Marc Singer is Dar, the title Beastmaster, who was fated to die as a child by the evil sorcerer Maax (Rip Torn), but saved from certain death and raised as the son of a simple farmer. Now a fully grown, buff warrior-type, who has a special ability to communicate with animals. When his adopted family and village are slaughtered, Dar and his animal companions (an eagle, a panther, and two thieving ferrets) head for the kingdom of Maax, who has recently usurped the king and instituted a ritual of child sacrifice. Because he’s evil as fuck. Along the way he even picks up human companions like warrior John Amos and slave girl Tanya Roberts, who is Dar’s guide into Maax’s temple.
Revisiting beloved childhood favourites can be a daunting undertaking, especially when the film was never viewed especially favourably by critics. However, I’m happy to say that this 1982 sword-and-sorcery tale from co-writer/director Don Coscarelli (“Phantasm”, “Bubba Ho-Tep”) holds up just as enjoyably as it did when I first saw it as a kid. I hadn’t even seen it since I was about 13 (which Americans will find hilarious because apparently it played on TV constantly in the 80s and 90s over there), but it definitely holds up better than any other film of its type (which might not say much for the genre, in fairness). It’s far less gloomy and more fun than “Conan the Barbarian”, even if it barely resembles the 1959 outer space-set novel by Andre Norton it was based on.
It takes a little while to really get going, but in this case it’s because it’s genuinely taking the time to tell its story, as this ain’t no mere cheapo “Deathstalker”, “Dungeonmaster” or “Kull the Conqueror”. It shares more in common with the excellent “Ladyhawke” if anything, only with a better music score by Lee Holdridge (“Splash”, “Big Business”), though he’s no Basil Poledouris (the best thing about “Conan the Barbarian”), admittedly. The roving camerawork by John Alcott (“A Clockwork Orange”, “Barry Lyndon”, “The Shining”) is excellent and surely must’ve been an influence on “Ladyhawke”.
Marc Singer may not be the actor of Rutger Hauer’s versatility or charisma nor can his rather lean physique compare with that (Credit: Clive James) ‘condom full of walnuts’, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his hero Dar has one thing those guys didn’t get a chance to show: A sense of humour. This film isn’t a comedy but it, and the very fine Singer do not take the whole thing too seriously, giving the film a much more appreciably lighter tone, without condescending or coming off as cheap spoof like “Army of Darkness” or TV’s “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”. He has a much warmer and ingratiating screen presence than any other screen warrior/barbarian before or since, and he lifts the film. He’s even sensitive, he cries at one point for chrissakes. I don’t think even “Red Sonja” cried. That’s a positive in my book, because Conan felt like he was dead inside, to me. He was a bore. But that doesn’t mean he’s so buffoonish or wimpy that he fails to have the gravitas needed to be a hero. In fact he reminds me of “He-Man” in this. Forget the Dolph Lundgren movie, this one serves as a better film version of “Masters of the Universe”, if you ask me. There’s even a version of Cringer here…a tiger painted black to look like a panther. Best not to ponder that one too much, as the poor thing allegedly died from the toxicity from the paint. It’s the kind of cheap-arse thing you’d expect Roger Corman to try, and even he might not be that stingy. Without question, though, the animal companions who steal the show are the adorable, but rascally ferrets. What a couple of hams they are!
On the villainous side of things, the one and only Rip Torn somehow found his way into a B-grade sword and sorcery movie. And thank God, because he’s such an entertainingly mean sonofabitch as always. Subtle he ain’t, but a film can never have too much cranky arse Rip Torn in my view. Haha, that sounds wrong. Sorry, having a juvenile moment. Torn absolutely blows the horribly miscast James Earl Jones in “Conan” out of the water here. If you haven’t seen this in a while, you might be surprised by all the massacre and mayhem here. It isn’t as brooding as “Conan”, but cute ferrets or not, it ain’t a kids movie, either, especially when Mr. Torn is around sacrificing children! He’s quite clearly the High Priest of Murdering the Fuck Out of Everyone. Tanya Roberts, for that matter, ups the adult content factor too when she gets naked along with another chick at one point. Hooray for PG-rated boobies! It’s certainly a more substantial contribution than she made to “A View to a Kill”, and a slightly better performance too. The red/brown hair brings out her gorgeous eyes I must say. Rock-solid contribution by John Amos as a staff-wielding pilgrim who joins the title character. It’s kind of a Woody Strode part, but Amos makes it his own. The film has a pretty good, fiery finale, and no I don’t know what the bird man army is about, either. WTF?
Honestly, this may not be a masterpiece, but it’s one of the most underrated films of the 1980s, if not all-time. And I can honestly say that there’s only a little bit of the childhood favourite bias in that statement (My grade might be another story, but to hell with credibility). It’s jolly good fun. The spiky, Day-Glo S&M freak henchmen are a bit questionable, however. The eclectic Coscarelli co-wrote the screenplay with producer Paul Pepperman.