Thursday, July 7, 2005

THE BEASTMASTER

Anchor Bay has released several versions now of THE BEASTMASTER. Director Coscarelli's follow-up to the surreal sci-fi/horror flick PHANTASM was this medium-budget sword & sorcery adventure, one of several to hit drive-in and multiplex screens back in the early Eighties. While THE BEASTMASTER made little impact on the big screen, it went on to a highly successful cable and home video run. There were periods where THE BEASTMASTER was seemingly on TV at least once a week, and an entire generation of fantasy fans sat glass-eyed in front of the tube watching it endlessly on video. It's spawned two direct-to video sequels and a syndicated television show. Me, I always preferred THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER. Go figure.

But to be fair, until picking up this disc, I don't think I ever saw THE BEASTMASTER. Not all the way through in one sitting, anyway. Sure, bits & pieces, here and there, but when I sat down to watch this THX mastered, widescreen presentation from Anchor Bay, I realized that there were a lot of scenes I didn't remember at all. When it was done, I began to understand some of its enduring appeal.

Dar (Marc Singer; V), the "unborn" son of a great king, is spirited away in infancy in order to save him from an evil priest, Maax. He grows to adulthood unaware of his royal heritage, and, due to the bizarre circumstances of his birth, with the preternatural ability to psychically communicate with animals. When his adopted family is killed by Maax's soldiers years later, he sets out on a mission of vengeance, adopting a group of animal assistants on the way: two ferrets, a "black" tiger, and a hawk. Eventually, he's aided in his revenge by a beautiful slave girl (Tanya Roberts; CHARLIE'S ANGELS, SHEENA) a warrior (John Amos; GOOD TIMES, DIE HARD 2) and a young boy (Josh Milrad).

The charismatic Singer makes an appropriately buff barbarian hero, flexing his muscles in a variety of well-staged action scenes, while Roberts is luscious eye-candy, making her first appearance topless in a secluded pool. John Amos brings great dignity and a solid physical presence to his role, while Rip Torn chews the scenery enthusiastically as evil priest Maax, equipped with a beak-like false nose. The animals are all quite impressive, and photography and special effects are all top-notch. There's also some refreshingly-gruesome monster and gore make-ups for the gorehounds in the crowd.

What really saves the movie, though, is that Coscarelli and his cast resist the temptation to camp it up. There's an honesty and sincerity to the performances that is unusual in films of this type. It's a straightforward Good versus Evil tale, that honors all the conventions of heroic fantasy without ever sneering at them. It's a pleasant change-of-pace, and the film benefits greatly from the approach.

Anchor Bay continues to treat their cult and B-movie releases with more respect and greater attention than most major studios do to their A-film blockbusters. Aside from the aforementioned THX re-mastering given to the 1982 film (which looks and sounds great), the disc also includes a plethora of entertaining bonus features. There's an entertaining and informative audio commentary by director Coscarelli and co-writer/producer Paul Pepperman, behind-the-scenes home movie footage, a huge gallery of pre-production art, posters and production stills, and talent bios. There's also an Easter Egg hidden feature that will appeal to all red-blooded young males: a series of bloopers that involve unplanned exposure of Tanya Roberts' ample charms.

If you're one of the many fans of the film, buying this disc is a no-brainer. The film hasn't looked or sounded this good since it's run in the theaters – and probably not even then. If you're not one of the movie's legion of fans – I wasn't – then you might want to rent it and give it a shot. It ain't Shakespeare, but it's fun.

BUY: The Beastmaster