Ahhh, Beastmaster. I’m a great fan of cheesy fantasy flicks, especially those from the 1980’s, and this cult classic was one of my favourites when I was a teen. It’s got everything: an avenging hero; sword fights; monsters; black tigers; witches. And Tanya Roberts gets her tits out.
Released in 1982 The Beastmaster was co-written and directed by Don Coscarelli, who three years earlier had scored a decent-sized hit with his low budget horror film Phantasm. The plot of The Beastmaster is classic sword and sorcery fare: Dar (Marc Singer), the lost heir to the kingdom of Aruk, goes on a quest to avenge the slaughter of his adopted village by villainous high-priest Maax (played with glee by Rip Torn). Along the way Dar, who can telepathically communicate with beasts, is joined by a group of furry friends who aid him in his quest: a black tiger (in reality a regular striped tiger dyed black); an eagle and a pair of thieving ferrets (who pretty much steal the film). He also enlists the aid of slave girl Kiri (Tanya Roberts) as well as bodyguard Seth (John Amos) and his young charge Tal (Joshua Milrad), who unbeknownst to all is actually Dar’s brother.
The ragtag team share several dangerous adventures on their journey, encountering monsters, witches, and several of Maax’s goons before arriving at Aruk, where they free King Zed (Dar and Tal’s father). Dar then squares off against Maax, one of the ferrets sacrifices itself, and the film ends with a giant fiery battle where Dar finally avenges his village. He then renounces his claim to the throne and rides off with Kiri, accompanied by this animal friends. Job done.
The Beastmaster was essentially a $9 million B-movie, a homage to the sword and sandal flicks of the 1950’s, and it’s all jolly good schlocky fun. Granted the first ten minutes or so are pretty terrible, hampered by cheap-looking special effects and some dodgy dubbing, but after that the film settles down and finds its own groove. Not only is there an honest-to-goodness story, it actually rattles along at a fair pace. The action sequences are well staged and, at times, genuinely thrilling. Dar’s face-off with Maax is done well, and the final battle is action-packed and, quite literally, explosive. Overall it’s a satisfying movie, albeit a cheap and cheerful one; it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it never once winks at the audience. A guilty pleasure if ever there was one.
Sadly, although not unsurprisingly, The Beastmaster wasn’t a resounding success when released; it recouped only a little more than its original $9 million budget. But instead of fading away into movie oblivion The Beastmaster garnered a new lease of life on US cable television. When HBO and TNT added the film to their roster they quickly noticed how popular is was, particularly amongst teenage boys. The film soon became a constant fixture throughout the rest of the Eighties; in fact the film was repeated so often that soon the joke began to spread that HBO (Home Box Office) actually stood for ‘Hey, Beastmaster’s On’. So successful was the film on cable TV that Singer reprised his role in two more movies: Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (1991), and Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus (1996). A Canadian TV series then followed in 1999 that ran for three years. Not bad going for a movie with mediocre box office success.
Over the years its success on TV has helped The Beastmaster achieve cult status, and it’s easy to see why; it has all the ingredients of a cult film: it was cheesy, cheerful and had plenty of T&A. First off, despite it’s decent budget, it was pretty cheap looking: the special effects are OK at best, and at worse bloody awful. The use of stunt doubles is obvious and continuity is all over the place (just watch the sequence when the bear attacks). There are some flat-out daft scenes — Dar standing on top of a mountain heroically waving a giant branch around his head is my particular favourite — as well as some truly bonkers stuff. The scene where an in-utero Dar is stolen from his mother’s womb and transferred to the belly of a cow, thus giving him the power to command animals (‘natch), is just plain nuts. Rip Torn is clearly having fun as the evil Maax, but his decision to sport an obviously fake hook nose is just plain distracting (apparently he wanted his character to look like a turkey!). And, for the lads, Tanya Roberts appears topless in her very first scene. (It will come as little surprise that her scantly clothed appearance was one of of the main reasons for the film’s popularity on cable TV). Combine all those ingredients and The Beastmasters cult status was pretty much assured.
As I said earlier, I’m a huge fan of 1980’s fantasy films and over the next few weeks I’m going to be taking a closer look at some of my favourites from the genre. I’ve already taken a look at Krull, and next week I’ll be looking at Disney’s Dragonslayer. I hope you’ll join me.