After being really impressed with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) I thought I’d watch his most infamous film, The Beastmaster (1982). The Beastmaster is one of those “sword and sorcery” films, like Conan The Barbarian (1982), whose genre reached its zenith in the early eighties. Coscarelli brings his visual flair and resourcefulness to the proceedings but seems unable to escape the limitations of his own script or the woodenness of Marc Singer (his leading man).
When you grow up aware of The Beastmaster but without having seen it you have some pretty specific expectations. It’s a credit to Coscarelli that, despite the masculine gaze firing on all pistons, The Beastmaster does not include scenes of exploitive sexual violence, instances of jingoism or gratuitous gore. Instead Coscarelli gears his film towards the family market in terms of both narrative and dramatic urgency. This casts The Beastmaster into a similar limbo as Dragonslayer (1981). But where Dragonslayer is a fantasy/family film with gore, The Beastmaster is the fantasy/family film with partial female nudity (used to startling effect with the witch characters).
This brings us to Tanya Roberts (who plays Kiri the enslaved warrior and niece to the king). Roberts is one of the great sex symbols of 1980s popular culture so one would expect Coscarelli to use her in a “damsel in distress” or “siren” type of role, but he doesn’t. Sure the camera lingers over her body every chance it gets, but Kiri is allowed to do more than titillate; she has autonomy, she fights in the action set pieces and she is allowed opinions. This might not sound all that revolutionary, but it is in no way the norm for this genre of film.
The Beastmaster does not succeed as either high fantasy or family entertainment, but functions as a sort of lumbering fusion whose adorable animal characters allow Coscarelli to get away with a lot of clumsy storytelling. Yet, somehow, that is precisely the point of the film. The Beastmaster is retro pulp soft-served. Like George Lucas, Coscarelli is updating the entertainments of his childhood for the eighties but without ever taking things too seriously. See this film if you want to have some fun on a week night or if you just really need a good fix of Rip Torn campiness.