This is one of the rarer films in my Comfort Movie pantheon in that I loved it so much, I was never willing to risk even the slightest sliver of my affection for it by watching either of the belated sequels or the TV spin-off which I only learned existed when I came to do a bit of research prior to writing this review. To my rose-tinted memory’s eye, the original was so amazing, so thrilling, so utterly magnificent that I never needed anything but repeated viewings. And boy did it get a lot of repeat viewings.
In the Kingdom of Aruk, the evil High Priest Maax (Rip Torn) plots to overthrow the benevolent King Zed using the fanatical followers of the god Ar. To this end, he sends his witches to steal the unborn son of the king, transferring it to a cow so that he may sacrifice the child. But when a peasant stumbles across the witches performing the ceremony, he rescues the child and raises it as his own. Years later and now fully grown, Dar (Marc Singer) finds he has the ability to communicate and share the consciousness of animals and when his village is raised to the ground and his adoptive father killed by the Jun, a band of barbarians allied to Maax, Dar sets out for revenge.
Written and directed by Don Coscarelli, of “Phantasm” fame, “The Beastmaster” isn’t afraid to go dark – early and often. The scenes involving the witches are frequently visceral and really push the boundaries of what was permissible in a PG even by the standards of 1982 and while there’s not much in the way of blood and gore, there’s plenty of gruesomeness on offer nonetheless. The thematic darkness is often counterpointed by the extensive, sunny location shooting which helps lend this sword and sorcery swashbuckler a degree of authenticity that exceeds its modest budget. While never feeling slow or overlong, it manages to nevertheless pack a lot into its two-hour run time and while its definitely of its time, much of the effects work – especially the creature design – stands up well even more than three decades later.
Marc Singer is great as the noble warrior, leading his band of animal followers across the land and that’s no mean feat given he’s constantly at risk of being upstaged by his eagle Sharak, a pair of mischievous ferrets named Kodo and Podo, and a black tiger called Ruh (in reality an ordinary tiger dyed black as frequently becomes obvious in any scene shot shortly after the tiger’s had a drink of water). Lining up alongside him is John Amos, trim and toned and badass – a decade or so before McDowell’s burgers would soften him up and Tanya Roberts provides a love interest in the shape of comely slave girl Kiri. But aside from Dar and his fauna force, it’s Rip Torn’s Maax (pronounced May-Axe) who provides the most bang for the buck. It’s almost de rigueur for the villains of early eighties genre fare to be played with scenery-chewing broadness but Torn takes it to a new level here.
Not content with chewing the scenery on the interior shots, I’m pretty sure he takes a couple of bites out of the Californian mountains where the film was shot. Maax is proper old-school evil and manages to be the most fearsome thing in a movie with some of the creepiest witches, scariest bird people and incongruous S&M bondage gear I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s a weird tonal blend of gee-shucks escapist fantasy adventure and horror-tinged darkness but it succeeds through sheer, unironic earnestness and a keen sense of action and humour. Chock full of swordplay, sorcery and iconic childhood dangers like quicksand, there’s so much to enjoy as Dar wends his way across the kingdom towards his destined confrontation with Maax.
In all the movies I’ve revisited during my Comfort Movie season, maybe none mean so much to me as this one. It’s indelibly burned into my cerebellum like a psychological mark of Ar, I was young enough to awestruck by how god damn awesome and edgy it all was and young enough that the membranous winged hawk men absolutely terrified me yet old enough to appreciate the gratuitously topless introduction scene of Tanya Roberts. Looking back, “The Beastmaster” is one of the foundation stones of my love of cinema and Marc Singer is, in retrospect, one of the unsung heroes of my childhood (between this and “V”, he was at the centre of everything non-“Star Wars” that thrilled and chilled 8-9 year old me). If you haven’t seen it, seek it out and treat yourself to the cheesiest slice of beefcake this side of “Conan The Barbarian”.