Monday, March 2, 2015

The Beastmaster




(1982) Directed by Don Coscarelli; Written by Don Coscarelli and Paul Pepperman; Starring: Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, Rip Torn and John Amos; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

“So there’s one sort of conundrum here… which is that his father is the king, but his brother is the heir, which makes Tanya’s character his cousin… We never did address that correctly.” – Don Coscarelli


Note: This is an expanded, re-rated (and dare I say, improved) version of a capsule review that originally appeared in December 2010.

At first glance, The Beastmaster doesn’t seem too far removed from the slew of other sword and sorcery movies that dominated the early ‘80s cinematic landscape, but director/co-writer Don Coscarelli had an ace up his sleeve. His film incorporated an amusing twist with a protagonist who could communicate with animals and see through their eyes. This gimmicky conceit was enough to spawn a mini franchise, including two direct-to-video sequels (without Coscarelli’s involvement) and a TV series.


Budgeted at $4.7 million,* The Beastmaster was Coscarelli’s most expensive production to date. While this was a drop in the bucket compared to many of the large-scale productions of the time, the increased funds gave him the latitude to create a film that was more epic in scope than his previous offerings. Coscarelli considered several foreign locations for the shoot, but eventually chose Simi Valley and other Southern California locales for many of the scenes.

* $8 million according to IMDB, but I tend to believe the smaller figure, reported by Coscarelli and co-producer Pepperman.


Considering the modest budget, The Beastmaster does a respectable job of creating the illusion the filmmakers had more money to work with. The film boasts some impressive set pieces, including a full-scale pyramid modeled after ancient ruins in Guatemala. Coscarelli and his crew also took care to ensure the costumes* and villages reflected the look of a bygone era. Cinematographer John Alcott, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on several productions, utilized his experience shooting in ambient light to provide atmosphere to the interior shots. And of course, with a title like The Beastmaster, the film features a menagerie of animals, including a golden eagle (on loan from the San Diego Wild Animal Park), a “black” tiger,** and a pair of ferrets. Although Coscarelli lamented the lack of creative control (he wasn’t able to supervise the editing process, or the addition of some sketchy effects that were added in post-production), he seemed pleased with the overall film.

* According to Coscarelli and Pepperman’s DVD commentary, the film’s production designer Conrad Angone visited sex shops for S&M books, depicting leather bondage gear. The designs would form the basis for the death guards’ (ahem), uniforms.

** Coscarelli wanted to use panthers, but the animal trainer chose tigers for their trainability. The tigers were painted black, although the dye tended to disappear throughout the shoot, and frequently needed to be re-touched.


If you blended Dr. Dolittle with Conan the Barbarian, you might get something like Dar the eponymous Beastmaster, played with earnest conviction by Marc Singer. He’s likeable as the muscle-bound sword fighter endowed with the gift of gab for his furry and feathered friends. Dar squawks with the best of them as he calls out to his eagle for assistance. He’s equally adept at contending with a group of scary humanoid/bird creatures who admire his prowess with his avian friend.


In addition to Singer’s antics, The Beastmaster features some quirky supporting performances. Rip Torn, sporting a sizeable proboscis, is obviously having a great time as the sneering, despotic ruler Maax. Drunk with power, he regards the peons of his dominion as an inexhaustible supply for his sacrificial altar. Former Charlie’s Angels star Tanya Roberts plays slave girl Kiri, providing substantive evidence that feathered hair existed during the Bronze Age. She serves as Dar’s nominal love interest, despite the fact they’re probably related (the less said, the better). Kiri proves she’s more than just a passive damsel in distress, however, by getting in a few scrapes with the bad guys. Dar and Kiri are accompanied by the ascetic warrior Seth (John Amos), who’s a formidable ally and a daunting foe for anyone who dares to cross him.


I was the perfect target age when this this family-friendly* adventure debuted in the theaters. Years later, it’s still a blast to channel my inner middle-schooler, and shut down my brain for a while. Beastmaster falls somewhere in the sweet spot between its contemporaries, the admittedly superior Conan the Barbarian and the inferior The Sword and the Sorcerer. It might not be the best sword and sorcery movie to come out of that era, but it’s a worthwhile entry. Silly? Yes. Fun? Definitely.

* Minus the multiple deaths and occasional bare breasts, but hey, who’s counting?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fantastic February Quick Picks and Pans




Strings (2004) This Scandinavian/British production by director/co-writer Anders Rønnow Klarlund is a puppet movie like no other. Compared to the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation shows, the filmmakers are not attempting to create semi-realistic settings that mimic the human world, but take an approach in the opposite direction. Instead of attempting to conceal the strings, they become integral to the story, and are a literal and metaphorical element of the characters. The strings not only establish physical boundaries in the puppet world, but reinforce how each individual is bound to one another. With its themes of deceit, intolerance, hate and genocide, it’s definitely not kid stuff, but the film would make an excellent departure point for families to discuss these touchy subjects. Strings is a beautiful, mesmerizing and uniquely touching experience you’re unlikely to forget.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD


Santo Contra La Hija de Frankenstein (1971) Mexico’s favorite luchador is at it again, protecting citizens from those who would inflict evil on society. Although the movie features the legendary monster as Santo’s primary opponent (painted in a surprisingly sympathetic light), the real villain is the daughter of Dr. Frankenstein (Gina Romand). She must endure multiple injections of a life-prolonging serum, and targets Santo for the magical properties in his blood. Once again, the language barrier (the DVD wasn’t subtitled) did little to diminish my enjoyment.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD


Alice (1988) When a taxidermied rabbit springs to life in the first scene, and breaks free of its glass display case, it’s clear this won’t be a conventional adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. This profoundly disturbing Czech adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story from writer/director Jan Svankmajer, combines live action and stop motion animation. Svankmajer takes pains to make the creepy elements in the source material even creepier as the human Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) interacts with dead animals and nightmarish creations. I couldn’t help but admire it on a technical level, but it’s hard to love. It’s still more enjoyable than Tim Burton’s misguided version, though.  

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming


Cool World (1992) It’s hard to find much to like about this misfire from director Ralph Bakshi, which combines live action with animation. As the result of a cosmic rift of sorts, cartoons and humans (or “doodles” and “noids”) become entwined in a bizarre universe called the Cool World. Brad Pitt stars as Jack, a human cop who keeps the balance between the two worlds by preventing doodles and noids from having sex. The movie invites inevitable comparisons to 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and suffers in the process, lacking the wit or charm of the earlier film. The interaction between the human and animated characters is awkward and unconvincing, and the parameters of the cartoon world are ill defined. Most of the animated characters are generic, full of frenetic activity, but without much purpose. The film’s main focal point, Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) is a hateful, unsympathetic character with a homicidal streak. Caught up in the mix is another human, Frank (Gabriel Byrne), the comic book artist who drew Holli and is subsequently seduced by his own creation. This flick didn’t do much for the lead actors’ careers, and it’s too unfocused and irritating to qualify as much of a cult film.

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Favorite Directors: Guillermo del Toro




“When people say, ‘Oh, fantasy’s a great escape,’ I reply, ‘I don’t think so.’ Fantasy is a great way of deciphering reality.” – Guillermo del Toro (from Guillermo del Toro – Cabinet of Curiosities, by Guillermo del Toro and Marc Scot Zicree)


It may not have been love at first sight when I initially watched a Guillermo del Toro film, but I knew there was a fertile imagination at work, suggesting a potential for something great. One viewing led to the next, initiating an interest that grew stronger with each subsequent film. And aren’t the relationships you build and nurture over time the most rewarding ones?


There’s nothing else quite like a del Toro movie. His particular brand of dark fantasy has become his trademark over the years. Even at his most moribund, there is an inherent elegance, where form and function go hand in hand. Everything is meticulously planned, stemming from journals filled with detailed notes and drawings. Del Toro cited numerous cinematic, literary and artistic influences in his book Cabinet of Curiosities, providing insight into his creative process. Nestled somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area lies his home away from home, Bleak House* (probably the closest thing our generation has to Forrest Ackerman’s “Ackermansion), where he pauses to reflect, plan new projects, and catalog his obsessions.

* Unfortunately, his amazing collection of artifacts, artwork and movie-related miscellanea is not open to the general public, although I would gladly make a pilgrimage to California for a chance to sneak a peek (are you listening, Mr. del Toro?). 


Del Toro started out with short films and the Mexican horror anthology TV series Hora Marcada, eventually graduating to directing his first feature film, Cronos, followed by a string of films that reflected his diverse tastes, but share a common thread. One dominant inspiration has been H.P. Lovecraft, whose themes resonate throughout many of his films, describing ancient, dormant civilizations, waiting to emerge again. Unlike Lovecraft, however, his films reflect the civilizations’ capacity for good as well as evil.


Over the past two decades, del Toro’s cinematic resume has barely scratched the surface of the concepts, rough sketches and story ideas trapped in his notebooks. For every movie that gets the green light, there are several others that will likely never come to fruition. For several years, he was attached to direct the Hobbit films for producer Peter Jackson, but decided to step down when the production became mired in development hell. What seemed like a career setback enabled him to pursue other notable projects such At the Mountains of Madness and Hellboy III, which sadly remain unproduced but could surface again someday. I anxiously await Crimson Peak, which appears to be a return to the basics, with its supernatural themes and ghostly imagery. It’s a bit disappointing that his next project in the immediate future will be a sequel to Pacific Rim, but any del Toro film is still cause for celebration. What’s next? Only time, and the willingness of film companies to bankroll his distinctive vision, will tell.


Key characteristics of a Guillermo del Toro film:

  • Gothic settings, reflecting a particular fondness for baroque architecture. Many of his settings have a lived-in, organic look, full of dark, hidden passageways, cavernous interiors and grand archways. Many of his films feature old ruins and crumbled remains of long-dead civilizations, conceived by an ancient intelligence we could scarcely comprehend. The Old Ones, from Lovecraftian tales, would have been right at home.
  • Infatuation with clockwork and time. The diabolical golden scarab in Cronos is a centuries-old device, comprised of an elaborate network of gears. Another example is the villain Kroenen from Hellboy, who has replaced his inner workings with clockwork to prolong his life beyond any natural constraints. In del Toro’s films, the turning gears not only reflect the ephemeral passage of life, but paradoxically suggest the perpetual, unstoppable motion of time.
  • Intentional use of color. Color doesn’t just set the mood, but becomes a character in his movies, as exemplified by the prevalence of blues, golds and red in Hellboy, green in Mimic, and red at the Pale Man’s banquet table in Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • Spirituality. Although his films are redolent with Catholic imagery such as crucifixes and rosary beads, it’s more indicative of the symbols that were important in his childhood and his own spiritual journey, rather than an attempt to convert the audience.
  • The intersection of Fantasy and reality. There is a hidden world, co-existing on the same plane as the known world, which is just as real but intangible to most people. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the young girl Ofelia is the only one capable of perceiving this otherness, and the fairy tale creatures that inhabit the space around her home. The Troll Market in Hellboy II is another example of a parallel world, just under the Brooklyn Bridge, in plain sight, but invisible to the ordinary individual.
  • Eyes as the window to the soul. Del Toro plays with our perceptions, with The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, with removable eyes resting on a plate, or his spiritual analog, the Angel of Death in Hellboy II, possessing multiple eyes in his wings. Kroenen from Hellboy, who had his eyelids surgically removed, provides a hideous reminder of the humanity he’s lost.

Ranking Guillermo Del Toro’s Films (note that his television projects are not represented here):

  1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Generally regarded as del Toro’s masterpiece, and who am I to argue with that? Alternately beautiful and terrifying, del Toro has constructed an elaborate dark fantasy world, contrasting the grim realities of life under a fascist dictatorship. The fairy tale creatures that inhabit his world are far from benign or safe, as evidenced by the ambiguous Faun or the fearsome Pale Man (both played by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones). But neither of these creatures can approach the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) for sheer loathsomeness. Rating: *****
  2. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) This exceptional film fits nicely, as a thematic companion to Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a ghost story and a mystery, set amidst the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The orphanage setting underscores the collateral damage of war, as it impacts children and adults, and proves we have much more to fear from the living, rather than the dead. Rating: **** ½
  3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) This immensely entertaining sequel to Hellboy, reflects the influence of Pan’s Labyrinth with its heart and substance. It one-ups its predecessor by raising the stakes with an army of unstoppable mechanical automatons, but surprises by bridging the gap between the director’s more personal films and “popcorn” entertainment. Rating: **** ½
  4. Hellboy (2004) Mike Mignola’s comic book character springs to life, with del Toro’s inspired embellishments. Del Toro fought tooth and nail for Ron Perlman to play the title role – a battle that ultimately paid off. Tough to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role with such enthusiasm or conviction. John Hurt is memorable as Hellboy’s adoptive father and mentor Professor Broom, who sees his son’s redemptive qualities. Rating: ****
  5. Cronos (1993) Del Toro’s first feature film serves as a template for many of del Toro’s future projects, and contains many of the themes he would later explore, to greater effect. The title device holds the key to eternal life, but with a terrible price. The movie is also notable for establishing the director’s long professional relationship with Ron Perlman. Rating: *** ½  
  6. Mimic (1997) Through accelerated evolution, genetically engineered insects gain the ability to imitate human appearance. This ambitious film could have been great, but its production suffered from differences between a meddling film studio, which wanted a standard monster movie, and del Toro’s singular artistic vision. His director’s cut, though marred by a pat ending, is the closest thing we’ll likely get to what he intended. Rating: *** ½
  7. Blade II (2002) This sequel to 1998’s Blade gave del Toro to provide his own spin on vampires, involving an especially ugly and dangerous variant. There’s no time for romantic trysts with the undead here, just lots of action. While it’s a little short on substance, Blade II proved he had the chops to pull off an action-packed comic book movie, which would lead to bigger and better things. Rating: ***
  8. Pacific Rim (2013) Compared to several of his previous efforts, this movie was a step back for del Toro. I wanted to enjoy this more, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this brilliant director was deliberately under-achieving for the sake of box office expense. This great looking, but hollow exercise features lots of kaiju action, along with two-dimensional characters and over-the-top acting and dialogue to match. It’s a fun diversion, but not much else. Rating: ***

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Classics Revisited: Jason and the Argonauts




(1963) Directed by Don Chaffey; Written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross; Starring: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Niall MacGinnis and Honor Blackman
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“In the early days I thought I wanted to be an actor, and then I got butterflies in the stomach on opening night, and I decided that wasn’t for me – I’d rather be behind the camera. But I’m grateful I took those lessons – a drama course at Los Angeles City College; because it taught me how to act and react with other people in the acting profession. So I have a sort of indirect way of acting through these models…”
– Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from 1995 interview with John Landis)


With so many memorable creations to Ray Harryhausen’s credit, it’s nearly impossible to pin down a favorite. For many, it might be Pegasus or the Kraken from Clash of the Titans, maybe the flying saucers from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, or the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. For my money, however, it’s tough to beat the battling skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. Smack dab in the early ‘60s, amidst all the numerous sword and sandal flicks, producer Charles H. Schneer, director Don Chaffey and effects maestro/executive producer Harryhausen created something that made the other genre flicks seem run-of-the-mill by comparison. Filmed on location in Italy, the filmmakers concealed Jason and the Argonauts’ modest budget by filming on location in Italy, and utilizing real locations such as the Greek temple (which had been built to honor the goddess Hera) ruins near Naples.* The film’s episodic nature reflects a patchwork quilt, stitched together from numerous classical sources.

* One nitpick: As impressive as the authentic structures look, would they really have been ruins in the era that the film depicts?


After the despot Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) conquers Thessaly and kills King Aristo, he learns that his victory will be short lived, as a priest (Michael Gwynn) prophesizes that he will die at the hand of Aristo’s son Jason. The story skips forward 20 years later, when by chance encounter (or is it?) Jason saves Pelias from drowning. Before he realizes his mistake, he’s off on a quest to the ends of the Earth, searching for the Golden Fleece. He assembles a group of men, the Argonauts, to embark on his quest, while Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) observes Jason’s struggles from atop Mount Olympus. But Jason has an ace up his sleeve with Hera (Honor “Pussy Galore” Blackman), who’s granted him five instances when she can intercede on his behalf. He gets additional help from Medea (Nancy Kovack) who assists him with obtaining the Fleece, betraying her country in the process.


Let’s call a spade a spade; no one looks at the Schneer/Harryhausen movies for the stellar acting or plot hole-laden stories. Taken on these terms, Jason and the Argonauts is a creaky boat, full of hokey, contraction-free dialogue, and men running around in sheets. But no one’s come for the ancient political intrigue, or virtuoso performances. Nope, forget all that. We’re here to see monsters, and damn it, we’re gonna see ‘em! The main draw has always been Mr. Harryhausen’s marvelous animations.


Jason and the Argonauts’ stop-motion effects, or “Dynamation.” featured not one, but several unforgettable Harryhausen creations. The giant statue of Talos, which comes to life and threatens the crew of the Argonaut* Harryhausen noted that Talos, as depicted in the ancient legend, was actually the size of a person, but he decided to take some artistic license and base the film’s animated statue on the massive Colossus of Rhodes. In another sequence, the blind Phineas is tormented by a pair of harpies, until Jason intervenes. Harryhausen saves the best for last with the Hydra and skeleton warriors. The Hydra, as described in the original story, had only one head that regenerated itself when cut off. Because it was deemed too difficult to animate, he decided on the creature with seven heads** that appears in the finished film. Later, the teeth from the severed heads become skeleton warriors, leading to one of the most iconic animated battles in film history. Harryhausen noted that his father was responsible for building the metal armatures for the skeletons – they were assembled by the elder Harryhausen in the States, and shipped to his son in Italy.

* No thanks to Hercules (Nigel Green). He doesn’t really do much to help Jason and his men, but endangers all of them when he attempts to plunder some of the treasure guarded by the giant bronze statue.

** Why seven heads? According to Harryhausen, “Seven is a mystical number and recurs many times in our pictures, so seven heads it was, and none of them would be required to grow back.” (from The Art of Ray Harryhausen, by Ray Harryhausen & Tony Dalton)


Considering how beloved Jason and the Argonauts is today, it’s hard to believe the film wasn’t a big hit when it was released (hmmm… where have we heard that before?). It wasn’t long until the movie gained traction, however, as audiences came to appreciate Harryhausen’s painstaking effects. The movie’s conclusion enticed viewers with the promise of other adventures with Jason, but sadly, they were not to be. While it’s fun to speculate about what could have been, I’d rather enjoy what exists. Harryhausen’s technical wizardry sealed Jason and the Argonauts’ fate as one of the most visually compelling fantasies of all time.