"Who is this man?"
For fans of good old-fashioned swords and sorcery fantasy, the 1980s were a golden age the likes of which we will likely never see again. Fueled by the popularity of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, filmmakers turned their attention to the world of fairy tales, warriors, magic, and adventure as a way to tell otherworldly stories and make a few bucks in the process. Legend, Willow, Excalibur, The Dragonslayer, Krull, and the immortal Conan the Barbarian are just some of the better-known titles from that era. Slightly down the cinematic food chain are such flicks as The Sword and the Sorcerer, and a fascinating little tale about a great warrior who could talk to the animals. When The Beastmaster premiered in October of 1982, it could not help but be swallowed up in the shadow of the mighty Conan, who had made it to the big screen a full three months earlier. Garnering poor critical reception and failing even to make back its production cost, The Beastmaster seemed doomed to join the ranks of forgotten and unloved flicks.
However, a funny thing happened in the 1980s. New television stations, reaching a national audience and not connected with any of the major networks, needed programming. In particular, Ted Turner's upstart Atlanta-based WTBS discovered The Beastmaster, and gave it a warm home for several years; who can forget the "Very Beastmaster Christmas" broadcasts from the early '90s? To this day, The Beastmaster is the second-most requested movie ever across all of the Turner networks, edged out by only Gone with the Wind. Likewise HBO, pioneering the concept of an all-movie premium channel, got ahold of the flick and ran it frequently, prompting Johnny Carson to quip on the Tonight Show that HBO stood for "Hey, Beastmaster's On!"
And so, The Beastmaster developed a devoted cult following. As such, it is only natural that it would come to DVD by way of Anchor Bay, the good people devoted to preserving overlooked classics and giving them the digital treatment they deserve.
Facts of the Case
The evil Maax, high priest of the god Ar, has designs on the kingdom of Aruk. His seers, the witch-women, foresee a problem; King Zed's unborn son will be the end of Maax unless he is sacrificed to Ar. The witches steal Zed's unborn son from the queen's very womb, brand him with the mark of Ar, and prepare to sacrifice him, but are stopped before they can kill the child. A simple farmer from the village of Emur defeats the witches and adopts the boy, calling him Dar and raising him as his own son. Dar grows up totally unaware of his royal heritage or his foretold destiny. As Dar grows, his adopted father trains him in the ways of combat as well as farming. Also, it soon becomes apparent that Dar has a mystical ability to relate to animals. He can establish a psychic connection with them, knowing their thoughts and seeing through their eyes, and can command them to do his bidding.
When the savage Jun horde destroys Emur, Dar is left as the sole survivor. Carrying his father's sword and lethal bronze boomerang, he sets out to find his destiny. As he travels he gathers a collection of animal companions: two ferrets who become his stealth and cunning, an eagle who becomes his eyes, and a black tiger who becomes his strength.
Dar's destiny leads him to Kiri, a beautiful slave girl forced to serve in the temple of Ar. He also meets Seth, a mysterious warrior who fiercely protects Tal, Kiri's young cousin, the son of King Zed and only known heir to the throne. Tal's father is held prisoner by Maax in the temple of Ar. Drawn by a sense of justice, a growing love for Kiri, and the invisible hand of his destiny, Dar plunges into the struggle to liberate Aruk and vanquish the evil Maax and his cultists once and for all.
The Beastmaster is pure cheese, but highly entertaining cheese at that. As fantasy epics go it may not be one of the greatest, but it is certainly one of the best loved. Director/co-writer Don Coscarelli and producer/co-writer Paul Pepperman did a lot of things right on a limited budget as they created a relatively believable Bronze Age world for the Beastmaster to inhabit. They put a lot of effort into this film, taking great pains with the art direction and design. They managed to create one of the most satisfying pieces of light entertainment in the past twenty years. There is no denying The Beastmaster's broad appeal; there is something in this epic, slightly corny story of love, revenge, destiny, and jungle fever to satisfy everyone. Coscarelli and Pepperman also made a wise choice when they decided to gear their film toward a family-friendly PG rating. They are able to tell their tale without the buckets of blood to which other filmmakers might have resorted, thus making it watchable for the whole family. The only thing that some people might object to is the brief topless scene featuring Tanya Roberts; it's either gratuitous or essential, depending on your point of view.
The result is an epic story without epic pretension, an exciting adventure that knows better than to take the tale of a prehistoric pet psychic too seriously. Whether on a rainy Saturday afternoon or late at night on cable TV, it has always been a great way to kill a few hours lost in an enjoyable fantasy of a sword-swinging Dr. Dolittle and his friends.
The cast for this picture is as perfect as it could be. Marc Singer (Go Tell the Spartans, Lancelot: Guardian of Time, V) balances heroic sincerity with deadpan humor and a certain bit of tongue-in-cheek swagger when the situation demands it. Singer is quite athletic, making him a believable Beastmaster but not crossing the line into unreal Schwarzenegger-style superman territory. Former Charlie's Angel Tanya Roberts (Sheena, A View to a Kill, That '70s Show) edged out Demi Moore for the chance to play Kiri, and what she lacks in ability to deliver lines convincingly she makes up for with her impressive, athletic physique. Roberts is stuck in damsel-in-distress mode early on, but gets a chance later to show her abilities in some of the movie's climactic action sequences. If I never see John Amos (Good Times, Coming to America) in a leather thong again it will be too soon, but his presence as the loyal warrior Seth is a great benefit to the picture. Amos has a great physical presence, and a sense of comedy developed over many years on sitcoms. Like Singer, he knows when to play his role straight, but also knows the right moments to inject some joviality and his trademark contagious laugh. Rip Torn (Men in Black, The Wonder Boys, The Insider) is at his over-the-top best as the evil priest Maax, a role that he intentionally modeled after a turkey vulture.
This whole delightful absurdity looks better than it has in a long time, thanks to some good work by Anchor Bay. Unfortunately, that still isn't very good. The source material is definitely showing its age, and I get the feeling that it probably didn't look all that good to start with. Some scenes, such as the river escape in Chapter 15, look very good, sharp and clear with good color fidelity. Other scenes are grainier than Kansas in August. This might be forgivable in darker scenes, but it is often scenes shot in broad daylight that look just terrible. This is most evident in the initial encounter between Dar and Kiri in Chapter 9. There is a conversation that is a series of close-ups edited together; the shots of Roberts are among the clearest on the DVD, while the shots of Singer are among the grainiest. The juxtaposition makes the variation in quality all the more jarring. The entire source print seems to have yellowed with age and seems a bit washed out. Still other defects are due to excessive creativity on the part of cinematographer John Alcott. For example, he shot a lot of the movie with a partial filter meant to give the sky a unique look. It didn't really work, leading to a lot of the movie with a discolored streak across the top of the frame that looks like the proverbial yellow snow. Also, it appears that different scenes with this effect were color-corrected differently; sometimes the ghastly streak is yellow, sometimes it is purplish. In either case it bleeds onto surrounding objects, coloring not only the sky but mountain peaks, characters' heads, or anything else that reaches into the top of the frame. To his credit, Alcott does a good job with other parts of the movie, including a number of shots that are lit entirely by burning torches.
Audio is English only, and comes in three flavors: Dolby 2.0 Surround, a dependable Dolby 5.1, and a DTS 6.1 EX mix. Yes, a DTS track on a twenty-year-old B+ swords and sorcery flick. (If that weren't enough, this disc is also THX certified, which proves the utter meaninglessness of the THX standard.) The audio quality under Dolby 5.1 and DTS is considerably better than I had expected. Both tracks create a highly enveloping sound environment, with background noises like the wind or birds coming through clearly in all surround channels. The audio seems a bit distorted at times, as though the whole track had its pitch adjusted upward slightly. The DTS track, as usual, is noticeably sharper, with a better mix of sound elements, and more response from the rear surround channels. The Dolby 5.1 track seems to favor the musical score a bit too much at times. Also, in Chapter 20 and 21 I detected a strange constant rushing sound in the rear channels. I have heard this on other Anchor Bay titles, such as The Sword and the Sorcerer, and it appears to me that this is an attempt to make the sound environment seem more enveloping than it really is.
Anchor Bay may not have figured out how to put English subtitles on their discs, but they do know how to put together special features worthy of this beloved quasi-classic. The centerpiece of the extra content is the commentary track. For this one, co-writer/director Don Coscarelli and co-writer/producer Paul Pepperman teamed up twenty years after making the original movie to discuss their experiences. They provide one of the better commentaries I have heard in a while. It is clear that they both have a great deal of affection for the movie. More importantly, they took the time to do some real preparation before sitting down to record the commentary. Pepperman in particular mentions his research into old receipts and so forth, and he is able to tell exactly what some of the sets and props cost. The two balance their comments between scene-specific explanations of how different shots were accomplished or how different stunts were achieved with more general explanations of the making of the film. They are not shy about explaining the creative interference they suffered at the hands of the moneymen, the animal trainers, and several others. There are unfortunately several gaps in the commentary, and it seems to have been oddly edited, with many observations ending abruptly, sometimes in what seems to be mid-sentence. However, given Anchor Bay's usually outstanding work with commentaries, this is probably more the fault of the participants than the editors.
The commentary track is only part of an impressive collection of special features. Also included is a trailer, which is remarkable for two reasons. First of all, I think it is the only trailer I have ever seen that manages to use the word "phantasmagorical." (I still have no idea what it means.) Secondly, and indicative of the way movies of this kind were marketed, it manages to work in the phrase "dungeons and dragons" even though there are no dragons to be found. When Coscarelli and Pepperman were making The Beastmaster, they paid a guy to run around the sets and shops with a handheld camera, thus providing a nice collection of behind-the-scenes footage. We get 27 minutes of footage, which would be extremely boring if it were not for Coscarelli and Pepperman's narration. There is a large collection of production art, posters, and still galleries—about 230 in all, including various concept sketches, behind the scenes candid shots, and foreign advertising. It is an extensive collection, and worth it just to see the posters advertising the Beestenmeester. Finally, there are lengthy talent bios for Coscarelli, Pepperman, Singer, Roberts, and Torn. In typical Anchor Bay fashion these are lengthy write-ups, extending over several screens of text.
Finally, there is an Easter egg. Go to the Extras menu and look for the eyeball ring. It will lead you to a deleted scene featuring Singer and even more of Roberts in her natural state. Deleting this scene from the film was a good choice for a number of reasons, not least of which is the semi-family-friendly movie that Coscarelli and Pepperman were shooting for. Its inclusion here is mildly interesting, as all deleted scenes are, but doesn't really add much to the DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Now, it goes without saying that a movie like The Beastmaster is not going to be a masterpiece of narrative cinematic art, but there are some glitches that should have been addressed. Probably the worst is one that Coscarelli and Pepperman admit to in their commentary track. As Coscarelli mentions, "One of the things we worried about was that we maybe had too many endings to this movie." I tend to agree. Between rescuing Zed, the final confrontation with Maax, battling the Jun horde, and a final one-on-one confrontation between Dar and the Jun chieftain, there are enough climactic moments to fuel a host of sequels. However, the men with the money denied them the opportunity for a test screening which might have helped them iron out some of these problems.
There are also some special effects sequences that look pretty terrible. To their credit, Coscarelli and Pepperman never fail to point any of them out. It seems that a lot of the effects work was taken out of their control, and they were stuck with what they got.
Not a great film, but definitely great fun. Admit it—we all love The Beastmaster.
One final note: to those of you who piece together that Dar and Tal are brothers, and that would make Dar and Kiri cousins, I say phooey. Remember, Dar and Tal are only half-brothers; Dar's mother died when he was stolen from her womb and transplanted into a cow. (If you haven't seen the movie, don't ask.) I find the ending of the movie much more satisfying if I assume that Kiri is related to Tal on his mother's side.
Not guilty! Loosen your collar, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy The Beastmaster! Anchor Bay is to be commended for another great DVD of a cult classic.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary by Co-Writer/Director Don Coscarelli and Co-Writer/Producer Paul Pepperman
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