THE BEASTMASTER (1982)
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Don Coscarelli is definitely a favorite filmmaker of mine as his Phantasm is one of my all-time favorite horrors. He is very clever and inventive and achieves a lot on a small budget. Beastmaster is the largest budgeted film he has made so far in his career with a modest, even by 1982 standards, $8 million price tag…and maybe that’s why, to me it’s his least satisfying. The film has a bit of a cult following and I do feel it has its entertainment value, but it’s simply my least favorite of his works and in my opinion his least inspired. Maybe it’s because I had seen the bigger budgeted and far more blood-thirsty Conan the Barbarian just a few months earlier and was disappointed by this tame PG rated fare, or maybe Coscarelli’s off kilter style just didn’t fit with a more mainstream ‘Hollywood’ fantasy production. Whatever the reason, upon a recent re-visit, after not having seen it in literally decades, I find my opinion really hasn’t changed that much even with some added 80s nostalgia.
Coscarelli’s first film after Phantasm tells the story of a warrior named Dar (Marc Singer) who was prophesied before birth to be the one to bring down the power-hungry Jun high priest Maax (Rip Torn). Dar was stolen from his mother’s womb by one of Maax’s witch servants to be sacrificed but is saved from death by a traveling villager (Ben Hammer) who then raises him as his own. When he comes to manhood, his village is destroyed by the Jun Horde and only Dar, who has had the ability to communicate with animals since birth, survives. Now the young warrior sets out on a path of vengeance to destroy the Juns and their leader along with a black tiger, an eagle and two thieving ferrets. During his quest he finds human allies in the warrior Seth (John Amos) and deposed king’s son Tal (Josh Milrad) along with a love interest in the beautiful slave girl Kiri (Tanya Roberts). But with his band of two and four legged friends, will it be enough to defeat the sorcerer-like Maax and his horde of vicious warriors?
At almost 2 hours, Beastmaster has a rather moderate pace and despite some inventive touches, from the script Coscarelli co-wrote with Paul Pepperman, the plot is a little too close to the high-profile Schwarzenegger sword and sorcery flick released just a few months earlier. Despite the healthy budget, in comparison to Coscarelli’s previous films, it seems to attempt a little too much on its modest funds and looks rather cheap like a TV movie or Saturday morning TV show episode. There are some interesting fantasy characters, and inventive touches and ideas throughout, but the film on a whole is slow moving and really doesn’t liven up till the final confrontation with the Jun Horde in a battle involving a flaming moat. Till then, the action is rather routine and there isn’t much excitement in the fight choreography. The acting across the board is also rather flat and the main characters never really become all that endearing or involving except for the animals, especially the two ferrets who steal the film from basically everybody. The FX are adequate, but many look cheesy, especially by today’s standards, and the forgettable score by Lee Holdridge doesn’t help either. Coscarelli just doesn’t seem suited to the Fantasy genre as the film never even achieves that quirky energy or off-beat sense of humor that his horror films are famous for. It’s a watchable film and the 80s charm does kick in a bit, but it’s a very routine movie from a very inventive filmmaker. Very forgettable from a man whose other movies are anything but.
As stated, the human cast are very flat. Marc Singer is a well-built enough hero, but he never really exudes the kind of charm or intensity that a hero of this type of film needs…especially when compared to Arnie’s Conan or Lee Horsley’s Talon from The Sword and The Sorcerer, which also came out a few months earlier and had far more fun with the genre and its story. Roberts is very pretty, but again, really doesn’t give her Kiri much life or make her memorable, other than some brief nudity in a bathing scene. The usually reliable Rip Torn is a completely generic and dull villain with his Maax never exuding much threat, especially when we can’t get past his unnecessary prosthetic nose and the cute skull beads in his braided hair. A strong villain would have helped here a lot, but Maax is simply lame and never appears imposing or all that dangerous. The rest of the cast including TV vet John Amos don’t fare much better and some lively performances of a delightfully over the top manner would have helped greatly. Coscarelli got good work out of villainous Angus Scrimm and the delightful Reggie Bannister in the Phantasm films, so not sure what happened here. The animals outperform the humans in every scene.
So, I respect those who honor this as an underrated cult classic and I can’t say the film is not worth a look. There are some entertaining sequences, especially during the last act, but the film just simply lacks the quirky energy and devious fun of Coscarelli’s other movies and it sure could have used either Conan the Barbarian‘s intensity and blood lust, or The Sword and the Sorcerer‘s over the top, tongue in cheek approach. It’s now got some 80s nostalgia to help it along, but best scenes still involve the beasts, the film simply takes itself a bit too seriously and the PG rating really holds back on the more exploitive and fun elements it could have used. Possibly the least unique film from a filmmaker whose career is filled with unique and entertaining flicks.
MONSTERZERO NJ PERSONAL NOSTALGIA: In 1981, a year before I saw Beastmaster, and knew who actor Marc Singer was, I met legendary actor Danny Aiello, at a movie theater no less, and he told me that I resembled a young, up and coming actor named Marc Singer…that and many years later I would have quite a few pet ferrets of my own, gives this film nostalgic weight with me despite my not really being all that fond of it.
Rated 2 and 1/2 (out of 4) swords.