First things first. If you’ve read Andre Norton’s The Beast Master—or, better yet, read my review of the same—you should know that the movie adaptation—and it is, technically, an adaptation—has little to do with the book. Of course, in the more likely event you have seen the movie and haven’t read the book, you should know that the book bears little resemblance to the movie. But they are both tremendously entertaining works of pulp adventure and both well worth your time.
Both are products of their time. The Beast Master book was published the same year Rio Bravo was released (penned by Leigh Brackett). The Beastmaster movie was released the same year as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian. Should we be surprised one is half Western and half planetary romance and the other is pure sword and sorcery? (I will take advantage of the slight variation in the name to distinguish the two from here on out.)
If you aren’t a book purist, the biggest thing you are going to have to get over is the VHS quality. Unlike Conan, The Beastmaster hasn’t received a blu-ray remaster. The Beastmaster also had a budget of less than half of that of Conan the Barbarian, and it shows from time to time.
The Beastmaster abandons the story of The Beast Master entirely. Rip Torn plays an evil sorcerer. Three witchwomen—with nubile bodies but hideously deformed faces—inform him he will die by the hand of the king’s unborn son. Not so!, per the sorcerer. The king’s unborn son is to die that night. A witchwoman successfully transfers said unborn son from mother to a cow (sure, why not?), but after delivering the young were-cow is slain by a villager. The villager raises young Dar, who shows a rare gift with animals. You can probably guess where things go from there.
Especially since the writer and director stole the story from Conan! I always thought of The Beastmaster as a product of the Conan-driven sword and sorcery boom of the 1980s. There is just one problem with that. How does a movie released the same year crib so heavily from Conan? Don Coscarelli was offered the director’s chair for Conan but turned it down because he didn’t like the script. But apparently he liked it enough to lift more of the story than he wound up lifting from Norton’s book.
The Beastmaster had half the budget of Conan the Barbarian. Wherever did they piss the money away? Judging by the general weirdness and creepiness, they spent the money on drugs, and it was money well spent. Seriously, The Beastmaster is creepy as hell. One might even say weird. The best sword and sorcery is about more than a beefy dude in a loincloth swinging a mighty sword. The weird shit makes the genre. The Beastmaster has it in spades, with an eyeball ring, giant-bat vampires, melted face witches, and leach-created warriors with spiky gloves. It is a testament to the weirdness that I remembered so much a couple decades after last seeing the movie.
Presumably, a chunk of the budget went toward animal handlers. The team is about the only thing that made the transition from book to screen. Dar also has an eagle, has two ferrets in lieu of meerkats, and a “black” tiger in lieu of a genetically modified dune cat. One of the tigers they used died during filming after being anesthetized so they could apply the dye (this appears to be the true story, rather than the more common rumor that a tiger died after filming due to complications from the dye). Which is even more awkward than Dar trying to pull an Aziz Ansari on love interest Kiri (though she shows considerably more moxie in response than Grace.)
The story is generic, but it is the weirdness and the live-action animal team that leaves The Beastmaster just a small notch below John Milius’ standard setter for the genre.
The Beastmaster is now available to stream for free for Amazon customers with Prime.
4.5 of 5 Stars