Movies of My Misspent Youth: "The Beastmaster"
At this very moment, with the possible exception of Near Dark, any movie you could possibly want to watch that’s more than three months old is available for instant viewing somewhere online. Oh, you may have to pay a nominal fee (or not, if you’re on the side of pirating), but they’re all there, waiting for you, to watch in the comfort of your home while you do sixteen other tasks at the same time.
Gone are the simpler times of cable channels that only aired for twelve hours a day, with what seemed to be a rotating shift of the same eight movies for months at a time. Oh sure, occasionally they’d snag a Star Wars or a Jaws, but mostly it was movies they could buy for a song after they tanked at the box office, like Kidco and various Burt Reynolds romantic comedies. If you weren’t a particularly outdoorsy child, as I wasn’t, you watched these movies several times, out of a lack of anything better to do, much like how one ends up at Denny’s at 11:30 on a Wednesday night. Sometimes, as in the case of The Beastmaster, you watched it at least a dozen times.
It was allegedly Dennis Miller, back before 9/11 melted his brain, who claimed that HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s on,” and that was the truth. If a dollar was earned for every time The Beastmaster showed up on HBO’s schedule between 1983 and 1986, you could establish your own cable network, and probably show The Beastmaster on that, because clearly the rights to air it cost about $18 and a handful of scratch-off lottery tickets. Nobody watched The Beastmaster because it was good, but because it was there.
And yet, to revisit it creates a strange sort of cognitive dissonance, like listening to Starship’s “We Built This City.” It’s absolutely terrible, and yet it’s so evocative of a very specific time in one’s youth that you can’t help feeling a little sentimental about it. The age window for enjoying it when it first came out is very narrow, perhaps eight to fourteen, and if you weren’t there, you aren’t going to get it. If you were to tell me right now, in the Year of Our Lord 2019, “Hey, Gena, The Beastmaster is on,” I’d drop everything to sit down and watch it. See that image above? If I owned a van, I’d get that airbrushed on the side of it. It’s a warm blanket of misguided nostalgia.
To describe The Beastmaster as being one of several sword and sorcery epics cashing in on the success of Conan the Barbarian (along with The Sword and the Sorcerer, Deathstalker, and Ator the Flying Eagle) is oversimplifying it. True, of all the movies mentioned it’s probably the one most like Conan, in that it’s about a man with almost superhuman strength who seeks revenge on an evil priest/wizard after his village is destroyed and his loved ones are killed. Also, they both clock in at an absurdly overlong two hours, and feature a surprising amount of semi-naked men. But, let me ask you this: does Conan have a pair of pet ferrets who do his bidding? I think you see where I’m going with this.
It seems kind of pointless to describe the plot for The Beastmaster, because either you’ve seen it at least six times and know it by heart, or never. And yet, you’re already here, so let’s get into it. Marc Singer stars as Dar, a renegade warrior with the ability to communicate with animals. Does Singer look like someone named Dar, a renegade warrior from an unspecified medieval setting? Absolutely not, but that’s okay, because neither does Billy Jacoby (best known as the scumbag younger brother in Just One of the Guys), who plays Dar as a child even though they don’t like anything alike. For that matter, neither does Tanya Roberts, who plays Dar’s love interest, or Good Times’ John Amos, who plays another warrior who teams up with Dar. The only characters who really look like they belong in the time and setting are some random peasants in the background, and the villain, Maax, played by Rip Torn, wearing a prosthetic nose, rotting dentures, and wee little skull ponytail holders. I don’t know from what otherworldly Claire’s Boutique Torn got said ponytail holders, but they dominate the screen every time they’re shown.
Torn and the peasant extras are also the only characters who remain fully dressed for the duration of the film. The Beastmaster’s budget was a modest $9 million, and almost none of it went towards costume design. This is a very fleshy movie, and if you have a fetish for male upper thighs, dig in, because it’s supper time. Singer, often while coated in a glistening sheen of baby oil, mostly just wears a leather loincloth, while Roberts wears a burlap sack fashioned into a minidress (she’s also, surprisingly, the only female character for long stretches of the film, so if you’re looking for the kind of gratuitous nudity most low-budget 80s movies are known for, you’re going to be disappointed). Nudest of all is Amos, who in one scene wears little more than a handkerchief and a belt. Even a dungeon ogre wearing a metal helmet runs around shirtless in a leather jockstrap and studded chaps, like he just got off from a “Ladies’ Night” shift at Cheetah’s.
Where was I? Oh, the plot. Yes. As mentioned, Dar (of the Emurites, which he says with a straight face) can communicate with and control animals, though the plot is inconsistent about what exactly he can do. Some animals he speaks out loud to, others he seems to only communicate with telepathically, while still others, like his pet tiger, he can see what they see. It’s unclear whether Dar’s ability extends to all animals, or just a select few, which, if it’s the latter, is kind of a bullshit power. It’s like having pyrokinesis, but only for lighting scented votive candles, or being able to predict winning baseball scores, but only for a Triple A farm team in Muncie, Indiana.
ANYWAY, because these movies always involves prophecies, Maax has foreseen his death at the hands of Dar, and he unsuccessfully tries to have him killed as a baby. He also unsuccessfully tries to have him killed as an adult. He’s not a very good evil wizard. Mostly he just stands around staring into a cauldron and occasionally sacrificing a peasant child. He leaves the dirty work of actually trying to capture and kill Dar to his army of bald acolytes, who are also not particularly well-suited to their chosen line of work.
Actually, you know what, I’m not going to try to explain the plot of The Beastmaster, because if you’ve seen even just one “sword-wielding almost nude man seeks revenge on the evil priest/knight/wizard who murdered his people” movie, you’ll know that said almost nude man is eventually successful in his quest. What sets The Beastmaster apart is that it is, to date, the only film in its genre in which the villain falls into a flaming pit while a ferret is gnawing on his neck. It’s not as spectacular a death as James Earl Jones’s head getting cut off and tossed aside like a bad cantaloupe in Conan the Barbarian, but it earns points for uniqueness.
Though 75% of The Beastmaster is mostly just characters walking towards, around, and in various places (when they’re not standing around waiting for something to happen), there are a few moments that are memorable even after just one viewing. There’s the aforementioned death by ferret, the cursed eyeball rings that look like something purchased at a Halloween Adventure store, and of course, the weird bird people. These are creatures that don’t have names, serve no real purpose to the plot, and look like they have condoms pulled over their heads. They show up mostly to envelop people in their latex fetish wings (which open up with a whip cracking sound, for some reason) and dissolve them into a putrefied bone soup.
What kind of bird does that? I have no idea, but it’s fucking awesome, at least by 11 year-old Gena’s standards (although 11 year-old Gena probably would have whispered “fucking”), and that’s the kind of audience The Beastmaster appealed to. Conan was maybe a little too dark and brutal, while The Beastmaster was silly and trashy and only a tiny bit gross. It was the perfect rainy day film for kids with too much time on their hands, and too much Kool-Ade running through their veins.