The compelling corniness of The Beastmaster

Be honest — you just smiled a little

It’s 2014 so clearly this is the perfect time to take a look back at the classic sword ’n’ sorcery epic The Beastmaster (1982) and see if it’s as good as we thought it was back in the day. There’s only one problem — I never actually saw The Beastmaster until just this week.

I know. That barely seems possible. I would have been 12 years old when Beastmaster came out and had I seen it then it would have rocked my world (assuming I could have made it through the scary parts that is). How did I miss it considering that it played on “Pay TV” and cable so often that the unofficial meaning of HBO was “Hey Beastmaster ’s on”?

Today this well-loved Conan ripoff strikes me as extremely juvenile — a bit of a surprise for the psychic remnants of my 1982 self since back then I assumed anything filled with titties and blood must necessarily be “mature.” (Real maturity is a concept completely incomprehensible to those who lack it.) The Beastmaster is a cliché-riddled nonsensical male power fantasy and I’m a bit ashamed of how much I would have dug it as a preteen.

Perhaps you know the story. (I did just from playing with other kids who knew the movie. It sounded amazing.) An evil wizard named Maax (Rip Torn) receives a prophecy that he will eventually be slain by the son of a king. (The prophecy by the way is delivered by a trio of bare-bottomed witches who all have gorgeous bodies but repulsive faces.) Maax attempts to nip things in the bud by magically stealing the royal fetus before it’s even born. One of the hot-from-the-neck-down witches magically zaps the fetus into a cow cuts it out of the bovine womb brands it with a hot iron for no reason and prepares to kill it only to get impaled at the last minute by a boomerang. The kindly man who boomerang-rescued the baby adopts it as his own naming him Dar. As he matures Dar (Marc Singer of V fame) learns that he has a psychic bond with animals allowing him to command them and to see through their eyes. Handy! So yeah that’s why he’s the Beastmaster.

All of the standard Heroic Fantasy clichés come out in full force. Dar’s village gets massacred. A virtually naked woman shows up and needs to be rescued. The villain runs a human-sacrifice cult. You know the drill.

The plot sounds like something a couple of 11-year-old boys would come up with. “Maybe there’s a bunch of weird guys with bat wings who eat people! Like they wrap their wings around you and it’s all chomp chomp chomp and then a bunch of sticky bones fall out!” “…And later Dar gets the bat guys to attack an evil army! So I guess they’re friends or something.” “We should have a pet hawk! Ooh and a tiger only it’s all black!” “Yeah! And a pair of ferrets!” “What? Why the hell would we want those?” “They can steal stuff! Like there’s this gorgeous woman skinny-dipping in a pond and Dar sends the ferrets to steal her clothes!” “Oh yeah! Awesome!” “And then he can use his pet tiger to scare her and trick her into doing something!” “Cool! Like what?” “I dunno. Something sexy. He should trick her.” “Yeah but into doing what?” (Long awkward pause as our young scribes realize that the limits of their sexual knowledge have been reached.)

Despite its faults The Beastmaster never bores. Watching it was like looking at everything my 1982 self thought was cool only reflected in a funhouse mirror and I quite enjoyed the experience.

Incidentally it seems that director Don Coscarelli has also matured in the time since this film’s release. He ejected himself from the Beastmaster franchise before the direct-to-video sequels Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (1991) and Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus (1996). Coscarelli’s more recent films include Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) and John Dies at the End (2012) both of which are really good even if you’re an adult.