Retro Review: The Beastmaster Series
Get the cocoa butter out and practice your best falcon call, it’s time to commune with nature with Dar, the Beast Master. Marc Singer stars as the titular hero (no pun intended at his manly pectorals, dude looked good even when the movies looked shit) an outcast hero both revered and shunned for his ability to understand and control animals. In abler hands, this ability leads to some impressive shots of Dar actually seeing through the senses of his companion animals, and in lesser hands it leads to Singer kind of rolling his eyes at his ferrets as they chew through something to drop on the bad guys heads. It’s a mixed bag, really. Dar’s abilities stem from a royal bloodline, of which a gnarly tattoo is the physical manifestation, yet later iterations of the series drop this would-be king/messiah story line in favor of just all around sword swinging hero for hire, more reminiscent of Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan.
The series is certainly uneven, going from good, to good for a laugh, to good for reminding you to shut off the TV and go outside. Lets take a look at them in order.
The Beast Master (1982)
A decidedly sword-and-sorcery epic, Dar is the son of a murdered king, rescued at birth from an evil cult led by Maax (played by the eccentrically lovable Rip Torn, and pronounced May Axe, not a whiny version of Max), and raised as a simple peasant for protection. Grown to manhood, Dar witnesses the destruction of his village at the hands of the Jun horde, an army of men driven mad by Maax’s dark arts who visit his vengeance on the land in search of sacrifices for his demonic rituals. Vowing revenge, Dar sets off with is animal companions (an eagle, a tiger, and two adorable ferrets, Odo and Codo) to avenge his village and defeat Maax.
The original movie is directed by the erratic, yet talented Don Coscarelli, of Phantasm series and Bubba Ho-Tep fame. With that reference I’ve fulfilled my contractual obligation to include both a reference to Bruce Campbell and dude in a loin cloth in my article, so the rest of this review is pretty much easy street.
Right back at ya, big guy.
The production values are on par with other fantasy movies such as the Conan series and Red Sonja, and while the sword play is less intense, it is still quite enjoyable, with some nice work by John Amos in several fight scenes as Dar’s ally and leader of the local resistance. Dar has some pretty cool weaponry, including a bad ass bladed boomerang that is way more feasible than the one in Krull.
Because nobody respects a guy who just throws a regular knife.
The acting is decent, with Singer certainly more soulful and conflicted than Conan, John Amos carrying a lion share of the actual plot development, and Rip Torn being weird and menacing in an off-handed way whenever on screen. The costume work is impressive in places, with Coscarelli’s decidedly macabre visuals extending from torture pits full of Jun horde berserkers, to witches that slither up walls like Japanese horror monsters, a really bitching eyeball ring, and well, giant leathery bat-men who help Dar because…well, why the fuck not?
We got your back, homes.
While not mind blowing, The Beastmaster is certainly enjoyable, and one of the better sword and sorcery epics that seemed to dominate the 80’s. Seeing as Hollywood has yet to make a good one since Schwarzenegger hung up the sandals (though hopes are high for the forever promised Conan the King), this movie will certainly satisfy your need for hacking and slashing.
The Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (1991)
Ah, the Beastmaster 2. Following in a tradition of terrible sequels, Beastmaster 2 completely forsakes not only the plot of the original film, but any of the charm and strengths of it as well. The list of writers on the film‘s credits is longer than most MLB rosters, with as many no names and soon to be nobodies. The director, Tabet, is also credited with a writing role, as well as producing this train wreck. It gives the impression of an increasingly perilous voyage, where the crazed captain has shot crew members at an alarming pace for pointing out the folly of the whole endeavor until only the captain remains, steely eyed amidst a bridge full of corpses. By the way, that is a much better story than Beastmaster 2.
The Story of Beastmaster 2, as near as I can figure it, completely retcons Dar’s royal pedigree and the prophesied birthmark of the first movie, as well as the kingdoms return to peace and prosperity after Maax’s defeat. Now, an unmentioned brother, Arklon, played with all the charm of a high school drama stand-in by Wing Hauser (who’s career is littered with impressive cameo’s on shows you would think knew better. Perhaps he was just having an off day when he tried to over-act his way through this role.)
Arklon is the “maximum ruler” of the land, now dubbed Arok, who rules empty and dimly lit movie sets with the aid of a magic laser wand, which can: shoot fire, move boulders, summon wind, create earthquakes, and most importantly miss Dar by 4 feet each and every time he’s in the cross hairs. So except for that last one, pretty awesome. At the outset, he has captured his brother, Dar, and is set to wipe out a rebellion mentioned in the introductory crawl (which explains the story incorrectly anyway, so don’t feel you need to rush away from the microwave to catch the beginning of the film, is all I’m saying.) Dar summons his animal companions, wounds his brother, and inexplicably runs away…
You can guess from this still that Dar is about 4 feet that-a-way…
OK, from here stuff gets confusing and you see the careful work of 6 script writers who were probably fired mid shoot. A sorceress played by Sarah Douglas of Superman 2 fame (Ursa) shows Arklon how to use the Portal of Time to travel to alternate dimension Earth…instead of through time. Really. They belabor the point that it’s not time travel. They must have fired the guy who titled the movie very early in the process. Arklon’s plan is to steal a neutron bomb from present day LA, and use it to menace the empty desert sets of Arok. Because having effortlessly murdered the rebels earlier with his laser wand, he needed to initiate a cold war in a barren wasteland. Forget about it. Dar follows Arklon with the help of a spunky LA girl who you will wish to murder from scene one, is pursued by Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince, spends about half the remaining screen time pretending to be wowed by modern technology (when, you know, he’s fought demons, cultists, eyeball rings, and fucking giant bat-men…)
Finally: Arklon gets the bomb, we learn that taking the bomb arms it and threatens to blow up both worlds, and Arklon tries to hide the bomb in a zoo. A zoo. Against his brother, THE BEASTMASTER. So it ends up roughly as you would expect it would, with Dar beating his ass like an egg during the breakfast rush at Deny’s. End movie.
This movie was born for an episode of MST3K, so if you enjoy watching over-acting, silly set designs, incomprehensible decisions (both in and outside of the movie), and some mild hack and slash tom-foolery, go ahead and fire it up. If you loved the first movie, and just have to give Marc Singer a few dollars to pay him back for an excellent first movie, by all means, go out and get this…and keep it in plastic on your shelf. Maybe it will suddenly become rare, who knows?
The Beastmaster 3: the Eye of Braxus (1996)
You won’t need the two days. I promise.
So, some genius decided fans’ goodwill towards good old Dar was not completely spent, and decided to re-ignite the franchise with a straight to TV movie with all of the production value of an episode of Xena, Warrior Princess. Awful sets, cartoon acting, action sequences that forget to have action in them, and a cornball plot that seems to ignore everything that went before it. Oh, and the final villain looks like Earl from the Dinosaurs TV show.
Not the mama.
So, like the makers of this film, I am not going to put any effort into this review. If you must absolutely venture into this wasteland, watch this clip of the final “action sequence” and see if your sanity can survive the full movie. And God have mercy on your soul.