I still haven’t seen The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, or Willow and without these guiding influences I was left to discover the sword and sorcery genre much later in life. If I’m being honest my first interest in the genre was probably when The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in 2001. It’s impossible to go back and instill these movies as childhood touchstones but in an effort to see what all the fuss is about I’ve included many of them in The List. This time we’re talking about The Beastmaster.
Thanks to Vinegar Syndrome I was able to watch The Beastmaster in glorious 4k at home. I couldn’t ask for a better presentation for a first-time-movie-watching experience. It’s exactly how I prefer to watch an epic adventure film with the wide angles and enormous set pieces contained in The Beastmaster.
That’s the real takeaway from The Beastmaster, it’s epic. There’s so much action and adventure it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the plot. It’s easy to get distracted by the city on stilts, the scale-model child-sacrificing-pyramid set, or the tiger painted black to look like a panther and forget that your hero’s romantic love interest is canonically his cousin. Is that better or worse than the Luke/Leia kisses in Star Wars? Pro-tip; it’s worse because Luke never spied on Leia skinny-dipping (at least onscreen).
The plot isn’t what I expect people to watch The Beastmaster for so let me be clear, it’s dumb. The bad guy (Rip Torn) wants power so he kills the king and his heir to ascend the throne. Oops, that didn’t work and the baby survived and it grows up to learn it has beast master powers just in time for his entire surrogate family to be slaughtered. What are beast master powers? C’mon man, he can talk to animals and give them commands which they follow with limited resistance. He’s the land Aquaman, Tierraman… except he can’t breathe dirt… right?
Anyway, he befriends a whole menagerie of creatures including an eagle, a tiger/panther and two ferrets before rounding out his team with a couple token humans including Tanya Roberts and John Amos who assist him in killing the bad guy and freeing the oppressed masses. I want to touch on a couple of the weirder and most fantastic sequences that led us to the climax of the film. Our Beastmaster hero Dar finds himself stuck in some quicksand early in the movie, and two ferrets rescue him. What? Ferrets aren’t the typical adventuring familiars but let me tell you they steal the show. Seriously, watch The Beastmaster just for all the fun ferret shenanigans.
There’s a great moment when Rip Torn’s character is instructing his coven of witches to put a curse on Dar or spy on him or some shit and the shot is staggeringly weird. The camera takes a medium wide shot behind the witches gyrating around a cauldron. They’re wearing revealing robes exposing the backs of their lithe muscular bodies, as the camera comes around to their fronts you see they each have horrible monster faces that don’t keep the promises their bodies made. There’s another great scene where one of the witches breaks a glow stick on the Queen’s neck while she’s sleeping and pregnant with Dar as part of a curse or an assassination attempt… honestly I was too shocked by how cool it was to really follow.
I love when fantasy movies shoot in real locations and The Beastmaster certainly did that. The special features on the Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray explain how much of the production took place on an oil prospectors land in California and other scenes were shot in state parks in Nevada. It’s all gorgeous photography and well worth the time commitment to see a well shot fantasy epic without much CGI.
On the negative side, I didn’t like Phantasm and as a result I walked into The Beastmaster with reservations about it’s director Don Coscarelli’s ability to make a movie I enjoyed. Both movies are weak on story and strong on visuals but the visuals and sheer absurdity of The Beastmaster make it much more enjoyable. If you’re looking for a fun and exciting adventure movie without all the pesky rationale or structure of a ‘good’ movie, then The Beastmaster is for you.