Stay beast, I was born in the belly of a cow, so I am kin to you.
Oh man is it too late to take back the implication that Red Sonja was the worst Sword and Sorcery film of the 1980s? Maybe. Maybe not. The Beastmaster, the film, was released the same year as Conan and was a part of the first wave of fantasy films to explode in the 1980´s. The film would see mild success followed by continual replay on late night cable. In fact, this film is the epitome of late night cable. The Beastmaster is one part fantasy, two parts animal wrangling, and three parts “wait, why in the hell are they going there?” It’s not too late to retract my Red Sonja judgement is it? Please tell me no.
The Beastmaster is loosely, kinda, not really based on a 1959 Andre Norton novel of the same name. If you want to think of it as just sharing the same name and general idea then you would be in the right dimensional plane. The Beastmaster film more resembles a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with one overpowered druid aided by a group of lesser powerful followers that can only really fight when they strip their clothes completely. The Dungeons and Dragons conspiracy continues as The Beastmaster plot is a series of non-repeating encounters overcome by heroic abilities and revolving around a cosmically unbelievable antagonist. Time to roll for initiative.
The film focuses on Dar, royal orphan who is taken under the wing of a simple villager after being born from a cow because he was placed there by a witch who stole him from the Queen’s womb because there was no goddamn security at the front of the royal tent. Dar, as a boy, learns the virtues of boomerang throwing and animal husbandry. He also learns the sense in plowing fields that are way fucking far from the village than when the evil monster army raids his home, Dar spends all goddamn day running back to save his family. Idiot. Dar is so devastated by witnessing his whole village being slaughtered that he sets out to avenge his step-family´s memory unaware that this journey is a part of a larger destiny. Oh, and also, he picks up some friends along the way.
I spend a little bit of time recounting the plot because, honestly, it is humorous to see written out. The film’s narrative is so ludicrous that it becomes almost comical and charming when set into motion. The film is quite obviously the byproduct of a fantasy created by a younger writer. I mean what 15 year old wouldn’t use their animal familiars to steal women´s clothing? That is why they are there right? Idiot.
The Beastmaster fails in a spectacular amount of places but also offers things Red Sonja was incapable of doing. The film blunders basic action in ways that are staggering to the mind. The fight choreography looks like it was written and executed by 8 year olds who half remembered something they saw on TV. None of the character´s motivation for their actions are ascertainable and the threat of an evil cultist priest is sort of muted by the fact that at any time a group of school children or 10 determined senior citizens could overcome his legion. Add to this action scenes that seem like they were written at gunpoint and resolutions to those actions that couldn’t exist in 95% of fantasy films and one has on goddamn entertaining film.
As much as it fails, The Beastmaster also succeeds because of it’s undeniable charm. Unlike Red Sonja and even Conan, people can relate to Dar as a protagonist being a projection of what one would look like if they inhabited a fantasy or role playing game. Can you imagine the hit dice your spray painted tiger would get or the perception bonus that would come with a damn eagle hawk? Though everything in the film only connects half of the time, The Beastmaster, as an idea, is too lovable to deny. Now, I said this without seeing the two sequels. One being the group transported to 1980 Los Angeles, the other being the Canadian TV show which aired in the late 90´s. For now, I am content with my character sheet and an easily conquerable foe. Mighty beasts, hear my painfully feeble war call.
Released: August 20th 1982
Directed By: Don Coscarelli
Starring: Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts
Score: 4/9 Hammers