Don Coscarelli was riding high after the cult success of Phantasm, and decided to do a big sword-and-sandals fantasy film. The title and some basic plot elements come from The Beast Master by Andre Norton, but that’s set in the future, not the Bronze Age-type of environment used for the film. Norton was so unhappy with what they did with the adaptation that he asked for his name to be taken off the film. The John Milius/Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian was set to come out shortly when The Beastmaster went into production, so that helped Coscarelli to secure funding. Although the films are very different, as Coscarelli has said they share the basic Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” trajectory… as does Star Wars.
One of the reasons it became such a staple of cable—specifically HBO, TNT and Cinemax—is that the plot is so basic. As one of the programmers for Cinemax is quoted as saying: “You can come into any part of it and not feel you’ve missed much.” There is a lot of truth to that comment. Marc Singer plays Dar, the son of a king. Dar is sent to live with a new family when the murderous cult leader Maxx (Rip Torn) comes looking for him, but when years later his town is attacked by The Juns (a clan of barbarians who are in cahoots with Maax) he decides to avenge his people. He can also speak to animals, who join him on his merry adventure.
The film is undoubtably goofy, and the acting from the cast…. well, the two ferrets who are Dar’s companions out-act everybody in the cast, including Rip Torn. However, it’s the work of an auteur who is working on a shoestring budget for the type of film he is trying to make, and putting his heart into it. The sad fact is that Coscarelli was locked out of the editing room at some point during pre-production, so the film is a bit of a mess. It’s especially baggy near the end, the last 20 minutes could easily have been cut.
The Beastmaster is a fun, rollicking fantasy adventure with a scope that’s rare today, and it has charmed audiences for years. Despite the limited budget and locations, it was all shot in Nevada or California. It’s the biggest budget of Coscarelli’s career by miles, and every cent is on film, except maybe some better actors—although Rip is having a ball. It has titties, monsters, violence, adventure, talking animals, what more does a growing boy need? Back in the good old days when you could get away with all of this in a PG! I hope one day it ends up on HBO MAX, because we all know HBO stands for “Hey Beastmaster is on!”
The fantastic release from Vinegar Syndrome is a three-disc set that includes the original film on Ultra HD Blu-ray, and also an other versions of the film over two Blu-Rays. The other version has some enhanced VFX to help with the shoddy original effects, it’s very tastefully done, and no Lucasesque. fiasco. The extras include two commentary tracks: a new one with Coscarelli, producer/co-writer Paul Pepperman, and filmmaker Joe Lynch, and another with Coscarelli and Pepperman from the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD. Similarly, there is new feature-length doc and an archival hour-long documentary from the 2001 disc. Home movies with commentary, outtakes, photo slideshow, and theatrical trailer round the disc contents. The copy I was sent to review didn’t include the magnet clasp box or 42-page booklet, just the black case and inner cover art, so I can’t comment on those, but I’m sure they are pretty snazzy.