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?


  1. Where's Phantasm V Ravager, Don Coscarelli?

    I watched The Beastmaster sooo many times on cable, just like everyone else of a certain age. I bought an imported copy of this a few years ago for a Movies At Dog Farm live event, but I haven't screened it for one yet. Maybe soon. It's a crowd pleaser. I actually haven't watched it in its entirety since childhood, so I'm looking forward to watching it again myself.

    1. It's a not so guilty pleasure! Great choice for a live event.

      I'm going to a horror convention in May, with Coscarelli and the cast on the roster, so hopefully I'll hear more about Phantasm V. It can't come soon enough.