Shitty Movie Sundays: The Beastmaster

Filmmaker Don Coscarelli is known to horror fans as the man behind the Phantasm film series. While that series has spanned decades, all cinematic auteurs like to try new things on occasion. Sometimes, when they do, the result is shitty gold.

The Beastmaster, from 1982, is Coscarelli’s homage to the Italian sword-and-sandal flick, and also an opportunity to feed on the leavings, remora-style, of the Conan films. In fact, Coscarelli and producer Paul Pepperman took a book about a Navajo soldier who talks to genetically altered animals on an alien planet, and turned it into a Conan ripoff. There are no Native Americans and no alien planet in this flick. Instead, we get Marc Singer, in what would have been his defining role were it not for V, as Dar, a hunky tribesman who is the long-lost son of a deposed king. After Dar’s village is attacked by a horde and everyone is killed, Dar sets off on a journey, to somewhere a little vague, with something of an idea about what he’s going to do when he gets there. Focus isn’t really Dar’s strongest characteristic — wearing as little clothing as possible without being pornography is. Also, he can talk to animals.

Dar is joined on his quest by a few animal sidekicks. There’s an eagle that soars above, and that Dar uses to scout threats; a pair of ferrets that Marc Singer occasionally handled like a pair of dirty dish rags; and, I shit you not, a tiger that had its fur dyed black. Why a tiger with black fur? Because Coscarelli wanted a black panther, but apparently panthers are difficult to work with. He agreed to use a tiger instead, but just couldn’t let go of the idea of a black panther, so they dyed the tiger’s fur black. It’s on the internet, so it must be true. If so, that’s some extraordinary stubbornness, and it resulted in some extraordinary shittiness. Indeed, the tiger looks like it has been rubbed down with shoe polish.

Dar eventually makes his way back to the land of his imprisoned royal father, and there makes an enemy in Maax (pronounced may-axe), an evil priest played by Rip Torn and a prosthetic nose. Maax is a really bad dude. He worships a god that requires regular human sacrifice, and he holds the kingdom in an iron grip. Dar finds common cause with Seth (John Amos), and Kiri (Tanya Roberts), and wages war against Maax. And he makes sure there are plenty of opportunities for his animal buddies to get in on the action.

This flick is like a Frank Frazetta painting The Beastmastercome to shitty life. It wants to be a Conan flick very badly, but even Conan couldn’t keep it up after John Milius left the scene. It’s a set piece adventure film, kind of like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone or even Easy Rider, with a fair amount of interesting and creative moments. But it just can’t shake its cheapness. Sprawling ambition meets budgetary realities in scene after scene. The cast consists of literally dozens, the Foley work is straight out of Looney Tunes, the fight choreography resembles boyhood backyard shenanigans, and the acting from Singer and Roberts is only slightly better than that of the ferrets. But, hey, at least we get to see Roberts’ boobs in this flick. She never did us that favor in A View to a Kill or That ’70s Show.

My favorite bit of shittiness in this film, however, is the pyramid. Viewers will see a lot of the pyramid, as it’s clearly the most expensive set in the film, and Coscarelli made sure he got his money’s worth out of it. It’s a step pyramid like one sees in Mexico and Central America. Only, there was something off about the pyramid, and it took me almost the entire film to figure out what that was. It looks fine, and is a credit to the production crew. But it’s built at a slightly smaller scale than normal. The steps leading to the summit are only about 4 inches high and deep. The pyramid looks like it was built a little smaller to save money, with the idea that it would be shot in such a way to hide its true scale. It’s made for wide shots, with possibly children dressed in versions of the adults’ costumes atop to make it look bigger. Ridley Scott used that method to effect in Alien. But Coscarelli and cinematographer John Alcott didn’t seem to care about the pyramid’s reduced scale. They placed the cast right on the damned thing and shot it up close. The result being a pyramid under attack by a giant Marc Singer. Fantastic.

Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than The Beastmaster, sure, but it didn’t get nearly as many laughs out of this reviewer.