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As infantile sword and sorcery movies go, The Beastmaster at least has a youthful vitality to its clichés of a callow young stud hero discovering his destiny as a noble warrior and freeing an enslaved nation, blah blah blah. After Star Wars that riff was done to death in everything from the laughable Conan series to the more laudable effort by David Lynch in Dune. Enthusiastic independent filmmaker Don Coscarelli (of the creative mini-epic Phantasm) lays on the arts and crafts style and his excellent cameraman John Alcott (Barry Lyndon) keeps the visuals at a fairly high level, but the basic bankruptcy of the story and theme keep The Beastmaster from appealing to more than pubescent boys working out their fantasies.
In other words, it's mainstream early- 80's PG entertainment, nudity and all.
He of the finely sculpted body, Marc Singer is about as hollow a fantasy hero as one can imagine - his sun-bleached hair looks ready for the surf. He runs around the rocky brush of Southern California, pretending to mind-meld with his animal pals and taking on all comers in a costume the actor himself describes as a "little hula skirt." He's as much of a pre-teen sex idol for the girls as the blue-eyed babe Tanya Roberts is for the boys, and that makes The Beastmaster bland exploitation of the harmless kind.
Coscarelli and Pepperman's script may be from a real novel but it's a grab-bag of tired ideas dressed up with an occasionally interesting visual treatment. The lifts from other sword and sorcery precursors are too generic to mention; we watch them click by with even less emotional impact than that shown by Marc Singer's Dar. Only intermittently does something clever slip in, such as Dar's "eagle vision" when he channels the POV of his telepathically-linked hawk ally. There's also a disturbingly real-looking ring with a human eye in it, used by Maax and his MacBeth-ish witches for much the same recon work. Those witches are beautiful semi-nude women with latex horror-faces, a trashy concept not used since the bottom-of-the-barrel bad taste-a-thon She-Demons back in 1958.
Many of its better-than adequate production values could be whipped up on an IMac today, but in 1982 Coscarelli had to have the input of investor producers to build large sets of city streets and pyramids. A little of the invention seen in Phantasm is still visible in cleverly-designed foreground miniatures, including one nigh-perfect pan across a circular city in the hills. The rest are generic caves, dungeons, passages and a particularly impractical-looking Aztec-style pyramid for Maax's gory sacrifices.
The inevitable trade off for the bigger budget (outlined in Perry Martin's exhaustively detailed docu included on the disc) was that wonderboys Coscarelli and Pepperman were effectively ousted from their own film during post-production. The excuse was that their rough cut was too short. To make the film longer, the editors were told to extend shots wherever possible. The resulting scenes are just too leisurely, with action choreography looks like a dry rehearsal. The running time is almost two hours for a show could easily have been a brisk 90 minutes by skipping repetitive material. With the slow pacing, Lee Holdridge's score (that somehow reminds me of Star Trek music) gets a full workout, and just as we're sure the picture is over, it goes on for another reel with an impressively fiery but unnecessary battle scene.
Marc Singer and his hula skirt strike the right Frazetta-inflected poses and Tanya Roberts seems a game gal for a lot of physical abuse. Most everyone has to dodge swords, spears and fall off rocks and horses while wearing next to nothing, which must have been a physical trial. It's the kind of movie where nobody comes out on top. Classy actor Rip Torn has a high time chewing scenery in his hook-nose makeup; it's difficult to tell whether he's into his role or laughing down his nose at the whole silly circus. He does an eye-rolling overdone mime while pulling an arrow out of his side that's fall-down funny.
The Beastmaster's sizeable fan base was built on cable TV where it played seemingly forever after an abortive theatrical run. The draw of course were the animals. Dar's ferrets do cute tricks and steal for him. The eagle serves as a long range scout and in a tight spot doubles as a stealth eye-gouger. His black Tiger (several dyed tigers, we're told) provides some muscle. The ferrets ride in Dar's fanny pack and the eagle roosts in trees, but the tiger mainly trots through scenes while Marc Singer pretends to interact with it. How this translates to the mystical bond described by Singer in his interviews is one of those flaky spiritual connections that escapes Savant entirely. As for the ferrets, they keep reminding me of the Roger Rabbit joke about shaking the weasels.
Anchor Bay gives The Beastmaster a deluxe presentation that's way beyond its merit but will nonetheless dazzle its many fans. A feature-length interview docu gets the whole story from Coscarelli, his college pal and partner Paul Pepperman, Singer, Roberts and others. There are plenty of home movies behind the scenes showing all the expensive construction and propmaking effort. In a full-length commentary, the friendly-sounding Coscarelli and Pepperman go into even more detail. Overachieving filmmakers to some degree, they seem more like amiable enthusiasts than determined artists hellbent to conquer Hollywood. Their visual inventiveness gave them an edge over other no-budget contenders, but competing with studio production values proved a harder nut to crack.
The single disc presentation gives The Beastmaster a handsome enhanced encoding that far exceeds what used to show on HBO. A few closeups look grainy but that seems to be part of the original photography. Anchor Bay has given the soundtrack a "Sweeping DTS-ES and Dolby Ex surround sound" makeover. Coscarelli provides liner notes on a fold-out poster and the package is rounded out with a generous serving of trailers, stills, production art, talent bios and, as a DVD-ROM extra, the original screenplay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Beastmaster rates: