearing where he promised to meet Averill, things somehow only manage to get worse. Not only is there overwhelming evidence that she was killed but her killers, a tribe of men made almost feral by superstition and disease, show up and follow him back to camp. The group is one man short when they continue their hike toward the cursed village. But of course when they arrive nothing is what it seems. Indeed the place is clean, pleasant and inside they claim such distance from the ravages of the plague that it actually takes one man a few seconds before he remembers that it's killing hundreds of people every day. The men are given food, hot showers and plenty to drink and it's here that Osmund's faith in their absolute right is at its shakiest. When the village doctor invites him into the marshes to witness something while the others drink and scheme, his world is thrown even further into chaos. There in the woods the women of the village seemingly resurrect his girlfriend before his very eyes. He'd have a stronger reaction but the wine everyone partook of at dinner puts them all to sleep right at that moment.
Smith's direction is very good but I found myself wanting a little more from the landscape. With competition like Valhalla Rising, Smith's cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid should have been working overtime to find the moodiest possible lighting for every situation. Because he didn't go out of his way to find truly intense dark colours outside in the wilderness and truly breathtaking ones inside the village, instead of looking angelic, the village just looks slightly less ominous. The quality of the light doesn't change drastically enough to evoke much feeling on its own and the performances alone aren't enough to do it either. We know that things aren't right because we just fucking know. We've seen ten trillion movies and of course something evil's going on, them's the breaks. Smith's problem is atmospherics. He paints in broad strokes and there are no little gestures to be found here. It's true that Hammer Films rarely dealt in subtlety and as a tribute Black Death gets an A+, but as a moody, cynical horror film that doubles as a treatise on religion, it loses points for playing the same hand over and over again. In the end it feels like a very slight film and doesn't mask it's budget cleverly enough. It also loses points for losing its way during the climactic set piece. At its worst the scene with the underwater cage reminds me of the execution scenes in Red Zone Cuba (never, ever a good place for your mind to wander to) though it does save itself in the end by matching grimness with even more grimness, one of the most badass quotes in film history and a death scene that simply has to be seen to be believed. But for a split second I found myself wondering if we were just going to watch one execution after another.