Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Beastmaster (1982)

Directed by Don Coscarelli, straight off the cult success of his no-budget horror epic Phantasm (1979), The Beastmaster is, in alternation, dizzyingly silly and captivating in its trashy enthusiasm. The Beastmaster represents sword-and-sorcery at its fleshy, gamy, sweaty best, released the same year as John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, the film that provided this genre with its high-water mark, and although this lacks the sweep and depth of Conan, it actually outdoes it for rampant action and raw passion for swordplay. The story is a sprawl of regulation genre plot gimmicks. Evil priest Maax (that’s pronounced “May-axe”, and he’s played by Rip Torn), it is prophesised, will die at the hands of the unborn son of his king, Zed (Rod Loomis). Zed holds Maax in disdain, and Maax, for revenge and self-defence, has his cabal of witch-women, who, amusingly, possess perfect bodies and hideously gnarled faces, intervene to magically transfer the child out of the queen’s belly and into that of a cow. The queen dies, the baby is cut from the cow by one of the witches, and, following Maax’s orders, ritually prepares the child to die by branding it with a special mark. But before she can cast the lad into a bonfire, he is saved by a plucky peasant (Ben Hammer). Naming the child Dar, the peasant man raises him in his home village. A couple of dissolves and a scene that reveals that Dar has an unexpected magical talent later, Dar has grown into the ripe blonde hunkiness of Marc Singer.

Dar’s strange capacity, to communicate psychically with animals and thus use them as helpmates, is the film’s chief original embellishment on the usual storyline. Once Dar has grown, his adoptive father’s village is wiped out by the Jun, an army of masked, leather-clad creeps working in concert with Maax to keep the population oppressed and subservient to Maax’s religious cult. And a bad, bad cult it is, for Maax regularly holds child sacrifices, hurling kids into a bonfire. Boo! But Dar, recovering from the assault, puts together an offence team of animal buddies, including a black tiger, a hawk, and two ferrets who provide comic relief and steal things – no kidding. He sets out across country and arrives in the main city of his beleaguered nation in time to have his hawk pluck a young girl from Maax’s fire. Yay! He also meets a comely wench, Kirl (‘80s trash queen Tanya Roberts), when she’s bathing, and, after “hilariously” having the ferrets steal her clothes and his tiger frighten her in order to make an impression on her, learns she’s one of a chosen number of women who will be taken to a remote spot and sacrificed. Dar meets up with the king’s former general Seth (John Amos) and the king’s younger son Tal (Josh Milrad), saves Kirl from Maax’s priests, and infiltrate Maax’s pyramid temple to snatch out the king himself, who has been blinded.

Coscarelli, in spite of the film’s evidently moderate budget, squeezes every penny and essays his film with a simple yet vigorous visual hype. The Beastmaster’s truly, admirably unabashed energy stands in telling contrast to the mercenary slop passed off too often as action cinema, full of crisply framed and rapidly edited yet perfectly coherent fights. An undoubted plus was snaring the great John Alcott as cinematographer. Alcott’s rigorous work helps imbue the film with a simultaneously lustrous yet rugged, tangible grit, all the better for displaying Singer’s perpetually bare chest and Roberts’s glistening cleavage, and other, lesser paraphernalia. Moments of spare beauty pepper the film, from the snow-white dog that drags Dar clear of the slaughter of his village with an arrow jutting from its haunch, red blood spoiling its coat, and the early scenes in the city, smoke and torchlight daubing deserted streets in eerie tones. A detour to a mysterious forest abode of grotesque bat-like creatures which literally absorb men and who, nonetheless, seem to hold Dar in favour, generates just the right mood of unsettling weirdness. The Beastmaster is clearly a film made by someone with a real affection for the genre and its traditional imagery and themes.

Like so many films of its type, however, The Beastmaster is crippled by its weak script, written by Coscarelli and Paul Pepperman. Characters are barely defined beyond basic precepts – Dar, Kirl, Seth, Tal good! Maax, the Jun bad! The Jun, in their masks, are obviously intended to be impersonal embodiments of evil, and their leader resembles the Lord Humongous from 1982’s third great action film, Mad Max 2, but the deliberately reductive portrayals only excuse the shallowness of the conflict to a certain extent. The subplot of Dar’s uncertainty over his natural identity and eventual reunion with his true family, Zed and Tal, only for Zed, not knowing his identity, to dismiss him as a perverse outsider, is set up only to then be neglected and dismissed glibly in the final frames. Whilst The Beastmaster seems to have been intended as a sword-and-sorcery film for adults, the lovable ferret helpmates might have accidentally stumbled in from a Disney movie, and apart from perhaps the child sacrifice scenes, there isn’t much here that wouldn’t get anyone over the age of six terribly bothered. Torn and Amos, two good actors, don’t get much to work with in their totally flat roles, although Torn is a natural enough ham to galvanise his scenes. A lot of the dialogue exchanges border on the nonsensical, as in Dar and Kirl’s terrible meet-cute scene, and a later interlude when she convinces Dar to stick with her, Seth and Tal, in spite of the fact that’s what he was doing anyway, and starts kissing him to seal the deal. It’s not exactly El Cid here, and not only does The Beastmaster not wield the romanticism of Milius’ Conan, it doesn’t even muster the same kind of percolating subtexts found in Red Sonja.

Such lacks perhaps, indeed, bolsters its essential status as pure, unadorned, adolescent action fantasy; it’s not at all interested in anything except the giddy rush of the basic good-versus-evil battle, getting the audience to cheer its Aryan superman hero and ogle freely. Singer, in spite of his classical acting training, is a bland and negligible screen presence, seemingly chosen for his marvellous abdominal region and capacity to leap around with undeniable zest. The film pads uncertainly through its first half. Once it does get going, however, The Beastmaster gains a rollicking momentum that’s impossible to mock. Coscarelli’s sense of mise-en-scene possesses a rugged vitality, and he tosses in any lunatic idea he can think of to keep things exciting. Witch women crawl across ceilings, mindless henchmen are created with brain slugs, and, in a special moment of idiotic brilliance, one of the ferrets bites a swordsman on the balls, so that his weapon falls and cuts the rope securing a gate, allowing the heroes to escape. The inevitable bad guy’s comeuppance comes as most of the heroes, under the king’s unbalanced leadership, get killed or captured in a useless assault on Maax’s temple, only for Dar to get particularly infuriated and ride single-handed to the rescue, hacking and bashing his way through Maax’s retinue until confronting the lazy-eyed, skull-bedecked sorcerer himself.

Even when he’s dispatched, however, there’s still the enemy Jun army to be lured and destroyed, with Dar taking on the leader, in a lengthy, gruelling fight scene that has a startling, vicious, corporeal immediacy to it. I’ll confess that the sorts of production values on show here, the sense of the ingenuity and labour provided by the crew and cast with props and action choreography managed on a tight budget, involving real effort and genuine danger should anything be mistimed, impresses me far more than any multi-billion-dollar flood of CGI can these days. The simple effect of Dar duelling his nemesis before an ocean of roiling flames is not entirely unworthy, in its way, of comparisons with Alexander Nevsky (1938) or the Wagnerian finale of Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith (2005). On a visual level, The Beastmaster is damn near a classic; just plug your ears when they’re talking, and everything will be fine. It might possibly have influenced Lucas' and Ron Howard’s Willow (1987), which shares certain story ideas, and Peter Yates’ Krull (1983), which sports a device exactly the same as the spinning, flying, slicing thing Dar wields. Some kudos, too, for Lee Holdridge’s oversized score.

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