“The Beastmaster” (1982) was THE movie that captured the imaginations of grade-school boys in the 1980’s. There were summer afternoons when this was the single biggest topic of conversation.
I almost wrote here that the movie was an obvious knockoff of the far-better-remembered “Conan the Barbarian;” that is how I’ve always remembered it. But the Internet informs me that they hit theaters only months apart. Wikipedia also informs me that “The Beastmaster” was actually a commercial failure, and that its two sequels and its television adaptation (all in the 1990’s) were aimed at a subsequent cult following spawned by the original movie’s appearance on 80’s TV. (I’m pretty sure that’s how my friends and I saw it.) What the hell was wrong with 1982 audiences, anyway? Was it something in the water? “Blade Runner” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing” were also flops that year — and those were some the best science fiction movies of all time. Talk about pearls before swine.
Anyway, please understand — “Conan the Barbarian” was inarguably the better film. No matter how much it polarized critics and audiences, that dour, violent, R-rated movie was intended as a serious adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s literary source material.
“The Beastmaster,” on the other hand, was campier stuff that was firmly aimed at kids. (I was surprised to learn that it had its own literary source material, but its B-movie wackiness only followed those books very loosely.) It had a PG rating and was jam-packed with garishly grotesque monsters that would thrill a fourth grade boy — the animalistic berzkers were what really got under my skin; my friends were more unnerved by the … bat-people. (There is a simple but quite effective 80’s-era practical effect that show how these baddies digest a victim alive. You kinda have to see the movie to know what I mean.) Hell, even the witches were a little creepy, and witches were not high on our list of things that were scary. I honestly think the film’s success owes a lot to its successful incorporation of horror movie elements designed to impress the younger set.
“The Beastmaster” starred Marc Singer, who went on to star in another 80’s phenomenon, television’s “V” series. (I might have loved “V” even more than “The Beastmaster.”) The movie also starred Tanya Roberts, who was another quite popular topic among gradeschool boys in the 80’s. John Amos starred in a supporting role, and he did a really good job of it. A lot of my older friends will remember him as the grouchy Dad in the “Good Times” (1974-1979); 80’s kids might point him out as the owner of “McDowell’s” in 1988’s “Coming to America.”
I really am curious to find out how well “The Beastmaster” has held up over time. I was surprised to discover that there is a great copy of it here on Youtube. (Thanks, VHS Drive-In.) You can bet that I’m watching it this weekend.