The Daily Stream: The Beastmaster Remains The Scrappy, Weird Alternative To Conan The Barbarian

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "The Beastmaster" (1982)

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime

The Pitch: Family entertainment was a bit of a different beast in the '80s, no pun intended. The movies aimed at kids, like "Gremlins" and "The Neverending Story" and "Return to Oz" and even Disney's "The Black Cauldron" were spooky, if not straight-up traumatizing. Then you have the nightmare-inducers like today's title, "The Beastmaster," which is inexplicably rated PG despite being graphically violent, scary as all hell, and super, super horny.

Why it's essential viewing

"Essential viewing" might be a bit much, but "The Beastmaster" is a fascinating entry into the sword and sorcery subgenre. It was developed at the same time as a little movie called "Conan the Barbarian," which would go on to spawn a franchise and make a star out of its Austrian bodybuilder lead.

"The Beastmaster" was always going to be the underdog in this fight. Its budget was much more limited than the epic John Milius movie and poor Marc Singer is no match for the charisma machine that is Arnold Schwarzenegger, but in many ways that's the movie's strength. It's scrappier and weirder and has one thing "Conan" doesn't: a pair of adorable ferrets.

Storywise, "The Beastmaster" is damn near identical to "Conan The Barbarian." An evil cult leader kills a young boy's family and he grows up all muscly and pissed off, seeking his revenge against the backdrop of a fantasy world filled with loincloths, swords, monsters and bloody violence.

Marc Singer plays Dar, a man who has the ability to speak to and control animals of all kinds. Along his quest he picks up loyal animal companions in the form of an eagle, a black tiger, and twin ferrets named Kodo and Podo. He also acquires some human compatriots: John Amos's Seth, a former guard of Dar's father, and Joshua Milrad's Tal, Seth's young apprentice who may or may not have a claim to the throne should the evil cult leader be overthrown.

Ladies and gentlemen ... Rip Torn

The great Rip Torn plays Dar's nemesis, the child-sacrificing evil wizard named Maax (pronounced "May-Ax" not "Maaaaax"). The prosthetic nose can't really hide how of-the-'80s Rip Torn looked, but man is it fun to see him let loose. He's not a complicated villain, really. Maax is a cartoon bad guy who would swirl a mustache if he had one. There is no "from his point of view he's the good guy" thing going on here.

When we first meet him he's plotting to kill the King's unborn baby because a witch tells him this child will grow up to murder him. He doesn't succeed in killing the child, but he does orphan him. The next time we meet Maax he slaughters Dar's town, killing his adoptive family and loyal dog. And then the next time we meet him he literally throws a small boy into a fire pit.

Like I said, not a good dude, and Torn plays him with all the relish of an actor of his caliber delighting in being a top notch, grade A a-hole. Maax is built to be the character you just want to see get his comeuppance, hopefully in a painful and dragged out manner.

Sex and scares

There's so much skin in this movie, y'all. I remind you once again that "The Beastmaster" is rated PG but has more boobs and butts in the first 30 minutes than most R-rated movies do today. A lot of youngsters of my generation discovered some new feelings when they saw Tonya Roberts's introductory scene, let's put it that way.

One of the things that sets "The Beastmaster" apart is how it brushes right up against horror at times. There are witches that crawl up walls, green-glowy-eyed berserkers with spiked gauntlets, eyeball rings and then there are the leathery bat people who hug people to death.

These guys can rot in hell. They stand upright, are vaguely humanoid, but have no mouths and they act kinda like venus fly traps. They'll embrace their prey in leathery wings and digest them in less than a minute, dumping their victims' bones out in a gooey pile.

Again, I'd like to remind you that this movie is rated PG.

All this is told with a visual language born of a horror visionary. Director Don Coscarelli had a huge hit with his previous film, "Phantasm," and this was his first studio picture. He brings a lot of youthful genre energy to this film in much the same way you can feel the horror roots in stuff like Sam Raimi's "The Quick and the Dead" and Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring." These filmmakers all know the language of cinema and bring the spooky vibes when the time is right.

A Beastmasterpiece?

Coscarelli clearly knows that this movie only works as a fun adventure tale and shoots it with energy and inventive framing, letting his actors take wild swings. That might very well put this film into a level of camp that will keep it from ever being taken seriously, but upon rewatch it's just as fun of a ride now as it was for me as a kid, only slightly less traumatizing.

Although, I will impart a word of warning. Although no animals were hurt in the making of this movie, there are some animal character deaths that will rip your heart out. I know that's triggering for a lot of people, myself included. There's a reaction shot of a sad ferret that still brings a tear to my eye to this day.

Perhaps I simply have a lot of nostalgia for this title, but I think even those discovering it for the first time will find something of value in this weird, often forgotten and, in my humble opinion, unfairly maligned sword and sorcery movie. The movies that take big swings often age very well and while I would never call it a Beastmasterpiece, it's undoubtedly a fun watch.