With the exception of J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard is likely the most influential author in all of fantasy fiction, with his beloved Conan the Barbarian stories transporting avid readers to the thrilling days of high adventure. However, the character also has a surprising link to the horror genre due to Howard’s occasional use of Cosmic Horror elements, something that was at least partially influenced by his long-time friendship with H.P. Lovecraft. Luckily for horror fans, the man-eating beasts and indescribable Elder Gods of Conan weren’t the author’s only foray into spooky tales about steadfast heroes encountering supernatural terror.
Years before Conan first rode out of Cimmeria, Howard was already a well-known figure in the world of weird fiction because of his other popular creation, the demon-hunting puritan known as Solomon Kane. First published in 1928, the swashbuckling hero became incredibly popular with fans of horror and pulp adventures alike, eventually making the leap to comic-books and audio-dramas as his legend grew.
But despite the massive success of John Millius’ Conan the Barbarian adaptation, it would be decades before a studio would succeed in bringing Solomon Kane to the big screen, with the character’s darker brand of horror-fantasy making him slightly less appealing to general audiences. In fact, even though Wandering Star acquired the rights to the character back in 1997 with the intent of producing a LOTR-style trilogy, a finished film would only be half-heartedly released in North America in September of 2012 after a series of complicated legal hurdles and a botched marketing campaign.
This is incredibly unfortunate, as MJ Bassett’s grim-dark take on Kane remains one of the most fun and faithful adaptations of 1920s pulp fiction, with the film’s gloomy atmosphere and compelling main character making it a must watch for fans of medieval horror. The movie was actually positively received by most critics (many of whom viewed the film as far back as 2009), but limited screenings and little-to-no marketing meant that the flick never found the audience it rightfully deserved.
That’s why I think it’s high time that we look back on one of the most underrated dark fantasy films ever made.
A French, Czech and British co-production, Solomon Kane stars James Purefoy as our troubled lead character, with the story serving as a somber origin story and describing Solomon’s quest for redemption after leading a life of sin. When a Puritan’s daughter is sequestered by possessed fiends, Solomon embarks on a rescue mission that leads him back to his noble roots in a classic combination of swords, sorcery and undead shenanigans amid a plague-ridden 1600s England.
Naturally, Purefoy gives his all in what should have been a career-defining performance, allowing the gruff adventurer just enough edge to keep him likable while maintaining the character’s ruthless demeanor and excelling in the film’s vicious fight sequences. While some of Solomon’s lines may come off as trite after decades of similar fantasy films – many of which were influenced by the same source material – Purefoy’s intensity more than makes up for the script’s bluntness.
The actor is also backed by more than a few genre veterans, such as horror royalty Alice Krige in a surprisingly non-villainous role, as well as The Exorcist alumni Max Von Sydow in his second appearance in a Robert E. Howard adaptation (having previously portrayed King Osric in 1982’s Conan). We also get some creative monster designs by Underworld’s Patrick Tatopoulos, with the artist coming up with nightmarish demons as well as a slasher-inspired main villain that adds even more genre flair to an already stylish flick.
And on the subject of monsters, MJ clearly draws from her previous genre experience (specifically on the equally underrated Deathwatch) when crafting moments of increasing dread. From an insane preacher that feeds his ghoulish flock with human flesh to Solomon’s cringe-inducing crucifixion, the film is peppered with genuinely scary sequences that you just don’t see in typical fantasy movies.
There’s also plenty of good old-fashioned gore, with neither Purefoy or the effects artists holding back when Solomon slices through throats and impales villains on his deadly rapier. And the best part is that most of the blood sprays are practical, with CGI fluids reserved only for spicing up some of the larger battle scenes. The movie also has a near-post-apocalyptic vibe going on due to its bleak and diseased depiction of England, making everything even creepier.
Despite inventing much of this tragic backstory, I really appreciate how the movie commits to its dark atmosphere while staying true to Howard’s vision of Kane, as it’s not every day that we see a hard-R fantasy flick with this much love for its source material. I mean, can you imagine what Netflix’s The Witcher would have been like if they had taken the books this seriously?
Admittedly, the experience isn’t perfect, with the film suffering from a mostly predictable script and some budgetary issues (most of them related to hastily rendered CGI creatures), but you’ve got to admit that the filmmakers are getting a lot of mileage of their $40 million budget. Solomon Kane may not have the epic scale of Conan, but it’s only a couple of million dollars away from feeling like a blockbuster experience.
Hell, I’d even argue that the story’s reduced scale sometimes works in the film’s favor, forcing the narrative to take a more introspective approach as we focus on Solomon’s internal demons instead of constant battles and overused fantasy tropes.
The film’s dark subject matter and high levels of violence mean that it likely wouldn’t have connected with audiences even if it had benefited from a wide release, but I believe that Solomon Kane would eventually have been saved by online word-of-mouth had it come out during the age of streaming. However, while this woefully underseen movie was once cursed to inhabit bargain bins and decrepit rental stores, it has recently developed a sizable cult following as Robert E. Howard fans search for other adaptations of the author’s work and stumble upon this labor of love.
While we can only imagine what the proposed follow-ups would have been like (I personally believe that they would have been even better than the first film, benefitting from more varied mythologies and settings), the mere fact that this loving tribute to dark fantasy even exists is already a small miracle in and of itself.
That being said, it’s never too late for a streaming giant to pick up the rights for a long-awaited sequel so that Purefoy’s Kane might ride again…