The Beastmaster (1982), a recap (part 1 of 6)

Prior to the 1980s, fantasy films were never a huge genre; if you look back at releases during the ’70s you had maybe one true fantasy film a year, be it animated flicks like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or Wizards, or a Sinbad flick, or oddballs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky. Oh, but man did things change in the ’80s. 1980 saw Hawk the Slayer and the animated Return of the King, while ’81 gave us Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer, and Excalibur, and then in ’82 the genre really came into its own, exploding with Conan the Barbarian, Ator the Fighting Eagle, Sorceress, The Dark Crystal, The Sword and the Sorcerer, animated films like The Flight of Dragons and The Last Unicorn, and the film I’m going to be looking at now, The Beastmaster.

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When it comes to fantasy films—at least during the ’70s and ’80s—they seemed to fall at opposite ends of the spectrum: good and schlock. In the former case you had decent budgets, good production values in terms of costumes, sets, and special effects, competent directors, in many cases at least one notable actor, and… damn, I just described Star Wars, didn’t I? I guess there’s a good reason why haters call it “science fantasy”. Then you had the rest, which were low budget affairs. The Beastmaster feels like the exception to the rule, as for me it falls somewhere in between. The film looks alright, and is about comparable to the first Conan film. And while it doesn’t have a name attached to it like James Earl Jones… or Alec Guinness… the four leads are all competent actors who made their bones mostly on television. It’s a solid plot, decent script, and it’s actually funny where it’s meant to be. Among Dungeons & Dragons fans, it ranked pretty highly at the time, although back then D&D players also said Hawk the Slayer was awesome, so maybe we’re not the best arbiters of good taste.

The film started out as being based on the Andre Norton book of the same name, but it seems it went in its own direction pretty quickly. I imagine the producers and screenwriters took a look at Norton’s sci-fi setting, realized they didn’t have the budget for it and went low-tech, much like what happened with the original Planet of the Apes. The movie diverged so radically from the source material that Norton had her name removed from the project entirely. Would the movie actually have been better if it had remained true to the book? Eh, it’s hard to say. Would You Only Live Twice have been better had it followed the novel? Well, hell no, to be honest. So maybe the makers of The Beastmaster saw that what works in a book doesn’t always translate well to the big screen. Enough talking about the nuts and bolts, let’s get this party started!

The movie opens with “A Don Coscarelli Film”. Why does that name seem familiar? Oh, wait, Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli? Damn, why isn’t Angus “The Tall Man” Scrimm in this film? He would have made an utterly badass minion. I’m listening to the music and right away it’s a step above Basil Poledoris’ work on Conan the Destroyer, although let’s be real here; that’s not saying a whole lot. Still, I think Lee Holdridge here did a pretty decent job.

The film starts properly by displaying the stylized oval face of a bearded man done in stone, which starts to rotate clockwise. It turns out this is part of the pulley system for a gate that lifts to admit a trio of dark crimson robed dudes. They walk down a corridor lit with torches held in wall-mounted sconces, and soon they reach some sort of courtyard with a short pyramid, with more torches lit up all over the place that look like they’re going to blow out in the fierce nighttime California wind. We cut to what looks like a trio of sensuous women humping an altar…and what’s this movie’s rating again? PG? Oh, wait, it’s 1982 PG, which means there’s not going to be as much bloodshed, but if we’re lucky we’ll get a touch of titillation. A man enters the chamber as the women hiss over what we now see is a scrying pool that reveals a lovely slumbering woman. The man tugs back his hood…

…revealing the late, great Elmore Rual “Rip” Torn. And damn, does he look positively satanic here as he stares down into the pool. He listens as the women explain how a prophecy tells of him being totally boned, and the scrying pool scrolls down to the sleeping woman’s belly. A prophecy of a child being the doom of an evil ruler? Wow, where have I heard that one before? Is that a common trope in fantasy fiction? Because that’s essentially the plot to 1987’s Willow, which despite the recycled plot didn’t stop me from seeing that movie seven times in theaters. Joanne Whalley was my number one crush that year. Rip tells the women that he has to know. The three women look up…

…and wow. Just, wow. No lie, that was the absolute last thing I was expecting. There’s never an explanation why the women look like they do; are they inhuman? The result of inbreeding like 300’s Ephors? Is this the ultimate price for power? We never find out, and you know what? I’m fine with that. I don’t need a ton of exposition explaining why these coyote ugly females look the way they do, just that they’re Rip Torn’s minions and they’re up to no good. Fun fact: one of these women is dancer/actor Janet Jones. That’s right: Wayne Gretzky’s wife.

He shoots, he scores!

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The center witch says that Rip’s going to die at the hands of “Zed’s” unborn child. No cryptic bullshit, just the facts, straight up. Rip scoffs at this, but the witch explains the truth can’t be changed. Rip barks that the child will die that very night. It’s then that King Zed shows up with his bodyguard. Zed is played by Rod Loomis, who’s most notable for playing Dr. Sigmund Freud in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Picard’s romantic rival in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “We’ll Always Have Paris”. The witches all take a step back as Zed enters the chamber, and he notes to Rip that he’s heard that there might be a child sacrifice going down. Zed says that “Ar” demands it. Perchance, does Ar live in Castle Arrrrrrrrrrgh? King Zed says this won’t happen on his watch, and he banishes Rip to practice his religion with the barbarian Juns. You’d think Rip would try and reason things out with Zed, but no, he doubles down and says the child in question is Zed’s. Immediately, Zed’s chief of the watch whips out his sword and is ready to start lopping off heads…

…and he’s played by veteran TV actor John Amos, most famous at this point for Roots and Good Times, but for me I’ll always love him most as Cleo McDowell in Coming to America. Zed stays the man’s hand, and you know he’s going to regret that later. Now, you’d think at this point Rip would just, you know, leave. But nope, he says the baby’s got to be cut from his mother’s belly and branded with the symbol of Ar. It’s like the man has no filter and says pretty much whatever’s going on in his head. You know, like most people on Twitter. Zed says he could have Rip put to death, and in response the priest glances at his two acolytes, who proceed to throw what look like bronze claws up into a support beam overhead, and actually hang themselves by the metal cords around their necks. Rip seems to really enjoy this, but Zed is only mildly disgusted and tells his people to “take him away”. And they leave the witches behind? Zed’s just full of bad ideas.

Later, we see one of the witches with a… cow? Okay, then. She leads the cow into Zed and his wife’s bedchamber, and now I’ve got all sorts of questions. Is Zed and his wife living in a tent? Do they live on the ground floor of a castle? If not, then how did that cow negotiate the stairs? How is that cow not making all sorts of racket with its hooves? Actually, none of these questions came to mind when I saw this film in the theater; I just wanted to know what was going to happen next. What does happen next is that the witch pours cool-looking glowing blue juice across the mother and father’s necks, paralyzing them and robbing them of their voices. She then casts a spell that teleports the unborn child out of mom’s womb and into the cow! I can honestly say that was the absolute last thing I was expecting. Zed’s wife dies and… damn, it just occurred to me that Rip Torn’s character in Men in Black was named Zed. I wonder if there was an intentional homage going on there, or if Rip got to pick his letter and “Zed” just tickled his fancy. Anyway, the mother dies and the witch makes off with the pregnant cow, leaving Zed helpless.

That evening, we find a man with a lantern, leading a burro through the woods.

He comes across the witch at a clearing beside a roaring campfire sporting blue-white flames. Curious and probably a little scared, he hangs the lantern on a branch and watches as the witch pulls a small brand from the fire. The witch lays the brand into what the man now realizes is a baby in the woman’s arms.

The symbol of Ar! The woman raises a blade and now the man has seen enough, so he whips out some widget.

Damn, I forgot this thing existed; for a while it was one of my favorite fictional weapons, and I kept wondering how to make one for Dungeons & Dragons. And check out how rusted and worn it looks. The prop people deserve, well, props for making this thing look like it belongs to some down on his luck traveler. The man cocks back his arm and lets the weapon fly, and it strikes true, right in the witch’s back. The witch screams and goes limp, resting where she kneels, but the man’s not taking any chances and has his hand on his sword as he cautiously approaches. The man kneels down and tugs his weapon free and the robe collapses, but there’s no one inside. Oh crap, I think the witch is a Jedi!

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There’s a hiss behind him, and he turns and there’s a woman with an incredible body and an amazingly ugly face, and teenage me was so conflicted.

The man hesitates for one crucial second and the witch gestures at him and he goes flying back and damn, she is a Jedi! Undaunted, the man knows it’s time to step up. He comes at her with the sword and she uses her power to send it flying out of his hands and to land pointy end down in the ground. I guess she’s thinking this little display of power is enough to scare the man off, but instead, he grabs the sword and strikes, stabbing the witch in the belly. He spins around, dropping the witch into the fire and she explodes with a cackle, in a scene a bit reminiscent of the one from Conan the Barbarian. I’m not saying either film stole that scene from the other, it’s just interesting to note that maybe both teams of writers were thinking of the purifying properties of fire. Or they just thought people like watching witches burn. The man finds the baby and does the humane thing, taking him back to his home.

One can only assume by the huts on stilts that this valley floods all the time. The man is welcomed back warmly and he wastes no time showing off what he’s brought back. I can only imagine him trying to tell the story of how he came across the kid: “It was a witch! A horrific witch with a killer bod and a mother in law’s face! And I slew it and dropped it into the fire!” People are just going to assume he won the kid in an epic game of dice or something.

Time passes and the man is teaching his now adolescent son how to swordfight. He then pulls out that badass weapon, calling it a “kaypa”. The kid begs for a demonstration, and he whips the kaypa at a fellow farmer, taking the turban right off his head. Both the boy and the man have a good laugh, but the kid’s smile fades as he stares into the woods. Suddenly, he tells his dad to run, as “Teece”, the guy with the turban, gets instantly sucked into the trees in what’s actually a pretty cool stunt. The man gets spit out and a bear comes out from the trees on its hind legs. The man tells “Dar” to run, but the kid locks eyes on the bear and it drops down on all fours and lumbers off.

Dar’s dad tells him that nobody in the village can know about what he can do, because they probably burned people back then just for being ginger. He tells Dar the gods put their mark on him, pointing to the brand on his palm, and honestly this alone should have been enough for most of those villagers to feed the kid to the hogs. The kid runs off to get help for dad who hurt his leg, and to let them know Teece is dead. As he runs through the fields, the scene shifts from the boy running to a man…

…and he’s Marc Singer, who up until this point was a TV actor whose first motion picture was If You Can See What I Can Hear, based loosely on the life of blind musician Tom Sullivan. Singer would become even more well known when he starred later in the V miniseries, and among us nerds, that show had us glued to our proverbial seats. Honestly, me and my friends couldn’t shut up about it.

Now grown, Dar calls down to a dog he calls Kodo, who’s barking at him. Dar shimmies down a rope from his hut and is getting ready for a day in the fields with the other young men of the village. Dar has stopped to visit his dad, who holds up what looks like a primitive hoe, and he tells the kid it’s fixed and makes a feint with it, testing to see if the kid forgot any of what the old man learned him. Smiling, he tosses his kid the hoe and Dar heads out, but pauses as he and dad share a goodbye wave. There’s not a lot of time to show how father and son feel, but I think the kid who plays young Dar, and Marc Singer, and actor Ben Hammer do a credible job of showing some actual affection. And of course, we’re going to see Dar’s father provide his son with plenty of good fatherly advice throughout the film, right?

Hmm. Judging by the Frank Frazetta painting come to life that just popped up over the hill yonder, I’m beginning to doubt it.

Next time: The Jun horde! And Dar loses his friends but makes some new ones.

Multi-Part Article: The Beastmaster (1982), a recap

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