What is it about Don Coscarelli’s “The Beastmaster” that makes it such a durable cult classic?
How is it that a movie that initially cowered in the shadow of a similar release (hint: its stars a former Governor of California) emerged the more beloved, oft-discussed and eternally watchable fan favorite?
I’m getting ahead of myself.
For anyone who has no idea who Dar the Beastmaster is, or how he could possibly defeat the child-sacrificing leader named Maax or why a sword-wielding muscle man even needs not one but two ferret sidekicks, allow me to elaborate.
The year is 1979 and Coscarelli’s tiny, do-it-yourself, independently made horror film, “Phantasm,” had become a smash hit in local and drive-in movie theaters. Coming right before the arrival of Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” and emerging as a game changer and new talent to watch every bit as exciting as Raimi, Coscarelli went on to make a studio film.
Neither a sell-out Hollywood film or even a typical mainstream work, “The Beastmaster” was a curious epic, both whimsical and gritty, an R-rated sword and sorcery epic in the trojan horse of a children’s film. With Coscarelli himself quoting the budget at around $4.5 million (other sources have incorrectly cited it as high as $9 million), the filmmaker applied his hands-on, indie approach to the project and co-wrote the screenplay.
It opens with three witches readying a prophetic brew, an obvious “Macbeth” reference. The three witches are played by three gorgeous women donning little beyond bad rubber masks (indeed, one of them is none other than Janet Jones).
Playing Maax, the vile antagonist, is Rip Torn, sporting a Vulcan-like appearance that makes him resemble Spock’s half-brother, Sybok. In addition to arching eyebrows and a vulture-like nose, Maax has tiny skulls that braid his locks.
Yes, even his hair is evil.
Who can save us from such villainy? That would be Dar, our smiling, blond hero, played by Marc Singer and looking uncannily like Johnny Laurence, William Zabka’s bad guy from “The Karate Kid.”
Dar takes action once Maax’s henchmen destroy his village, murder his father and, worst of all, kill his dog. Aiding Dar’s quest for vengeance is an eagle named Sharak, a panther named Ruh and a rascally pair of ferrets named Podo and Kodo.
No, I’m not making any of this up.
You have to hand it to Coscarelli -- what makes the film endearing (yes, that is a word I’d use to describe “The Beastmaster”) is that it was made with the same hands-on, cobbled together, take-it-or-leave-it approach that the filmmakers applied to “Phantasm.”
When ferrets steal Dar’s stuff and run off, we’re looking at real ferrets. When Dar assesses the state of his burning, fallen village, we see numerous bodies impaled in the background that are impressively arranged dummies, not CGI (something Renny Harlin blew in the opening of his overly digitized “Exorcist: The Beginning”).
This Tarzan/Conan clone with a dash of Dr. Dolittle opened in August of 1982, while the higher profile “Conan the Barbarian” premiered three months earlier, setting off a busy summer that was swallowed up by “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”
Whereas “Conan the Barbarian” announces its arrival in the form of a Basil Poledouris score as muscular as its star, the Lee Holdridge-composed theme music for “The Beastmaster” sounds better suited for a nature TV series for children. Based on a 1959 novel of the same name by Andre Norton, Coscarelli has made a blatantly absurd and goofy fantasy that never decides who its audience is.
Where are your negatives? They lost the negative to my film The Beastmaster. If that can happen to a John Alcott-shot film (The Shining, Barry Lyndon) — it could happen to any film! pic.twitter.com/wzOvj3Ouid
— Don Coscarelli (@DonCoscarelli) August 20, 2020
The very-R-rated “Conan the Barbarian” was directed by red meat lovin’ John Milius, and written by Milius and Oliver Stone (just writing that grew hair on my chest).
On the other hand, Coscarelli’s film garnered a bursting at the seams PG, a rating that wouldn’t fly today (the nudity and scenes of kids being tossed in a fiery pit alone would garner this an R-rating today).
Every time “The Beastmaster” seems like it’s about to become a Disney movie (which is often), there’s a severed head or more flashes of peekaboo nudity to keep this from getting too cute. It makes for an unsettling mix, as though the filmmakers hedged their bets on going all in with a genre that invites excess.
It’s too silly to take seriously but too much for the Disney+ crowd.
FAST FACT: Coscarelli recently revealed plans to reboot “The Beastmaster” for modern audiences after snagging back the rights to the property.
There are great bits, like a nightmare-inducing sequence (I speak from experience) in which Dar battles man-sized bats who scoop you up in the wings and gobble you up. We also get shots of “eagle vision,” in which Dar’s winged buddy gives him a drone-like view of the approaching bad guys.
There’s also a giant skull that looks like a paper mache boulder and, a cool bit, henchmen with glowing green eyes.
Singer’s performance never gets halfway to convincing us or even touching our emotions, but there’s no denying the affecting image of The Beastmaster placing a deceased dog next to the body of its slain owner. Torn isn’t very good either, but at least John Amos rises to the occasion.
The dialog is of the comic book variety (“I have been told you are planning a child’s sacrifice”). Scenes that should be ghastly are hilarious, while the moments that supposed to be hilarious are especially ghastly.
Tanya Roberts is introduced emerging nude from a pond, with a waterfall in the background; it’s a lovely image but Coscarelli keeps cutting back to Singer, staring at her from behind the bushes, ogling like John Belushi in “Animal House.”
To say the least, Dar (not unlike Conan) is a chauvinistic lout. I felt bad for Roberts and grew defensive for her appearing in such a ridiculous, exploitative role…then I remembered that, two years later, she starred in “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle,” which is basically this movie but with Roberts in Singer’s role.
It should also be noted that, while this Coscarelli film deserves the cruel nickname of The Cheesemaster, it’s still a much better movie than “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.” Of all things, Roberts has a knack for starring in movies that are rated PG but really should have been merited an R-rating (“Tourist Trap,” “Sheena” and this movie).
If Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” fits in the same genre as do-it-yourself, look-what-I-did, out-of-nowhere horror classics as “Night of the Living Dead,” “Carnival of Souls” and “The Evil Dead,” then his follow-up deserves the same kind of cult movie trajectory. “The Beastmaster” did respectable business in theaters, but it quickly became a staple on basic and premium cable channels.
The much-quoted Dennis Miller stand up routing quote certainly applies: “HBO, means, Hey, Beastmaster’s on!”
Actually, it’s even stranger than that. As years pass, we can presume more people saw it on TBS, TNT or, indeed, HBO, than in a movie theater.
“The Beastmaster” is junk that was made with affection, a scrappy epic with impressive visuals that mostly succeed in elevating a ridiculous plot. Clearly, the right audience took the film under its wing: we not only got the much-belated, made-by-others sequel “Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time” (which also starred Singer) and a made for TV sequel, “Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus” (again, starring Singer), but a TV series.
📺Primetime Television, May 24, 1996:
— TV movie ‘Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus’ starring Marc Singer pic.twitter.com/micckv1PAJ
— RetroNewsNow (@RetroNewsNow) May 25, 2018
In full disclosure, I’ve never seen the “Beastmaster” movie sequels; I’ve also never eaten a fried twinkie, for the same reasons.
Singer, to no one’s surprise, was also in the televised “Beastmaster,” which ran for three seasons (1999-2002). The series felt less like a necessary small screen extension of Dar’s adventures than a product that could compete, albeit briefly, with Kevin Sorbo’s “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” (which ran for six seasons) and Lucy Lawless’ blockbuster, “Xena: Warrior Princess” (which also ran six seasons).
Proper respect goes to Dar, the Beastmaster, whose head chopping, Tanya Roberts-gawking initial journey set the trend in motion. Dar’s adventures were gentler than Conan’s, whose most famous line is a response to what is best in life -- “To crush your enemies…”.
Dar’s greatest achievement was allowing children of the ’80s to click on HBO and catch the kind of grown-up, bare-chested masculine fantasies that we weren’t supposed to see until we were damn near 20-years old.
NOTE: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the person who scored “Conan the Barbarian.”