In the mid-’70s, filmmaker Don Coscarelli had made a couple of low budget childhood slice-of-life dramas; Jim, the Worlds Greatest and Kenny & Company; but it was his third film, the 1979 horror movie Phantasm, that caused the entertainment world to really take notice of him. After that, he decided it was time to take a step up into the world of modestly budgeted mainstream fantasy/adventure movies, and with his friend Paul Pepperman, who had been a producer on Phantasm and Kenny & Company in addition to doing various crew jobs on all three of Coscarelli’s movies, crafted a screenplay that paid homage to the sword/sandals/sorcery, Ray Harryhausen, Steve Reeves/Hercules movies they had enjoyed in their youths.
With a substantially larger budget at hand than he had ever had available to him before, Coscarelli embarked on the making of The Beastmaster.
The Beastmaster is set in a Bronze Age-esque world of magic, gods, and monsters, and begins with an evil cult leader named Maax planning to sacrifice the unborn child of the land’s King Zed to his god Ar. Maax’s hideous witch advisers have seen a vision of the future, a vision of Maax dying at the hands of Zed’s son, so Maax plans to remove this threat and alter his fate.
Maax doesn’t get a chance to. Word of the impending child sacrifice has reached Zed, and the King has the cult leader arrested… But not his witches. One of the witches later manages to sneak into the King’s bedroom and uses some strange magic to steal the baby from the Queen’s womb as she sleeps, taking it off into the countryside to carry out the sacrifice.
The evil plan is again thwarted when a man comes across the scene and saves the baby from the clutches of the witches. He takes the boy back to his village, Emur, and raises him as his own son, naming him Dar.
When Dar is around twelve, it is revealed that he has the special ability to communicate with animals telepathically, a revelation that comes when he calms a wild, rampaging bear. His surrogate father advises him to keep this ability a secret. Dar does so, and grows up to be a well-adjusted, physically fit young man, a happy member of his village community.
Then his life is torn apart when a horde of marauders called the Jun invade Emur and slaughter every man, woman, child, and animal they come across. Dar is the only survivor, and in the midst of the attack he saw the man who leads the Jun… In the years since the opening sequence, Maax has gone from being a low-level cult leader to now running his own bloodthirsty army.
Arming himself with his father’s sword and kapa (a bladed boomerang), Dar follows the Jun out through the desert landscape toward their base of operations in the city of Arok, seeking revenge. As he travels through the dangerous terrain, he gathers an animal support team, each animal bringing a specific advantage. There is Sharak the eagle, who will be his eyes, giving Dar a literal bird’s eye view of situations. Mischievous ferrets Kodo and Podo bring cunning. Black tiger Ruh is the embodiment of strength. Sharak also comes in handy getting Dar out of an encounter with a race of eagle god-worshipping bird/man creatures who feast on humans, devouring them down to the skeleton with the aid of their acidic saliva.
Reaching Arok, Dar finds that Maax is in control of the city, keeping King Zed imprisoned inside the sacrificial pyramid of Ar, where Maax continues his child-sacrificing ways, regularly tossing living, screaming little kids into a fire pit as the townspeople look on in horror. Maax recognizes Dar as the son of Zed and orders his followers to stop this “master of beasts” before he can get too close to him.
Meanwhile, an objective is added to Dar’s mission when he meets Kiri, a slave girl to the high priests of Ar. Dar makes a move on Kiri immediately upon meeting her and his approach to wooing is at first questionable, but he quickly seems to develop feelings for her and becomes determined to save her from her “owners”. He soon finds out that Kiri is Zed’s niece, and he’s joined on his quest to rescue her by the King’s bodyguard Seth and young son Tal, who have spent the last three years trying unsuccessfully to raise an army to fight back against Maax and the Juns with.
Dar leads his ragtag band of companions on a raid of the Ar pyramid, evades savage guards created through a process that involves draining their blood and “lobotomizing” them with a mysterious green liquid and glowing leeches, and successfully pulls off a rescue of the King… Not long after, he has to ride in to save the day all over again when the stubborn King, who rejects Dar as a “freak who talks to animals”, gets himself recaptured and Kiri, Seth, and Tal with him.
Overcoming obstacles, subplots, and maybe a twist, turn, and sequence or two too many, Dar eventually fights Maax one-on-one in the confrontation we knew was coming and wanted to see.
Running 118 minutes, The Beastmaster has storytelling and pacing issues. The Maax battle isn’t even the climax, there’s still 20 minutes of movie left after his demise because the heroes have to deal with the Jun horde. Come on, tell the story in the correct order! The death of Maax is supposed to come at the end.
Don Coscarelli is not happy with how the film turned out, feeling that he had to make so many concessions to the investors that the final product doesn’t live up to what he wanted it to be. I think he did an awesome job directing it, though, proving that he could handle a larger scale production that is packed with action.
With my tastes leaning toward the horror genre, my favorite parts of the film are of course those that deal with strange creatures and mystical forces. The birdmen, the wall-crawling witches, the eyeball ring Maax uses to spy on his enemies, the mindless, fearless, murderous guards. Coscarelli really shines when he’s dealing with the weird.
Marc Singer is a likeable hero in the role of Dar, but some of the casting choices aren’t exactly perfect. Like Rip Torn as Maax. Torn was not Coscarelli’s choice, he was thinking Klaus Kinski, which makes a lot more sense for the character. Torn pulls it off, but really… Rip Torn as the villain in a world of magic? Not something you’d expect to see. Tanya Roberts plays the love interest Kiri, and if you’re looking for anything more than eye candy, Roberts doesn’t really fit the bill. But maybe that’s just my bitterness over A View to a Kill, where she made for one of the worst Bond girls ever. Roberts does provide the eye candy, she is one of at least three females who bares her breasts in this movie, which is rated PG. 1982 was a different time. I’m sure many of the young males who caught The Beastmaster during its innumerable showings on HBO appreciated that.
The Phantasm series is Coscarelli’s greatest accomplishment, but The Beastmaster is undoubtedly his most famous film, mainly due to the fact that it was shown so often on basic and premium cable that it became a joke, with viewers saying HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s On!” and TBS for “The Beastmaster Station”.
Because of these repeated cable airings, I saw The Beastmaster a whole lot of times as I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Along with Conan the Barbarian, which was released just a couple months earlier, The Beastmaster was one of the movies that paved the way for a sword and sandal resurgence in the ’80s, and I loved these type of movies, renting every one I came across in video stores and also being a huge fan of the He-Man cartoon, which was also sort of along similar lines. I greatly enjoyed The Beastmaster as a child. The style was right up my alley at the time, and as an animal lover I found the aspect of Dar’s ability to communicate with animals an endearing added quality. I’ve never owned a ferret, but this movie made me wish I did.
While The Beastmaster has its problems, as far as these types of movies are concerned, I still count it as one of the best. It’d be even better if it had been cut down a bit and/or reassembled in the scripting stage, but it’s a fine bit of entertainment just the way it is.