Sunday, March 13, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: THE BEASTMASTER (1982)

It almost seems unfair to list THE BEASTMASTER in an overview of Conan clones.  After all, the film hit theaters in August 1982, just a few months after CONAN THE BARBARIAN’s release.  But Hollywood works in mysterious ways and there is no doubt in my mind that when BEASTMASTER producer Sylvio Tabet heard about an epic $20 million sword & sorcery flick going into production under the guidance of director John Milius that he decided to jump on that wagon.  And, truthfully, THE BEASTMASTER retains very little of Andre (Alice) Norton’s sci-fi source novel outside of a dude who can communicate with animals.  Instead, the production fully embraced the hot commodities of babes, blades and beasts.

The film opens with Maax (Rip Torn, complete with braided hair and, I assume, drunken glare) using some witches to try and usurp the power from King Zed (Rod Loomis) by sacrificing his unborn son.  Maax is caught and imprisoned, but one of his witches still manages to get into the King’s chambers and transfer the fetus into a cow, killing his Queen and blinding the King in the process.  Once in a secluded forest spot, the witch removes the baby from the animal’s belly, brands his right hand and prepares to sacrifice him.  But a wandering farmer (Ben Hammer) stumbles upon the scene and saves the child.  As movie rules dictate, if you find an abandoned baby, you must raise it as your own.  And you should name him Dar, as in, “Look over dar, a free baby!”

A few years later we see the adolescent Dar (Billy Jacoby) weapons training with his father in the woods when they are suddenly attacked by a bear.  Amazingly, the young Dar is able to stave off the beast with his thoughts (the random guy cutting trees ain’t as lucky) and his father declares “you have a gift and are here for a reason.” Damn…adopted baby…unusual powers…hey, this is SUPERMAN again!  We finally see the adult Dar (Marc Singer), who jokes with his dad and seems really at peace in his adopted village.  Oh crap, guess he didn’t see the running time is almost at 20 minutes.  Yup, someone’s gonna die.  The village is attacked by the Juns and literally EVERYONE except Dar is killed (thanks to a heroic effort by his dog, which also dies!).  Jeez, talk about your bad days.  After adhering to sword & sorcery cliché # 45 (funeral pyre), Dar heads to Jun city to get his revenge.

Along the way the Beastmaster earns his nickname by recruiting falcon Sharak (his eyes), ferrets Kodo and Podo (his cunning), black tiger Ruh (his strength) and the Tin Man (his heart). Okay, maybe not that last one.  Revenge isn’t solely on his mind though as Dar takes some time to be a Peeping Tom by spying on slave girl Kiri (Tanya Roberts), much to the delight of pre-teen boy audience members worldwide.  He even uses Ruh to try and get some action out of the girl (chicks dig being scared by black tigers), but it provides futile.  Following a surreal encounter with some bat people (who like Dar because he is, after all, the Beastmaster), Dar makes it to the city just in time for some child sacrificing by Maax.  When a second sacrifice is needed (must be “Twofers Tuesdays”), Maax grabs a random kid out of the audience.  Surely it is the parent's fault as who brings their kid to a sacrifice?  Dar uses Sharak to sweep the frightened child away into the sky.  Maax, however, proves his political worth by spinning that miscue into a “see, the Gods are really pissed” moment.  George W. Bush would be proud.

After returning the child to their family, Dar encounters warrior Seth (John Amos) and his young charge Tal (Josh Milrad). Hmmm, a big black man in a leather get up travelling alone with a kid would usually arouse my suspicion. Damn it, did I say arouse?  Ah, forget it.  Anyway, Seth reveals that Tal is the rightful heir to the throne and that Kiri is Tal’s cousin.  So, yes, this means Dar is Tal’s older brother and that he was putting the moves on his cousin Kari.  Ha, this boy has got some Luke Skywalker in him.  This trio decides to team up and rescue King Zed from his prison, which they do with relative ease.  But Zed turns out to be a total bummer and calls Dar “a freak.” Thanks, dad!  So Dar splits but – per sword & sorcery cliché # 291 – returns when the meek villagers need him to fight in the big battle.

Director Don Coscarelli, fresh off his surprise success with PHANTASM (1979), delivers a near perfect entry of the genre. You have tons of action, great monsters, and the required amount of pathos.  Sure, it is a bit derivative but you can also argue that it is the classic revenge set up.  The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. And despite being rated PG, Coscarelli doesn’t hold back on the terror with a “think of the children” attitude.  I remember being absolutely terrified as a kid at the scene of a child being tossed into a huge fire.  It was the most horrifying thing I associated with Rip Torn until I saw his mugshot two decades later. The seeing eyeball ring also disturbed me, especially when it gets a fiery ember shoved into it.  In addition, the “death guards” are scary, the bat people are freaky, and the Jun leader (thankfully masked the entire time) is a really ominous Darth Vader like character.

On the technical side, the film boasts a super score, great cinematography and fine acting from the entire cast.  The climactic fight is well staged and actually thrilling (watch for a huge explosion that looks VERY dangerous).  Singer, in his first major role, definitely looks the part and has the acting ability to back it up (something Schwarzenegger lacked).  The film also benefitted from getting Tanya Roberts fresh off of her CHARLIE’S ANGELS replacement gig.  And, in perhaps their greatest coup, she had no qualms being nude onscreen (again, how did this get a PG rating?). You're welcome:

If you are a child of the 70s and 80s, chances are you crossed paths with THE BEASTMASTER.  It was kind of hard not to as the flick was a staple of early era HBO and TBS.  It was inescapable to the point that it felt completely natural, like going into an arcade and hearing the sounds of Pac Man.  While not a box office hit along the lines of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE BEASTMASTER has proven to have the same kind of staying power as the Schwarzenegger vehicle.  It was a shining example of the genre done right.  Unfortunately, producer Sylvio Tabet decided to make some sequels and a TV show without Coscarelli.  More on that later.  Come to think of it, why hasn’t Hollywood remade this?

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