Beastmaster

The Spoony One | Jan 18 2009 | more notation(s) | 
Beastmaster

A Review by Noah Antwiler

Fantasy movies are box office poison. They don't win awards, they don't make money, and as you've seen from my reviews on the genre, they're almost always complete trash. For every Lord of the Rings that proves the exception to the rule, there are ten Deathstalkers. They rarely even get made because it's hard to find producers willing to throw money at a sword & sorcery epic nobody will watch. This may explain why Don Coscarelli's Beastmaster flopped so hard it registered on the Richter scale, and his gorefest Phantasm series was so successful. Don't get me wrong, Phantasm was great, but so was Beastmaster, and I don't think anyone's seen it outside of late-night matinees on those high-numbered local TV channels you can only half-see through a haze of bad reception. The Fuzzy Channel always has the best movies, doesn't it? It's how I caught the awesome Jackie Chan flick Wheels on Meals, dubbed in Spanish. Beastmaster also saw a lot of airtime on cable; in fact, in the early days it was a running joke that HBO stood for "Hey, Beastmaster's on!"

Coscarelli is a brilliant writer and director, too, so it's surprising how few people have heard of him despite the many memorable films he's made. Most recently, he made the shockingly good >Bubba Ho-Tep (starring Bruce Campbell as an octogenarian Elvis Presley and Ossie Davis as JFK) and one of the few good episodes of the Masters of Horror series. I can't fault people for staying away from Beastmaster, though; it had all the earmarks of a real turkey: a low budget, Bronze Age sword-and-sandal setting, and a production plagued with creative interference from the studios that resulted in the director being removed from the editing process, as well as a major film format change in mid-shoot. Most people wrote it off as a Conan the Barbarian clone, perhaps not without merit, but what can I say? It's a fun movie-- the very definition of a guilty pleasure. The DVD I own even admits this with a blurb on the back that begins, "Admit it: You love The Beastmaster!" It goes on to remind you that the movie is full of "witches and wenches, hot bodies," and the "luscious slave girl" played by Tanya Roberts (known as one of the foxier of Charlie's Angels, the Bond girl in A View to a Kill, and Sheena). Pretty smart, if you ask me. "Watch this movie and you'll see lots of swordfights and naked people!"

The movie is about a beefy hunk named Dar and his mystic origin that grants him the ability to telepathically charm all animals. In a bid for power, an evil priest-warlord named Maax (Rip Torn in an unexpected brown-toothed role) magically steals the unborn son of King Zak and impregnates it into a cow. No, I'm not going to indulge in a bunch of cow puns because I'm not in the moo'd. Anyway, this cow-birth gives young Dar a kinship with animals, but Maax isn't interested in any of that; he just wants to sacrifice baby Dar to the cruel god Ar (which is pronounced by Rip just like a pirate's hearty "Arr!"). Luckily a friendly wanderer with a boomerang rescues Dar from this fate and raises him as an adventurer. Mentors never survive past the second act, so as soon as the movie fast-forwards to Dar's adulthood, Jun raiders attack and kill everyone but Dar, who swears vengeance on the murdering horde. Golly, that sounds familiar.

Free to explore his magical gift, Dar recruits some animal allies: an eagle he uses to scout overhead and claw the eyes out of his enemies, a pair of ferrets to steal stuff, and a black tiger as a bodyguard. Actually, it's a normal striped tiger painted black. I just wonder how exactly you get a tiger to hold still for a full-body spray painting, and whether or not doing such a thing is wise. Along the way Dar encounters a friendly race of seven-foot tall batlike people who kill you by devouring you in a shower of acidic vomit (and if that doesn't sound like something you have to see, you're no friend of mine) and eventually rallies the populace of a humble town to repel the Jun raiders. And by "rally," I mean they're all very supportive of him going out by himself to fight the entire army while they cower behind the city walls. But hey, it all works out for the best; the Juns are defeated and Rip gets his throat Torn out by a manic ferret before plummeting to his fiery death. That's right, I said there was a frenzied face-latching death ferret in this movie. Who says druids can't be cool?

I knew a guy who tried to multiclass as a cleric/druid just so he could double up on the Summon Nature's Ally spells. He'd be dropping celestial badgers out of the sky like crazy every round. He even used to conjure celestial monkeys to open trapped chests, claiming they had a high enough intelligence to manipulate common latches and lids. Hard to argue with the logic, but I think there are bound to be a few dozen really angry monkeys awaiting him in the afterlife. In heaven, monkeys fling holy sh!%!

No matter how good the first movie might have been, it's the sequels that everyone remembers, particularly the abominable Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, a movie so heinous, so unnecessary, so random and ill-conceived it's almost as bad as an episode of Family Guy. Don Coscarelli had nothing to do with this one; he jumped ship faster than a white woman to the last lifeboat off the Titanic. Why? Because it's a movie about Dar and his animal friends getting sucked through a magic portal into modern day L.A.. Never seen a movie about that. Just imagine the kooky hijinks a loincloth-wearing lunkhead can get into with a pet tiger in Los Angeles! "A loincloth?" you can almost hear one producer joke, "In L.A., he might not stand out at all!"

Seriously, it's worse than Hercules in New York, and that's almost not possible without some form of Biblical plague actively occurring in the same room as the movie. I don't think the writers even saw the first film. Dar has apparently stopped painting his tiger black, and he carries two ferrets named Kodo and Podo, even though at the end of the first movie one of those ferrets was killed and the other had several babies. Dar also has an evil older brother who, coincidentally, was also stolen by the evil cult of AR, tossed into a cow, and branded with a hot iron. King Zed has one screwed-up family. Anyway, this mad brother (who calls himself "Lork Arklon, maximum ruler of Arok") also escaped a tragic fate, but inexplicably has no empathic connection to animals. Instead he's become a broadly-gesturing maniac with a magic sceptre with weird and undefined powers. Sometimes it throws green kill-rays, sometimes it opens magic portals, sometimes stray shots will open ninety-foot fiery chasms to Hell, and yet others, a direct hit fails to singe an eagle. The damage spread on this thing must be a d10,000.

The story is about a saucy sorceress named Lyranna (played by Sarah Douglas, better known as the Kryptonian Ursa from Superman II) who devises a cunning plan to take over the world. To this end, she seduces Lord Arklon and his army of eight guys with promises of power. All Arklon has to do is go through a magic portal to Los Angeles and steal a prototype "neutron detonator" planet buster bomb and use it as a deterrent to conquer all of Arok. It sounds silly, but Lyranna is actually a very interesting character, given far more depth by Douglas than the movie deserves. She reminds me a lot of an old-school planewalker character from AD&D with her colloquial mishmash of dialogue, even though she does have quite a few groaners, like "Chill out, Lord Dude." She's got a wonderful self-assured attitude and a priceless "would I do that" look of mock innocence that makes you forget you're probably supposed to not root for her, but in a world where a planet-destroying bomb is guarded by a dozen easily-subdued MPs who are fooled by a man in a leather half-mask wearing medieval armor under a stolen officer's uniform, maybe this world could use a little conquering. It certainly explains why nukes are so easy to obtain in 24.

Despite what the title leads you to believe, the magic portal does not actually go through time (even though it does resemble the Guardian on the Edge of Forever) but is instead an inter dimensional rift. No sooner does Arklon open the portal that a modern spoiled valleygirl (Kari Wuhrer) drives through it in her convertible, tailed by several police squad cars. The most we ever learn about her character is that she has a heart of gold and she enjoys provoking high-speed pursuits with police. I don't get it either, but it's interesting to note that this is only the first of many jaunts between dimensions for Kari Wuhrer, who would spend a couple of years on my favorite sci-fi show, Sliders.

Once the movie gets rolling, a full half of it is spent watching a slack-jawed Marc Singer wander around L.A. looking dumbstruck at the wonders of modern technology asking stupid questions like "what manner of iron carriage moves without horse power?" and "where do these strange images in this box come from?" Kari, meanwhile, patiently explains everything from television to toasters while throwing in more stupid hipster talk than the script of Juno, like "They're diggin' your wild attire, sire!" and "What is this, the Twilight Zone? Where's Rod Serling?" or my favorite, "Way rad!" There are also a lot of facepalm-stupid moments, like a scene where Dar drives past a movie theater with a marquee advertising Beastmaster 2. I can't even begin to guess what that implies. There's also a rampantly offensive gay stereotype character in the form of a lisping effeminate French menswear salesman, complete with a silk handkerchief dangling from a limp wrist. At that point the movie is just spinning its wheels as we watch Lord Arklon try on clothes while the Bronson Pinchot knockoff comments "oh, zat would look fabuluth on you!"

In case you're wondering, the police and army are helpless before Lord Arklon as they clean up after his trail of destruction, looking for a man and his tiger. "Run a check on all loincloth freaks!" one detective commands, "There can't be that many of 'em!" The bad guy doesn't even make any attempt to hide himself. He walks down the street blasting stuff, hurling gay men across department stores and referring to himself in the third-person. My favorite line is when he bellows "He who defies Lord Arklon shall be destroyed! ...By Arklon!"

I didn't realize until very recently that there was a third Beastmaster film made for television that Coscarelli co-wrote. It returns to the campy spirit of the first film, but it doesn't hold a candle to it in quality. Marc Singer looks incredibly grizzled and sheepish, and has lost track of his original characterization of Dar completely by now. David Warner has been cast as the villain, which is as about as redundant to say as "Sean Bean is the villain in this movie," because Warner is always the bad guy. Just in case you thought you might want to track this one down, I'll just warn you in advance by saying that it has Casper Van Dien as a king. Save your money. Buy a ferret. Teach it to kill and steal valuables. You'll be unstoppable!

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