02 January 2009

The Beastmaster

What’s Not To Like in The Beastmaster?
By Kristin Battestella
It spawned two sequels and a syndicated television series, but according to mainstream audiences 1982’s The Beastmaster is nothing more than bad sword and sorcery and soft core drivel. I digress!

Before his royal parents are attacked by Maax (Rip Torn), Dar is magically transferred from his mother’s womb and then birthed from a cow by Maax’s witch. Maax fears the prophecy that he will die by the hand of King Zed’s (Rod Loomis) unborn son and wishes the child dead, but an old man (John Hammer) rescues the baby before he can be sacrificed. Dar (Marc Singer) is raised in a poor village, keeping his unique power to communicate with animals a secret. When his village is destroyed by the Juns-the warrior allies of Maax.-Dar vows vengeance. He journeys to Maax’s dark kingdom with the help of warrior Seth (John Amos), heir apparent Tal (Josh Milrad), slave girl Kiri (Tanya Roberts) and his animal guides- a panther, an eagle, and two ferrets. Together they will restore Zed and save his kingdom.

Rip Torn is so creepy cool as Maax. He has braids with skulls along with priests that regularly hang themselves if asked. And, he sacrifices children, too. We’re given the fanciful extremes, but we all know crooked power creeps like this who need to get their due. This was an A line cast back in the day, although Singer’s voice is a bit too modern in the beginning of the film. I suppose with such weak dialogue it matters not, but Roberts’ lines have plenty of marshmallow and double entrĂ©es to them. Once the scene is set, however, the old time speak finds its rhythm.

Josh Milrad as Tal is your usual early eighties boy fare, but John Amos’ Seth adds warrior wit, wise words, and a touch of humor to The Beastmaster. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be funny, but a big black man kicking ass and taking names while wearing some ancient BSDM gear just begs to be MST3Ked! At least Amos (Good Times, The West Wing) looks to be having fun with the role.

Oh by gosh by golly, it’s time for Tanya Roberts’ body. Also known as Oh by gosh by jingle, its time for Tanya Roberts to wiggle. Either way you see it, you do see it. I may hold lots of films or actors to a very high standard, so this may sound strange, but I like Tanya Roberts. From Charlie’s Angels, Sheena, A View to A Kill, and That’s 70s Show; I like her New York sassy, sexy, campy yet tough chick. I’m sure a lot of guys my age grew up on her soft core material. Ratings were different in 1982, and the non sexual bits (though bits nonetheless) rated PG then would definitely garner more hefty ratings today. The red headed Kiri has three boob and four possible muff shots, along with another two randomly topless chicks in the film-statistics for those that like that sort of thing. You also have to wonder about the toss away line that Kiri is Tal’s cousin, and therefore also Dar’s cousin. Kinky!

Fortunately for female fans of pre history beefcake, we also get almost the whole bean from the incredibly buff Marc Singer. After seeing The Beastmaster, I was always amazed that Singer’s jeans and jacket didn’t rip off during V and Dallas. As buff as the hotties are today, Dar gives them all a run for the money in his itsy bitsy loin cloth and leather band aids. There’s the obligatory sweaty barbarian training montages in real time and slow motion to match Singer’s eighties hair cut-along with some tears from the big man.

(On a really useless note, I’ve never been able to confirm which witch woman is wife of Wayne Gretzky and sometimes actress Janet Jones. As a die hard hockey fan, this has always bugged me.)

The BeastmasterNow that the naughty bits are out of the way, the thin set up of The Beastmaster comes through. Writer and director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) and co writer Paul Pepperman establish the situations early with the opening scenes and set ups, but the magic and relationships and whatnot become a little confusing each time the quest is repeated. The locales are thankfully beautiful, covering up any slim story. Unfortunately most of the film is too dark. The video quality was poor then, and the digital transfer only helps a touch. The darkness and torches are cool though, authentic somehow. They didn’t have fancy lights before time you know.

Folks who caught The Beastmaster ad nauseum on TBS and other late night reruns are, however, used to bad cuts and commercials. So what if the magical elements and brief special effects are weak and the lighting is bad? The climatic battle between Dar and the Jun horde is well lit by firelight and choreographed and paced expertly. For a freak who talks to animals, Dar and his friends don’t do too bad.

The animals are great, too. I must admit. I can’t tell them apart, but the cute and cunning Kodo and Podo made me want ferrets growing up. You wouldn’t think they could help much, but these little guys are quite significant. The roars of the panther-really a tiger painted black-his action scenes, and his big cat loveableness almost make the show. As I kid of course I tried to imitate Dar’s call for his eagle Sharak, but now it is one if the hokiest things about The Beastmaster. At least the film takes the time to set up all the animal circumstances, powers, and personalities. Today it would probably be done in the quick prologue of a ninety minute kid’s fantasy if at all.

The score from Emmy Winner Lee Holdridge (Mists of Avalon) is one of the highlights for The Beastmaster. It’s a great classical composition, with all the soft somber parts and bombing crescendos in the right places. It compliments the scenery and action while rousing up images of long lost times, heroes, and places. Sometimes I watch The Beastmaster just because I like the music.
Fans of the fantasy genre and its sword and sorcery subset can watch anything-from the woeful Krull to Willow. The greats are indeed fewer and far between than the ill and low budget. (Dare me to review Red Sonja. I own the DVD!) Can you name me a truly stellar strictly sword and sorcery film? I had to laugh when I Love the 80s pitted The Beastmaster versus Conan. On strength, looks, sidekicks, and babes who would win? It’s a tough, but amusing call.

I don’t understand these Beastmaster and the like naysayers. Can’t we accept an attempt an some cool fantasy and mystical folks? I don’t understand viewers who complain that the Cyclops and the Medusa from Clash of The Titans look stupid or that the Ray Harryhausen effects from other classics like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad no longer work. Hogwash. It’s a fantasy movie, sit down and enjoy while you can. Great fights, heroic themes, cake for everyone. What’s not to like?

The Special Edition DVD appears out of print, but for the die hard fans, the documentaries and commentaries are necessary. The standard DVD is also tough to find, but affordable and again worth it for behind the scenes treats and the uncut 118 minute film.
So The Beastmaster isn’t perfect, but it’s a campy, entertaining, fanciful ride. Perhaps tame enough today for tweens and up, fans of old can indulge themselves again or attempt to inspire the next generation into liking eighties sword and sorcery B flicks. It could happen!

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