I have my eyes…
I have my cunning…
and I have my strength.
The Beastmaster was a huge success on cable, and I must have watched it a few dozen times. I one day hoped to swing a sword around in a loincloth, commanding the beasts to do my will. Now I have a disobedient cat, a pair of cargo shorts and some swords hanging on the wall. I think that’s close enough.
Marc Singer, the ’80s star of If You Could See What I Hear and the V miniseries, had his first big role in this bronze age sword & sorcery flick that’s essentially Conan meets “Manimal,” or “Conaminal” as you could call it. With Rip Torn as the evil priest Mayax, John Amos as a big black Friar Tuck and Tanya Roberts as sacrificial eye candy this was second only to Highlander in the annals of awesome things to find on cable in the ’80s. It had dyed black tigers, a pair of sneaky ferrets, and killer bat-people who could digest your flesh in seconds. In a sea of shitty fantasy movies, this one rose above and is what all B movies should aspire to.
The evil priest Mayax gets a prophecy from his trio of ugly witch-bitches telling him thatt he unborn son of the king will be his undoing. Despite being told that nothing he does will change his fate, he makes the creepy sorceresses- who have model-worthy bods and faces requiring triple or quadruple bagging- go to do his evil bidding. They steal the king’s unborn son by transferring him to the womb of a cow, kill his wife, blind him, and slaughter his villagers. Only his right-hand man Seth survives the onslaught.
The witches take the cow to the woods, cut it open, and prepare to sacrifice the baby, but are interrupted by a man who happens upon them. Unlucky for them, he is a fearsome if unlikely warrior wielding a bizarre throwing blade called a Kada. He takes the child and raises him, naming him Dar. A short montage later and Dar has grown into Marc Singer, and shown an affinity for speaking to animals. A bear comes upon his adoptive father’s camp, and he saves their lives. He has the mark, and can master the beasts. He is the Beastmaster!
Silly as it is, this is really only a half-notch below Conan the Barbarian, lacking some budget and the established mythos, and a huge star such as Arnold. Marc Singer is ripped for his role, and while no muscle man, he is perfectly believable as the destined warrior who defeats Mayax and the Jun horde. One day he comes home to find his father and village slaughtered by the Jun- a horde of leather-clad, masked warriors in the tradition of the Humongous from The Road Warrior, who look like they strutted off a Molly Hatchet album cover and live only for genocide. He survives only because his trusty dog drags him from the flames of the razed village. Dar takes his father’s scimitar and throwing blade, and sets out on his own- for revenge.
On his journey, he comes upon a hawk, two mischevious ferrets, and a black tiger that he saves from Mayax’s warriors. These become his allies- his eyes, his cunning, and his strength. Dar was taught to do right, and when he finds a man in a cage in the forest he releases him. Too bad he was meant for bat food! The forest is host to a group of silent bat-people, who catch their prey in a winged hug and devour them a lot like Seth Brundle in The Fly. Dar only escapes because his hawk alights on his shoulder, and they respect his kinship with their feathered brother. They have a hawk totem in camp and must worship them. What luck!
The first thing Dar uses his animal trio to do is get in a slave girl’s loincloth. Kiri is bathing in the river, and he spies her from above. He sends the ferrets to steal a piece of her clothes, and when she chases them into the forest, they lead her to the tiger! But he “scares off” the tiger. Kind of creepy, Dar! But he gets her digits- she’s a slave girl for Mayax and must return to the Temple of Ar, lest her family be killed. So Dar didst get blue balls that night.
His next meeting is with Seth- John Amos- and the young boy Tal. They help kick some Mayax minion ass. Seth uses a fighting staff that Amos really seems to know how to use! I remember seeing an interview where he claimed he auditioned for Indiana Jones, and I wish he got more adventure roles. He has a natural charisma, and was bad-ass enough to be a hero, but he never got the chance. Here he says they are “pilgrims,” and Dar might not believe them but he trusts their motives. Dar finally meets Mayax when he foils a child sacrifice at his temple, by having his hawk fly away with the kid. Mayax’s save is priceless- when the hawk saves the child, everyone falls to the dirt in honor of the miracle. He just stammers, “See! He wants your children!” and has a staredown with the only man not groveling- Dar. He knows a showdown is inevitable.
Seth and Tal join Dar in his mission to rescue Kiri, for they have no love of Mayax. And yes, his character his spelled “Maax” in the credits, but screw that. They say Mayax. This is the first daring battle against the priest and his sacrificial cult. His fanatical followers hang themselves on command and fight to the death; his warriors have fluorescent green slugs put in their ears that drive them mad, so they kill everything in sight with spiked fighting gloves or cestus. They always reminded me of the guy on the cover to Quiet Riot’s Metal Health album. With his tiger and ferrets to steal keys and chomp on baddies, they manage to rescue Kiri, by the skin of their teeth.
But Mayax is not so easily defeated. Tal took a ring off one of his acolytes, and it opens to reveal an eye with whiche he can spy on his enemies. When Seth takes Dar back to his encampment, we find the blinded king from the beginning, who doesn’t know that Dar is his son. I dunno why they don’t just tell him, but the king is a bit of a pompous jackass for a deposed, blinded ruler dependent on his followers. He wants to attack Mayax, even though he is aware of their plans. So of course, Dar has to save the day. They have an exciting battle atop of the ziggurat temple of Ar, with Mayax trying to sacrifice Kiri as Dar races up the temple steps, sword flashing through red-robed Hare Krishnas left and right.
But even when Mayax is foiled, the battle is not over; the Jun horde is returning to protect their leader, and a ragtag band of rebels cannot stop them in their numbers. What will Dar and his friends do? Can he summon the beasts of the forest? Can John Amos take them all on himself? Are there enough ferrets in the world to nibble their ankles off? The final battle is quite exciting, with a trapped moat of burning oil that makes the battlefield look like the rim of a volcano. It may not be as epic as Conan, but Beastmaster is a surprisingly original and enjoyable story that could only have sprung from the ’80s, when all you needed for a B movie was a sword, a desert, and a girl in a ragged bikini.
Beastmaster succeeds because despite its epic scope and nearly two-hour length, it is well-paced and the fight scenes are quite good for the time. The actors aren’t great, but certainly are more talented than most B movie casts. Director Don Coscarelli was offered the chance to direct Conan the Destroyer (full review) by Dino De Laurentiis, and he turned it down because he thought the story sucked. And while this movie is very silly and has a mishmash of all sorts of things- the psychotic Jun horde, flying bat people who digest you in their wings, animal telepathy, a crazy throwing blade, ugly oracle women, eye rings and a bronze age setting- it all seems to work. It has a sense of humor, but takes itself just seriously enough; which nudges it more toward Clash of the Titans than that Conan sequel that nearly killed sword & sorcery movies for good.
Beers Required to Enjoy: none, but why not?
Could it be remade today? Please no!
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: Beastmaster is vegan
High Points: Attack ferrets, John Amos kicking ass
Low Point: If I wanted to hear a whiny blind king, I’d read Oedipus Rex
Gratuitous Boobies: Tanya Roberts, yum! And more on the DVD extras