The Beastmaster (1982)

In the early 80s, movie makers went sword-and-sorcery mad. Sparked by the high-profile John Milius film version of Conan the Barbarian, a litter of mostly forgettable musclemen in loincloths assaulted cinema houses. One that has proven to have more staying power than its beefcake brethren is The Beastmaster.

Loosely based on a novel by Andre Norton (so loosely the author refused to be associated with the project until the inevitable sequel), Beastmaster is the tale of Dar (Marc Singer), a royal heir kidnapped as a baby by dark sorcery and almost sacrificed by the minions of the evil high priest Maax (Rip Torn), only to rescued and raised by a farmer/warrior. The bizarre circumstances of his abduction give him the ability to communicate with animals, and when the adult Dar finds himself once again in conflict with Maax, he is joined by an eagle, two thieving ferrets, and a tiger spray-painted black. Human backup is provided by a buff John "Good Times" Amos and a post-Charlie's Angels pre-View To A Kill Tanya Roberts.

Directed and written by Don Coscarelli after the success of Phantasm, Beastmaster has a nicely epic sweep despite its (comparatively) low budget, some genuinely thrilling fight scenes and its fair share of heart. Though only a modest success at the box office, the production proved to have legs on video and cable (Dennis Miller once joked that HBO stood for "Hey, Beastmaster's On!"), giving rise to a large fan base, two regrettable sequels and a bland TV series. With Anchor Bay's release, it's easier than ever to forget what came after, and simply enjoy the original for what it is: grand, undemanding entertainment.

Woo, the picture's pretty. There's an abundance of grain in several sequences, but this is largely due to the cinematography - Kubrick alumni John Alcott made a name for himself by utilizing nothing but naked flame to light his scenes, a method that works particularly well for a bronze-age adventure like Beastmaster. The sound is sweet and clear, finally allowing appreciation of Lee Holdridge's score.

There's a surprising amount of extras on a disc sporting a DTS soundtrack. Start with a theatrical trailer that is in the same fine shape as the movie (unusual enough!), then progress to "Behind The Scenes Footage", nearly a half-hour of Super 8 footage detailing the production process from set and prop construction through actual shooting. Galleries of Production Art, Behind the Scenes and Production Stills, and Advertising pack in a lot of material. Navigation through these sections was a little glitchy on my system, but persistence eventually saw me through. "Talent Bios" for Coscarelli, co-writer and Producer Paul Pepperman, and stars Singer, Roberts and Torn are pleasingly lengthy and actually take the trouble to document the subjects' lives and careers beyond the feature.

There is, additionally, a 16 page pack-in booklet of movie facts (which seem to be arranged in stream-of-consciousness order), illustrated by production art.

The audio commentary track by Coscarelli and Pepperman can be spotty at times, dropping out entirely or falling to simply describing what is happening onscreen. But when they start talking about the challenges of moving from low-budget independence to higher-budget studio entanglements, the track really takes off; also tales of the unfortunate cast acting in the skimpiest of costumes during the freezing California winter, and the problems inherent in dealing with animal "actors". Though Pepperman has retired from the production business, Coscarelli's continued enthusiasm for the trade shines through, and it's plain to see that though the movie put everybody through seven kinds of hell, they're pleased with the result - and it's hard to disagree with them.

Dr. Freex, 7/16/2002