Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly.
Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film, and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.”
Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods.
Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity.
Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves.
A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms.
After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”
Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences.
And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”
However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again.