Don Coscarelli, 1982
Starring: Marc Singer, Tanya Robert, Rip Torn, John Amos
I have no idea how Don Coscarelli went from Phantasm to The Beastmaster, but it guarantees his status as one of my favorite directors and, in retrospect, makes perfect sense. I will admit that my love for sword and sorcery films is greater than most, but how anyone could find it in their heart to dislike this film, I'll never know. Entertainment gold, my friends.
Honestly, the plot is a lot like Conan, but with animals (no camels were punched in the making of this film). Dar, infant son of the king, is targeted by the evil sorcerer Maax, who has overthrown and enslaved the kingdom. Dar is rescued by a villager who raises him as his own son, teaching him to fight and accepting the bizarre development of his son's powers - the ability to communicate telepathically with animals. But as with any heroic epic, the happiness can't go on forever and soon a band of warriors controlled by Maax kills Dar's adopted father and his entire village. A heartbroken Dar turns the village into a funeral pyre and vows revenge. He picks up a few allies along the way: a black tiger (whatever that means), a falcon and two ferrets. He also runs into Kiri, a beautiful slave girl bathing in the forest. Dar also meets a group of creepy, winged alien creatures who suck the flesh from humans, but who respect Dar because of his connection with the falcon. They give him a mysterious amulet before disappearing.
Soon he finds his way to the village and witnesses Maax sacrificing children. He saves one and endears himself to the community, who are all desperate to get rid of Maax, but are too scared. Dar hears that Kiri is going to be sacrificed and quickly heads to rescue her, encountering Seth, a warrior, and Tal, the young, exiled heir to the throne. They accidentally discover they share similar plans and Tal reveals that Kiri is his cousin. He and Seth accompany Dar to rescue her and save the king, who has been kept prisoner in the temple for many years. Can they save the king and Dar's love without the diabolical Maax foiling their plans? What part will the creepy winged flesh eaters have to play?
Allegedly loosely based on the works of Andre Norton, it is also certainly a riff on Robert E. Howard's Conan character, though I don't think anyone except for Coscarelli would have included such weird and violent elements into the script, which he co-wrote. The winged creatures, for instance, terrified me as a kid. Plus there's the fact that Maax routinely sacrifices children and torturers his enemies nearly to death, drains their blood and replaces it with a mysterious green goo that turns them into death-hungry, berserking soldiers.
The acting is about what you would expect. Marc Singer’s Dal is blonde, tan, muscled and empty-headed, but he is more realistic and sympathetic than Conan. Bond girl and Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts makes up for her lack of acting ability with well-displayed cleavage and constant need to be rescued. John Amos (Coming to America) is a welcome sight as Seth and provides some humor. I'm not sure what to say about Rip Torn as the villain. He is pretty dastardly, with the child sacrifices and all, but I was born too late to see him as anything other than parodical. To be fair, he's about on par with James Earl Jones's Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian.
Dar animal friends are all excellent in their roles, even if they are somewhat untrained. To clear up the black tiger issue, they allegedly do exist. It's a rare genetic mutation that makes the fur black, though they supposedly still have stripes. The tiger in The Beastmaster, however, is not a rare black tiger. It's a regular tiger who has been unfortunately covered in shoe polish or some sort of cheap dye. Take a good look: when he goes to get a drink in the pool and then lifts his face back up, you can see that some of the dye has been instantly washed away.
Pick up the single disc Anchor Bay DVD here. You know you want to. Who can resist "the courage of an eagle, the strength of a black tiger, and THE POWER OF A GOD"?! Plus, some reviewer at Amazon.com claims it was the best purchase they have ever made. Ever. Though it is out of print, there are numerous used copies for sale. Special features include a commentary from Coscarelli and producer Paul Pepperman, behind-the-scenes footage, galleries, trailers and more. There’s also an Easter egg (click on the eyeball ring in the Extras menu), which includes a deleted scene with a very naked Roberts.
As with many other ‘80s sword and sorcery film, Beastmaster is part of a series. It was followed by Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (1991), directed by Sylvio Tabet and starring Marc Singer, Kari Wührer, Sarah Douglas and Wings Hauser. This dreadful sequel made almost a decade after Beastmaster involves Dar following his evil half-brother (a different brother from the first film) and a sorceress into Los Angeles to stop them from stealing a neutron bomb. Marc Singer is back as Dar with all of his animal friends from the first film (even though one of the ferrets died at the end), but that is the only positive thing that can be said about this film. There is terrible dialogue, humor, acting and plot devices - I don’t know why they chose to travel to early ‘90s L.A. - as well as a script that only loosely follows the expectations set up in the first film.
Sadly a third was churned out with Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxas (1996), directed by Gabrielle Beaumont and starring Marc Singer, Tony Todd, David Warner, Casper Van Dien and Lesley-Anne Down. I can’t believe Marc Singer signed on for a third Beastmaster film, but here he is. Dar and Seth have to rescue King Tal, Dar’s brother (he has a new one in every film somehow), who has been captured by a diabolical lord who wants to gain immortality by sacrificing youths to the evil god Braxus. This made-for-TV movie is about on par with the second film, which is to say that no one really needs to watch it, but it has a certain so-bad-it’s-good charm. Oddly, this ignores the events of Beastmaster II and picks up where the first left off, which should be a good thing, but there are simply too many characters and some incredibly bad special effects. As a final piece of trivia, Gabrielle Beaumont, the director, helmed a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Beastmaster III includes a few actors from the show as well (David Warner, Patrick Kilpatrick, Tony Todd).
Just when you thought that enough was enough, there is BeastMaster the TV series. Created by Sylvio Tabet (director of the awful Beastmaster II), the Canadian BeastMaster TV series spanned three seasons from 1999 - 2002 and starred Daniel Goddard, Jackson Raine, Marjean Holden Monike Schnarre. Re-runs currently air on the Sci-Fi Channel (I refuse to use its idiotic new name) in the U.S. Dar and his companions wander in search of Dar’s missing love, Kyra. They must also face the evil King Zad, agent of the Balcifer, the Dark One, whom Dar must eventually destroy. I haven't seen the series, so I can't confirm/deny it's entertainment value. This, of course, is coming from the person who has seen every episode of Highlander: The Series, so maybe I should give it a chance?