The Beastmaster (1982) Retrospective

SUMMARY
In the kingdom of Aruk, the high priest Maax is given a prophecy by his witches that he would die facing the son of King Zed. So he sends one of his witches to kidnap and kill the child, but before she can kill him, a villager rescues the child and raises him as his own son. Named Dar while raised in the village of Emur, the child learns how to fight, and has the ability to telepathically communicate with animals. Years later, a fully grown Dar witnesses his people being slaughtered by the Juns, a horde of fanatic barbarians allied with Maax. Dar, the only survivor of the attack, journeys to Aruk to avenge his people. In time, Dar is joined by a golden eagle he names Sharak, a pair of thieving ferrets he names Kodo and Podo, and a panther he names Ruh.

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Eventually, Dar meets a redheaded slave girl called Kiri before getting himself lost and ending up surrounded by an eerie half-bird, half-human race who dissolve their prey for nourishment. As the bird men worship eagles, they spare Dar when he summons Sharak and give him an amulet should he need their aid. Dar soon arrives at Aruk where Maax had assumed total control with the Juns’ support. Maax has taken the children of the townspeople, and is sacrificing them to his god Ar. After having Sharak save the child of a townsman named Sacco, Dar learns that Kiri is to be sacrificed. On his way to save her, Dar is joined by Zed’s younger son Tal and his bodyguard Seth, learning that Kiri is Zed’s niece as the three work to save her. While Seth goes to gather their forces, Dar helps Kiri and Tal infiltrate the temple and rescue King Zed.

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Zed leads his forces to attack the city, but they’re captured. Dar returns to save them from being sacrificed. In the conflict that follows, Maax reveals Dar’s relationship to Zed before slitting Zed’s throat and facing the Beastmaster. Despite being stabbed, revived by his remaining witch before she was killed, Maax is about to kill Dar when Kodo sacrifices himself to cause the high priest to fall into the sacrificial flames. But the victory is short-lived as the Jun horde is approaching Aruk, arriving by nightfall to face the trap Dar and the people set for them. Tal is wounded as Dar succeeds in burning most of the Juns alive while defeating their chieftain before the bird-men arrive to consume those remaining. The following day, Seth invites Dar to be the new king, but Dar explains that Tal would make a better king, and he leaves Aruk. Dar sets off into the wild with Kiri, Ruh, Sharak and Podo (who has given birth to two baby ferrets) on the path to new adventures.

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DEVELOPMENT/PRE-PRODUCTION
Beastmaster found a home under the protective wing of Sylvio Tabet’s own production/financing company, Leisure Investments. This arrangement allowed the production company more artistic freedom than studio financing would have permitted. Tabet then proceeded to seed the production staff with the finest artisans and craftspeople he could find.

“We have a very good team, it’s very professional,” Tabet comments. “John Alcott, the cinematographer, made The Shining and Barry Lyndon. He’s an Academy Award winner! He’s giving a tremendous look to this picture. He’s painting the film in a kind of goldish, rust color which gives us the feeling that this picture is of another time. He had a way to light interiors with only torches and candles, using practically no light at all. Again, I think this film has been very challenging for everybody, but the results on screen are incredible—it’s working incredibly well.”

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“We spent two years researching Beastmaster. You need it! We studied each movement of the actors because there is a lot of sword fighting in the picture, and you have to choreograph the movements on paper before you can bring it to the screen. We’re also working with a lot of special effects, miniatures and animals. I’ve had to create a whole new world for this film. Or at least, I’m trying.

“It’s very challenging. Sometimes I don’t sleep at night….” Tabet pauses. “But I must say, I’m very pleased with the results. On the screen, the film has a totally different look, much imagination.” And for Tabet, the end result on the screen is his reward for the hard work and lost sleep.

The shoot itself was a demanding one. Bad weather and difficult night shoots plagued the production. Everything in the film had to be built from scratch, and built to last. Film Builders Productions in North Hollywood provided villages, sets and a 70-foot sacrificial pyramid that had to endure five months of location shooting. But Tabet, director Don Coscarelli and producer Paul Pepperman assembled a cast of special effects artisans who had the vision and the ability to meet the demands of budget.

FX Lineup Mike Minor provided the Art Direction for the Special Effects Unit. Under his direction, Will Guest built the miniatures which were photographed by Bill Cruse. Makeup artist Bill Munns created the fantasy makeups, and pyrotechnic wizard Roger George marshalled the explosions.

The fantastic creatures which populate Beastmaster were a pioneering effort in Tabet’s eyes. “There are many new SPFX concepts we are testing,” he explains. “The bird warriors in the picture are one of a kind. They are men who are like bat creatures. We had to create winged clothes on the actors (which were articulated), to close around the enemy. The enemy starts to disintegrate, and you can see the disintegration through the wings.”

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Witch women cling like spiders to the ceilings and fly through rooms, weaving evil spells at the bidding of Maax, their high priest. Jun warriors devastate villages. Zombie death guards sacrifice innocent children. Giants smash cities into ruin. Beastmaster promises a feast of visual effects for its viewers.

“All kinds of special effects!” Tabet chuckles. “It’s a fantasy with a lot of action, a lot of dreams. This kind of film you’ll never see on television. It has a large scope. It is a very ambitious project.”

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“It took me a year to put together,” he says. “I believe in the talent of Don Coscarelli. He sees everything fresh, new ideas.”

“We did a lot of storyboarding,” says Coscarelli, “but it all turned out to be pretty useless once we got to the set. A lot of things changed.” Some of those changes may have had something to do with the special considerations of cinematographer John Alcott (The Shining, Terror Train) and special effects man Roger George (Phantasm), since perhaps 90 percent of the picture was shot in natural illumination and torch or firelight of some kind. “Roger George was in charge of all the pyrotechnics,” says Coscarelli, “and we worked out some incredible things; explosions, and a 200 foot long wall of fire 25 feet high. We shot that same scene for three weeks.” Says Coscarelli of John Alcott, “it was a different experience having another person doing the cinematography, but John Alcott is terrific. He was easy to work with just a real nice guy-and he was very responsive to my wishes.”

The Beast Master by Andre Norton
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The Beast Master tells of Hosteen Storm, a Navajo and former soldier who has empathic and telepathic connections with a group of genetically altered animals. The team emigrates from Earth to the distant planet Arzor where it is hired to herd livestock. Storm still harbors anger at his former enemies the Xik, and has sworn revenge on a man named Quade for his father’s murder. According to Kirkus he finds “life and hope” instead.

The animals in Coscarelli’s film are possibly the most unique aspect of it, and were, perhaps, the most difficult. It takes time to film animal scenes, especially if the animal must perform some bit of business that is vital to the plot. Boone Narr, of Gentle Jungle in Burbank, California, supplied the beasts, including some 20 ferrets, each trained to do a different task (so that it would appear that the two ferrets in the story were doing everything), and Kipling, an extremely large Bengal tiger that was colored black for his role as Dar’s pet. “Kipling,” chuckles Coscarelli, “had absolute casting approval.” Had the big cat been less amicable, Marc Singer (Dar) might have wound up as leading meal, rather than leading male. There were only a couple of instances when the tigers (there were three-as stand ins for one another) appeared to get out of hand. One cat got loose in the dark warehouse that was being used for the interior sets. “A black tiger in a dark warehouse!” laughs Coscarelli, “We didn’t hang around to see how they were going to catch him.” The cat was caught, quickly, however, and without incident-credit the animal handlers from Gentle Jungle.

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“The animals are really difficult –it’s a matter of sitting around with 80 people, spending a fortune, until you have what you want. Then, when it does happen, it’s like magic; no one can figure how we get them to do it. The ferrets are very workable-we have about 20 of them, to represent the two in the movie. Some are jumpers, some are quick ones, some are trained to carry beads; they’re all trained to do different things, all of them in marked cages waiting for their set call.”

As talented as the animal cast may be, finding the right human cast was one of the most arduous preproduction tasks. Certainly the best-known cast member is Rip Torn, one of New York’s most respected stage actors, reputed to be a very interesting’ person to have in any cast. Pepperman confirms that there were few dull moments while Torn was on the set. “We only had him for a while, and we’ve really missed the action since he left,” says the producer.

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For the part of Lara the slave girl, Tanya Roberts-a former Charlie’s Angel who is exceptional in appearing to be both beautiful and bright-was selected after a lengthy period of open casting calls and dozens of readings. “When she came in, we all agreed that she had the look and the feel that we had in mind for that character, and she’s been wonderful. She does a lot of very athletic things in the film; just two nights ago we were out on top of this 80-foot cliff, with Tanya and a stuntman in the outfit of Maax’s Deathguard, who was to take a high-fall off of it, and the role required her to stand at the very edge looking down. She was letting out a little scream every once in awhile-but she was out there doing it.”

Pepperman seems most grateful for having Marc Singer on board. “We literally saw hundreds and hundreds of people for that lead role, through the two casting directors that were with us through preproduction. “Name” people, unknowns, all kinds of people. We were looking for a guy in really good shape-not an overdeveloped bodybuilder type, but somebody normal-looking who was in really good shape. We were looking and looking, and Marc’s name came up twice-once on a list that mentioned him as part of a San Francisco repertory production of Taming of the Shrew. Our casting director at the time said no, that won’t work. Then his name came up again a couple of months later on a list of ‘name’ people to be considered; his credits included a TV movie called The Contender, in which he played a boxer, and another called For Ladies Only, where he played a male stripper. We knew from those roles that he had to have a body, and we knew that if he could handle The Taming of the Shrew he had to be able to act, so we had him in. We found that he had the body, he had the look, and he could act, so he was in. As another plus, we never asked whether he was able to handle a sword-but it turned out that he is a more than adequate fencer, and he does a heck of a lot of his own stunts, too. I imagine that without Marc, we would have been maybe three weeks behind schedule.”

Principal filming will be finished as you read this, and plans call for the edited film to be delivered in early July. “For us that’s working very fast,” says Pepperman, “but then, again, this is the first time that Don has not done the editing entirely on his own.”

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During lensing of the sword-and-sorcery adventure, Marc Singer notes he got along well with director Don (Phantasm) Coscarelli. “I’m really happy we turned out such a great movie. I received excellent directorial advice on my character from the man who was sort of ‘helping’ in the direction of Beastmaster, Chuck (Gumball Rally) Bail. He was on set as a ghost entity to help with the production and he gave me clues for Dar’s character. Chuck did so much on that film that I hesitate to say how much he truly did. In my opinion, he was the backbone of the project.”

 Playing a warrior who can telepathically bond with animals, Singer found himself in close contact with hawks, tigers and bears– not to mention ferrets. “It was very demanding, working with the animals, but it was also exhilarating,” he says happily. “I would have to say it was more inspiring than it was hard, except for the bear, which had a tendency to want to eat people. That was the only animal you had to stay away from.

 Singer to work closely with some beastly co-stars: tigers, eagles and ferrets. The actor remembers the experience with mixed feelings; “At first, I had to work with five different tigers to find the tiger with which I had the best relationship. At one point, one turned around and grabbed me by the leg. Everyone froze for a minute, then the cat let me go.

 “I had a very good relationship with my tiger. In fact, I miss it and think of it often. It was like a religious experience everytime I was near this animal, and I developed a great and abiding love for it. I think the reason the tiger accepted me, and was good to me, is that whenever I was on screen with it, I felt it was an enormous privilege. I always let the tiger be the boss. The film may have been titled The Beastmaster, but whenever I was on screen with that tiger, I said to it, ‘This is your forum to tell us of the beauty and majesty of the natural world and why we should take care of it and have a responsibility towards you.’”

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 The eagle, on the other hand, proved less amenable. According to Singer, the only person it tolerated was its trainer. In one scene, the bird flew directly at Singer, scoring his back with its talons. “It really was a question of the eagle’s maternal instinct fixating itself on its handler. To the eagle, anyone else was an intrusion and a threat,” Singer explains. “Obviously, we had to reshoot the scene.”

 Another animalistic incident involved a Japanese grizzly bear. “This was the very first shot of the film,” Singer recalls. “And the handlers said to us, ‘Gentlemen, if you’ll all stand back now, we’re going to bring out the bear and use him in this shot. Please be very quiet and anybody not needed on the set, please go away. Everything will be just fine.’

 “They turned around and unlocked the cage. This bear-it’s about eight or nine feet tall jumped right out and began mauling one of the handlers. Just tore him to pieces. They had six guys trying to get it off the trainer and back into the cage.”

SPECIAL EFFECTS
Though Phantasm had a goodly number of makeup effects, the size and scope of The Beastmaster required Coscarelli, for the first time, to engage in the creation of a makeup effects unit. It wasn’t easy.

“Our problems in the makeup department,” Coscarelli says, “were chiefly problems of organization. We shopped around for a time, while we were in preproduction. We had something on the order of 50 different things that had to be accomplished. One very well-known outfit priced the job at $300,000, and another group that had just completed a successful sword and sorcery picture figured it at $100,000. For a while, we employed a fellow who had done some work for New World Pictures; he came in, and was very pleasant, and he gave the impression that he could handle everything that we needed. But apparently we made a mistake by not checking more thoroughly into his background-I recall one time that he explained that something we needed wasn’t ready because he had used the wrong fixative on his plastics, and that he’d passed out in his lab for three hours!”

If only for his own safety, it was thought best to let that individual go, and the search resumed for the right effects man. With the schedule grow among his recent credits, has proven to be a valuable addition to the crew. In other areas, however, it has proven, for Pepperman at least, to be a shade less satisfying.

“There’s not as much of our being able to get in there and say, ‘OK, this here’s the way we want it, the way it should be done,’ showing people exactly what you mean. This has been a long, hard haul, and day after day ! promise myself that the next one will be a nice, small movie. This way, there are so many departments, and so many people in each department … it becomes a problem to have little things changed. The prop department needs something, it gets drawn up, then it gets fabricated, and by the time you see it, if something is not quite right, it’s a big process to send it back to have it changed. And it’s necessary sometimes, though we do have a lot of topnotch people.

‘On special effects, there were a lot of things that, on Phantasm, we had to figure out how to do-now we’ve got people who tell us right off the bat what we’re going to do, with mechanical and pyrotechnical effects.”

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In addition to the expanded scope of the production, further complications were introduced to the project in the film’s extensive use of prosthetics: witch women-beautiful bodies topped by hideous faces; bird warriors-extra tall, lean actors dressed in elaborate costumes; and various other worldly beasts are all dependent on realistic prosthetics for their convincing portrayal. Add to that the task of shooting many scenes with trained animals, and you may begin to conceive the types of problem is faced and solved by the young filmmakers.

Enter Bill Munns, Munns is the subject of some controversy in special effects circles; his work in The Boogens and Swamp Thing has received some sharp criticism and yet both of these films were made on budgets that require Munns to practically pull his monsters out of a hat. What Munns lacks in terms of a glamor reputation is amply compensated by his growing reputation as an fx man who respects the movie makers’ budgets and schedules. By the time Munns joined Beastmaster, the schedule had been cut desperately short by the previous fx dead ends. “When I saw the things that Bill had done for us,” recalls the director, “I wasn’t immediately pleased with all of them; but everything Bill did was done on time and on schedule. And by taking extra care with the lighting, everything looks good on screen, so, in general, our experience with Bill was a good one.”

The original makeup designer (Michael McCracken, Jr.) did not put any mouth or nostrils on these masks, and the people wearing them couldn’t breathe. I had no time to resculpt and remake the masks, so I just cut discreet holes in the masks and put straws up into the masks and into the actors’ mouths. Then, right before each scene was filmed, I took scissors and clipped the straws off right at the mask surface so they wouldn’t show, but so the actors could still breathe. These photos were my own on-set photos between takes, which is why the straws stick out so obviously. I was just taking reference photos of the suits. Another curious thing about these suits is they have no backs, because there wasn’t enough money left for me to make back-torso sections.

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The work I am most proud of on this movie is at the upper right top, the “eye ring”. This curious thing was supposed to be a living eye magically infused into a ring, worn by an unsuspecting person, so the ring could spy on people and report visually back to its magical owner. There were six rings total, three just regular with eye closed (the left ring) and one with the eye open, plus the “Hero” ring with animation built in so the eyelid could open and the eye could look side to side, and finally a ring with a gelatin eye that could be burned and melted with a flaming stick. The “Hero” eye ring was one of my more ingenious feats of engineering, because it was still a practical ring the actor could wear.

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The beginning of the film, where a witch steals the queen’s unborn child from her womb. They wanted to see the unborn baby struggling against the woman’s stomach skin as it was magically being extracted. So I had to build a cable-controlled baby head and hands that could push against the foam latex stomach skin and also build a large air bladder so the belly could be expanded and contracted with air pumped rapidly in and out. At left, the green and black hoses are the air hoses for inflating and deflating the bladder. At the bottom, you can see the baby animation device and the cables controlling them. Bottom right is the foamed latex skin that covers the effects devices.

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SCORE/SOUNDTRACK
The Beastmaster (1982) Lee Holdridge

The score was composed and conducted by Lee Holdridge; it was recorded in Rome with members of The Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia of Rome and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Rome. The soundtrack album was originally issued by Varèse Sarabande, and subsequently by C.A.M. In 2013 Quartet Records released a 1200-copy limited edition featuring the original album (tracks 1–13, disc 1) and most of the film’s score (Holdridge wrote eighty minutes of music for the film; a few cues could not be found, but the album includes music that was not heard in the finished product).

 

CAST/CREW
Directed
Don Coscarelli

Produced
Paul Pepperman
Donald P. Borchers
Sylvio Tabet

Written
Don Coscarelli
Paul Pepperman

Based on
The Beast Master
by Andre Norton

Marc Singer as Dar
Billy Jacoby as young Dar
Tanya Roberts as Kiri
Rip Torn as Maax
Donald Battee Don Battee as Chameleon
John Amos as Seth
Josh Milrad as Tal
Rod Loomis as King Zed
Vanna Bonta as Zed’s Wife
Ben Hammer as Dar’s father
Ralph Strait as Sacco
Tony Epper as Jun Leader

Tara Candoli … makeup artist
Ailen Derderian  … makeup effects assistant
Katrin Derderian … makeup effects assistant
Karen Kubeck … assistant makeup artist
Louis Lazzara    … makeup artist: second unit
David B. Miller  … makeup effects artist
Michael Mills    … prosthetic makeup artist
Jaklin Munns … makeup effects assistant
William Munns    … special makeup effects designer
Peter Tothpal    … hair dresser
Michelle Triscario   … makeup effects assistant
Mark Shostrom    … special makeup effects artist (uncredited)

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Starlog#63
Starlog#84
Starlog#271
Fangoria#18
Fangoria#22

3 thoughts on “The Beastmaster (1982) Retrospective

  1. “What would you have me do?” Ah, Beastmaster, I love you. In no way perfect, but so much fun. The love the filmmakers had for this is obvious. A shame we don’t have more fun fantasy adventure films like this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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