1982 witnessed a bumper crop of sword and sorcery movies, topped by Conan the Barbarian which started that summer with a bang. The whimper came later, when Marc Singer donned his infamous loincloth for The Beastmaster. The film served as a kid-friendly version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s grown-up guilty pleasure… which really sort of misses the point. In an effort to skew younger, it undoes everything that makes Conan so glorious. In return, it offers nothing more than limp swashbuckling, abused animals and the admittedly delectable sight of Tanya Roberts in a furry swimsuit. The combination may have proven irresistible to the wide-eyed young ‘uns of the era, gazing covetously at the Conan poster and cursing the “R” rating preventing them from entering. The Beastmaster provided a viable alternative, though its dubious appeal requires a lot of audience good will to work.
Of course, the cheap sets and shoddy craftsmanship can appear quite charming to the right set of adult eyes, though no one could possibly call them good. The storyline follows routine pulp formula, with Singer’s barbarian hero stolen from his royal parents at an early age and raised in a faraway village. When his father’s killer razes the village to the ground, he sets out on a quest of revenge. He soon discovers the ability to telepathically communicate with animals… leading to lots of ferret-based mischief, eagle-eye camera shots and bad guys savaged by a tiger spray-painted black. Roberts shows up as the token gal pal/love interest, dueling it out with Singer to determine which one of them can deliver their lines in the most awkward and wooden way possible.
In short, The Beastmaster carries all the components that the boys at Mystery Science Theatre pray for. The performers at least, seem to be in on the joke, though their tongue-in-cheek presentations never let on too much. Director Don Coscarelli attempts to imbue it all with a fun-loving spirit, an admirable effort aided by the sheer ridiculousness of what’s onscreen. It’s hard not to snicker with Rip Torn shows up as the evil priest Maax, or the threadbare special effects trying vainly to sell us on the authenticity of this world.
The intended audience doesn’t care, of course, and therein lies it appeal. For while nothing onscreen impresses us, the film’s upbeat tone and general good nature prevents us from coming down too hard on it. There’s an innocence to it that becomes quietly endearing, provided you accept its flaws and take the ride for its own sake. Conan benefitted from a genuine philosophical subtext, as well as some harsh edges that didn’t sugarcoat the savagery of its world. The Beastmaster lacks that heft, but neither can Conan conjure the same wide-eyed enthusiasm that this one does.
Small wonder, then, that the film found its audience on cable re-runs rather than in the theaters (where kids still had the likes of TRON and E.T. to keep them company). On a lazy Saturday with nothing going on, it demands very little from the viewer, and its general amiability can serve as a comfort. That makes it a perfect August release: aiming low and hitting its mark without any expectations for anything more. The harsh light of adulthood doesn’t serve it well, but with an eye on nostalgia (and perhaps some alcohol to grease the wheels), its grubby visage looks a whole lot more inviting. As a closer to the greatest summer in movie history, The Beastmaster leaves a lot to be desired. But it hung in there over the years, and its cult reputation is duly earned. The very fact that we’re still talking about it speaks to something memorable in its DNA. Just don’t ask us what that could possibly be.