So. What we have today is your basic barbarian movie, in pretty much its purest form. Prince in disguse? Check. Magical talents? Check. Imperiled slave-girl love interest? Check. Revenge quest? Check. Faithful companions? Monsters? Sweeping score? Check, check, check. Naked, muscle-bound, bowl-cut-bearing barbarian? Check and mate.
Of course, in this barbarian movie, Doctor Dolittle Dar can talk to the animals.
The opening titles are credits shakily interposed over dark photographs of two animals: the eagle appears to be a living, breathing animal (indeed, these are stills from the film), but the "black tiger" is clearly a single taxidermied tiger shot from a few different angles. There's a particularly awful irony to that fact; the actual, living tiger used in the movie died two years after filming wrapped because the black dye they used on it was toxic. Which is a bummer of a fact to begin this review with, but there it is.
SEXYTIME, FOLKS. Sexy ladies who aren't wearing any underwear do that weird 80s-movie sexy lady thing where they gyrate and groan around an object to show that they're, I dunno, sexy and evil. In this case they're gyrating aournd a bubbling cauldron. They're gibbering in 80s-movie sexy-lady/bad guy voices (cartoonish and husky). The bad guy shows up. The bad guy is Rip Torn. Wow. The sexy ladies look up to reveal their hideously wrinkled, ugly faces. Or, you know, the awful masks they're wearing to suggest that. Ugh, let's just leave the awful mother/maiden/crone discussion as read and move on.
Okay, so the sexy evil ladies are witches, and they're prophesying that some pregnant lady is going to give birth to a dude who'll kill Rip Torn. The king choses this moment to drop by Rip Torn's dungeon-thing and give him a slap on the wrists (banishment) for planning a child sacrifice. Rip Torn is all "...it's your kid Ima sacrifice! and then indulges himself in that barbarian movie standard whereby, to prove that he's very powerful, he makes his subordinates kill themselves. The king is unimpressed and has his (mostly naked) guards lead Rip Torn away. But all for naught; one of the sexy evil ladies later sneaks a cow into the king's bedroom, where he and his wife are asleep. Sexy evil lady pours glowing fluorophor onto the sleepers' necks, apparently immobilizing them, and then does some sort of magic (wheezing "gaaaah" while waving her hands over the queen's belly) to move the fetus from the queen into the cow. The queen dies, the king rolls his eyes and is upset, and the sexy evil lady takes off with the pregnant cow. Outside... somewhere, she kills the cow and removes the baby, but before she can complete the sacrifice (she brands the baby's hand first) she's killed by a fortuitously noble and conveniently local peasant. You know how this goes: the peasant saves the baby and raises him as his own.
And names him... Dar.
Dar is a terrible name, you guys.
Anyway. Dar learns to fight at his adoptive father's side, in their pleasant deserty peasant compound. Young Dar is in possession of a shock of brunette hair. Young Dar is also in possession of a psychic connection with animals. Young Dar grows up brave and strong and noble.
Young Dar becomes... Marc Singer, a man with an undeniably gorgeous body, even tanned into leather and ridiculously oiled up as it is, and the mushed-up face of a bad copy of Mark Hamill. Young Dar also becomes a blond, which isn't usually what happens to brunette children at puberty - without some chemical assistance, anyway - but hell, Dar can talk to animals. Why can't he go blond?
Anyway, life is all very nice for Dar these days. He has a nice dog, and parents who love him, and he gets to spend his days putting his enormous muscles to good use in the grain fields around his awesome peasant compound. Until the day a giant blob attacks the village. Oh, it's not a blob; it's bad animation meant to represent the dust cloud kicked up by an attacking horde of Rip Torn-led villains, the Jun. (See right.) The battle goes predictably: everyone dies, except Dar, who's knocked out and rescued by his dog. In rescuing him, however, the dog takes an arrow to the gut and dies. Dar wakes up and has a vision: weird, swooping landscapes as seen through a blurry oval. This, of course, is bird-cam, and meant to represent that Dar can see through the eyes of an eagle.
Bird-cam raises a series of questions about Dar's magical gift. I guess we're supposed to think that he can communicate with animals because he briefly spent time in bovine utero? Can he talk to animals besides the tiger, eagle and ferrets? How does bird-cam work? Is there just one bird he can use at a time? Does bird-cam transfer between birds? What if one dies? Does he have tiger-cam and ferret-cam, too? If not, what powers accrue to him from the other animals in his menagerie? Can he chitter like a ferret? Or maybe retract his fingernails?
Dar heads back to his bucolic peasant compound to find that the baddies have burned it down and killed its inhabitants. And stuck the bodies atop very tall poles. Why? It's a compelling visual, but like so much in this film, what's the point? Heads on stakes, yes! They get a certain message across with a minimum of effort. But entire bodies on poles 15 feet above the ground? It probably took the Juns longer to stake everyone than it did to raze the town. The town in the middle of nowhere. Where no one will ever see the staked bodies.
Anyway: Dar is all "DAR MAD" and flares his nostrils. Then he changes from his peasant outfit (furry loincloth; serape) to his Barbarian Badass outfit (fringed loincloth; gauntlets; back-scabbord; circlet. Circlet? Really?), picks up his dad's special boomerang weapon, and jaunts off into the wide world, his eagle trailing after him. What follows is a perfect example of that barbarian film staple, the badass barbarian training montage: Dar runs around a rocky hilltop flexing his muscles and swinging his sword. Apparently he finds this exercise invigorating, as he does quite a lot of smiling for someone who recently lost his entire village to murderers. Maybe he's just enjoying a bit of animal nudity: he's not even wearing his fringed loincloth for this bit, only his undies and his boots. Ah, near-nudity! The sun on your back and the wind blowing across your perfectly waxed chest!
Dar is not a complicated soul.
Dar's next acquisition: two ferrets, who try to steal his purse. In his effort to retrieve his man-bag, Dar falls into a patch of quicksand and nearly dies. The ferrets fall in, too, but Dar saves them. Now Dar has new friends! He names the ferrets Kodo and Podo. Ah, high fantasy gibberish names: where would we be without them? Dar's all "DAR HAVE FRIENDS" and is very pleased with how well his revenge adventure is going so far.
BUT HARK, WHAT SOUND DOTH REACH DAR'S EAR? Lo, it is bird-cam! A tiger is imperiled! Dar rushes off to save the black tiger and then, eighteen minutes into this film, comes the moment. You know, the moment. The moment we've all been waiting for. The moment Dar squawks like a bird. (At the three minute mark here.)
Dar squawks a couple more times throughout the film, but never is it less expected and more utterly fucking ridiculous than right here. And, bless Marc Singer, he commits himself to that squawk. He's not lip-synching or anything; that's all Singer right there.
His adventuring party complete (ranger/eagle; rogue/ferrets; fighter/tiger; meatshield/Dar), our hero bounds off to enjoy some male privilege. Two mostly naked young women are splishing around in a miserable-looking little pond. Dar sends the ferrets off to steal their clothes and then, when one of them follows (Tanya Roberts, before she went blonde), Dar sends his tiger to pretend to threaten her. After "saving" her by copping a massive feel, Dar explains that she owes him her life, and she can make up her debt by submitting to being forcibly kissed by him. He mashes his face into hers until she kicks him to the ground. They fight a bit, and talk a bit, and she's a slave-girl in the palace, yadda yadda yadda. She runs off. Ah, romance. You taste like consent laws.
As night falls, Dar sees something shiny on the horizon and investigates. It's a really big tree with a bunch of icky glowing sacks hanging from its branches. Also hanging from its branches: a dude in a cage, over a really big pot of bubbling goo. Dar frees the dude, who signals his thanks by running straight into the waiting arms of the local villains, batlike man things who worship a Nazi eagle symbol. One eats the recently uncaged dude by hugging him to its chest, digesting him and delivering a collection of green goo and bones to Dar's feet. DAR NO LIKE. Dar super-flares his nostrils and draws his sword. The monsters start to move in, but then Dar's eagle swoops down and lands on the Nazi eagle symbol. The monsters draw away, but not befor giving Dar a Nazi eagle symbol medallion of his very own.
Dar wakes the next morning and discovers he's right by Rip Torn's city. He wanders on in. Rip Torn has lined the road leading to the city with more staked bodies. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, Rip Torn. Once inside, Dar disguises himself with a robe (why?) and watches Rip Torn sacrifice a child by standing on top of a ziggaurat and throwing the kid into a firepit. OH THIS WILL NOT STAND. Dar flares and sends his eagle to save the second child sacrifice. The eagle, blessed with what I can only assume is magical strength, does indeed save the second child.
Anne: Are you suggesting children fly?
Beastmaster: No, they could be carried.
Anne: What, an eagle carrying a child?
Beastmaster: It could grip it by the husk!
Anne: It's not a question of where he grips it! It's a simple question of weight-ratios! A ten-pound bird could not carry a forty-pound child!
Ahem. Rip Torn glowers, Tanya Roberts does her dead-eyed Tanya Roberts thing, (oh yeah, she's there too.) and yay, Dar is a hero. For real, you guys. He didn't even fake this one.
So now Dar has some new friends, the family of the rescued kid. Yay! Friendship really is magic. We get a little exposition about how Rip Torn is evil (which we already knew) and then Dar leaves the city to go rescue the slave girls who are going to be sacrificed soon. Apparently all the slave girls are about to be killed (why?), but Dar only cares about Tanya Roberts (Ugh, fine; her name is Kiri, which is such an 80s high fantasy girl name it makes me want to cry.)
Dar leaves the city to find Kiri et al. Meanwhile, Rip Torn gives one of his goons an eyeball ring - it transmits images to that bubbling cauldron the sexy evil ladies like to grind against - and then, while spying on Dar, realizes that Dar is the baby he tried to kill earlier in the film (by the brand on Dar's hand - remember that?) and orders his heavies to kill him. Dar fights off the baddies with the help of his tiger and two new characters, a big guy with a ponytail and a brunette kid. The kid takes the eyeball ring, not realizing what it is. We soon learn that the kid is the son of the king, so Dar's brother. The kid (Tal) and the big guy (Seth) are trying to raise an army to fight Rip Torn. Whatever; they all make friends over the fact that they're dudes on various vengeance quests.
And then we learn that Kiri is... Tal's cousin. Meaning she's Dar's cousin, but no one knows that yet. Except us. I mean, yeah: it's a bronze-age barbarian fantasy, so obviously we're not suppsed to read our modern squeamishness about incest into the relationship but: uuuuugh.
Guards are leading the slave girls down to a river. The slave girls are all wearing quite a lot of clothing, for slave girls, but don't worry; they'll be down to their skivvies in a minute or two. A guard grunts and menaces Kiri for no real reason. DAR NO LIKE. Dar flares, but it's Seth who actually saves Kiri. Dar kills one or two then cops another feel off the terrified Kiri while Seth takes on the rest of the guards. All the other slave girls vanish. Like, seriously; they're there one moment, and then they're gone, never to be seen again. Seth and Dar make Kiri tie up the guards and load them onto the ferry, and our brave party tries to escape as more guards descend upon them. But Seth can't make the ferry go fast enough - it's too heavy - so Kiri pushes the tied guards into the water to drown horribly. Our heroes escape; everyone laughs; the end.
Dar and Kiri make out a little, and then Seth, aka the only useful party member, takes off. Apparently to go raise that army, finally.
Back in the city, Dar, Kiri and Tal break into Rip Torn's palace, which is made up of the fakest rock walls we've seen since Excalibur. They find the aged (and blind) king and then Dar dallies with some sort of lobotomized zombie knight-thing. Lobotomized zombie knight-thing nearly gets the better of Dar, it must be said. Rip Torn appears and does some background menacing during the fighting. Lobotomized zombie knight-thing (just some poor asshole in black chaps and spiked gloves) is left to fight... the ferrets.
The good guys run into a room, chased by the lobotomized zombie-chaps thing, but it's a dead end! Oh, it is not. Tal rushes over to a giant spigot sticking out of the wall and turns it, causing a hoist to lift a giant skull off the ground... revealing a secret staircase. I mean, really. Now, on the one hand: why else have a room with a giant skull in it except to hide your secret staircase? On the other hand, though: why not have a room with a giant skull sitting on the floor. And if you've got that skull, why not attach ropes to it?
Don't worry; you're safe if your palace is taken over and the villain, while taking stock of his new possessions, happens to wander into the dead-end room with the giant skull attached to a rope attached to a pulley attached to a lever on the wall which hides your secret staircase. Because the only reasonable and sensible thing he'll think to himself is this: ah, yes, this winch, which is attached to the top of that enormous, likely very heavy and surely immovable giant fucking thing on the floor CANNOT POSSIBLY somehow operate to move the giant fucking thing and thus reveal a hidden staircase, because that would be insane. I MEAN, REALLY. WHO HIDES A STAIRCASE UNDER A HUGE SKULL?
I have one of those rooms in my own house, and believe you me, that skull does not fucking move. I mean, I've never tried to operate the winch, but I've looked at that skull really, really hard. It doesn't move.
So they escape and take the king into the desert, where a lot of people are... hanging out? The blind king blindly wanders around monologuing about crushing Rip Torn and his legion of baddies, somehow blindly managing to avoid stepping in the many campfires scattered around. Oh, uh, Seth's back. The king gets mad about Dar and calls him "a freak... who speaks to animals" and throws him out. FINE, DAR GO. BUT DAR SAD. DAR SHED SINGLE TEAR.
Everyone in camp is asleep, more or less. Tal's still wearing that eyeball ring, which opens up and looks around. Seth sees it and kills it (it screams?) but not before Rip Torn and his sexy evil ladies have figured out where they are. The bad guys capture the good guys. Dar animals up and heads back into the city to save everyone.
The next day, atop his ziggurat, Rip Torn is going to sacrifice Kiri and Tal and Seth. Oh noes. Dar releases Seth and Tal, who throw off their sacrificial cloaks and fight the baddies. Dar slashes his way up the side of Rip Torn's ziggurat o' doom while Rip ties down Kiri because she hasn't been imperiled in a while. Fighty fight fight. Rip holds a dagger to the king's throat (One wonders why he didn't kill the king, I dunno, years ago.) and maunders on a bit about how Dar is fulfilling a prophecy. The king finally twigs that Dar is his long lost kid. Too late for it to matter much, as Rip Torn kills the fuck out of him.
Dar stabs Rip Torn and Rip goes down. Dar picks up Kiri and stands atop the ziggurat, feeling very pleased with himself. Rip pulls himself up and tries to stab Dar in the back, but Dar's ferrets hop onto him and manage to get him to fall into the nearby firepit. Unfortunately, one of the ferrets falls in with him. This is, honest to god, the most upsetting moment in the entire film. Everyone is very sad when they realize that one of the only two truly likable characters in the movie has just died. Also, Rip Torn. Hey, does that mean the movie's over yet?
No. The city still has to fight off all of Rip Torn's stake-happy baddies. They prepare the city for battle - well, Seth does; Dar sits on the ziggurat and mopily flares his nostrils. The city's great defense? It's going to light the tarpit moat that surrounds the city on fire. Really? A tarpit moat?. Amazingly enough, this doesn't really work. The Jun show up and fighty fight fight! Just when things look grimmest for our heroes, Dar remembers the Nazi eagle symbol and gives it to his eagle, to summon the gross winged monsters to their aid. A few minutes later, the winged monster-things appear and eat all the bad guys. Everyone is all "...eeugh." It takes forever, but, y'know. Good prevails. Everyone cheers, the end.
Oh, don't be silly. We still have the denoument to endure. The next morning, Dar and Seth have a manly conversation about manly things, like how Dar's the rightful king of the tarpit moat people. DAR NO WANT CROWN. Then Dar leaves to go, I dunno, do hero stuff somewhere else. Kiri jiggles after him but doesn't wind up following, choosing instead to stand in a patch of sunlight and look wistfully after him. Tal, now king of the tarpit moat people, runs up the side of the ziggurat where he unwraps a present that Dar left him - his peasant father's weird boomerang weapon (which he only used what, once the entire film?) Tal is sort of unnervingly underdressed.
Our last shot is of Dar walking alone (with his animals), flaring his nostrils in sadness as he heads off into the sunset for his next adventure, alone alone alone. DAR SO ALONE. Or is he? Ho ho ho, look! It's Kiri, come to join Dar! Nothing prepares a girl for a life of adventure-having and wilderness-wandering like being raised as a temple slave girl. I'm sure she has a long and joyful life ahead of her. They kiss while Dar's remaining ferret sticks his or her head out of his man-purse. And a bunch of squeaking ferret babies follow suit! Love is in the air! The tiger and the ferret kiss, too. No, really. We get an overhead shot of Dar and Kiri making out while the poor tiger wanders around, all "guys? Guys? Can we go yet? Hey, guys?" THE END.
Pucker up, baby.
Beastmaster is a barbarian movie paint-by-number. It hits every single barbarian movie convention like it's the ball in the barbarian movie pinball machine. The son of a king gets raised by a noble peasant family, discovers his magical qualities, sees his family slaughtered before his eyes, vows revenge, meets girl, loses girl, fights villain, saves girl, wins hearts, and refuses his rightful place as king to go make the world a better place. Basic cable reruns unavoidable; sequels inevitable; cult status assured.
This plot had dust on it in 1982; by 2012, you can actually hear it decomposing. What might save the film - a really interesting performance, or a likable or unexpected character - never materializes. Dar isn't smart or clever or even funny (much as the film tries in that regard). His one-liners hit the ground like falling masonry: just as ill-timed and just as unwelcome. His meet-cute with the girl is, thirty years on, a cringe-inducing example of rape culture played for laughs. Oh, har har, he stole her clothes! Oh tee hee, he's only pretending to imperil the girl, so he can steal a kiss!
Jared fell asleep during Beastmaster, but I managed the entire thing (twice) and it's not entirely without its redeeming qualities. The cinematography, for one, is beautiful. (John Alcott, the cinematographer, was best known for his work with Stanley Kubrick, including The Shining and Clockwork Orange.) Our female lead isn't anything even approaching nuanced, interesting, or well-acted, of course, but a few of the performances are, if not remarkable, at least not totally dire. Marc Singer's not awful, (although he really does tend to convey emotion by flaring his nostrils) and there's an underlying mischievousness to his performance that helps undercut some of the more annoying barbarian movie conventions, even if they don't sell the "humor" of the script. Rip Torn is sort of late-stage Jack Nicholsoning his way through his villain, but... well, so would you. And John Amos is actually pretty decent as the gentle badass Seth.
But oh, that plot. It is so predictable. Which is actually kind of astonishing in and of itself, considering that the movie, taken as separate pieces, doesn't even make much sense. After all, this is the movie where the plot kicks off when someone sneaks a cow into a king's bedroom.
Oh, also: everyone is, like, super naked in this film. And yet there isn't a single sexy moment in the entire thing. Like She-Ra, rarely has so much flesh been on display to so little effect.
Monsters: Bat-things who worship Nazi eagles and eat people with their wings. A lobotomized zombie in leather chaps. Sexy evil ladies with cartoon voices and no panties. A giant skull that hides a secret staircase. A moat made of tar. A sneaky cow.
Mullets: No mullets, but bonus points for Dar's befringed bowlcut and circlet, Kiri's feathery hair, and Rip Torn's braids with tiny skulls on them.
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Victims and doormats we have aplenty, and they're all played by Tanya Roberts. The witches are sort of randomly sexed up, which is annoying. Why aren't the witches wearing underwear? I mean, really. Oh, and yeah, there's that meet-cute rapey scene thing. Everyone gets a billion awesome points for that one.*
Doesn't Anyone Think This Shit Through? WHO DECIDED TO PAINT A TIGER WITH TOXIC DYE? For fuck's sake.
Major Movie Boner-Killer: Dude. The tiger died.
Ruining my Childhood by Inches: With the failure of the new Conan looming over the modern barbarian-cinema landscape, there don't appear to be any plans to remake Beastmaster. Though Robert Rodriguez has probably considered it.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: Krull, meet your new best friend.
* I'm lying. No one gets any awesome points for any of it.