As with most things in life, the fault rests with Brian Salisbury. I’ve had Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster on the brain since late January when Salisbury and Robert Cargill covered the movie on their Junkfood Cinema podcast, and the recent announcement of a beautiful new 4k restoration of Coscarelli’s most famous film, Phantasm, sealed the deal. It was time to re-watch some Coscarelli.
My favorite of his films is also his most recent, John Dies at the End, but I decided to go back to the one I thoroughly enjoyed as a pre-teen thanks to its PG-rated sword, sorcery, and topless bathing action. Coscarelli is always a fun listen – we’ve previously covered his commentaries for Phantasm and Phantasm II – and he’s joined here by his frequent collaborator, Paul Pepperman.
Keep reading to see what I heard on The Beastmaster commentary.
The Beastmaster (1982)
Commentator: Don Coscarelli (director, co-writer), Paul Pepperman (co-writer)
1. The commentary was recorded in 2002 for Anchor Bay’s DVD release, the same year Coscarelli released his Elvis vs the mummy epic, Bubba Ho-Tep.
2. This was their fourth collaboration after Jim the World’s Greatest, Kenny & Company, and “a little horror picture called Phantasm.” It was the first to have a budget over a million dollars though.
3. The two share a laugh when Rip Torn appears, and Pepperman asks Coscarelli to describe their early meetings with him. “He came to the film with his own peculiar ideas about how the character was going to be played,” says the director. “He came to me and said ‘I want to play this role like a turkey vulture.’” Torn decided on his own to wear a prosthetic nose.
4. Janet Jones (American Anthem) plays one of the three barely-clad witches with the disfigured faces.
5. The blue pearl necklace used to magically hold the royal couple in place is actually just the liquid from those glow in the dark emergency lights.
6. They had considered filming in Spain and Mexico, but both locations proved too expensive so they ended up shooting the film in Southern California. Some of the impressive exteriors were shot outside Las Vegas.
7. The first scene featuring Dar as a child was one of the first shot, and it was done with an anamorphic lens. It was new to everyone involved and encountered some focus issues, but after the first couple of days, one of the “money men” insisted they drop the anamorphic. They weren’t allowed to re-shoot any of the scenes so they had to be squeezed into frame resulting in noticeably cramped shots.
8. Both men were removed from the creative process in regard to the optical effects. “It was very frustrating,” says Coscarelli. “The upshot of that is that there’s some really ridiculous stuff in here.” The shot they’re referring to is the dust cloud created by the horde on its way to destroy Dar’s (Marc Singer) village.
9. The first fully visible breasts in the film – the woman running topless from the horse – belong to “David Carradine’s ex-wife.”
10. They had intended on filming the collapse of a stilted hut, but the structure crumbled of its own accord before they were fully set up. The cameraman was able to whip his camera around to catch most of the descent though.
11. They got the dog to lick Dar’s face by rubbing a hot dog on Singer’s cheek.
12. The animals were another area that fell outside of these guys’ control, and instead of getting the fully trained creatures, they needed they instead got bargain-basement animal actors. “Every time a new animal would arrive on the set we’d find out they couldn’t do anything basically,” says Coscarelli, “and I think the most egregious of them was this bird which really wouldn’t even fly.” They had to send the bird up in a closed basket attached to a helium balloon, open the lid via radio control once it hit 300 feet or so, and then film the bird flying back to earth. The Golden Eagle they used was borrowed from a wild animal park owned by the San Diego Zoo.
13. The circle with the line through it glimpsed on the front gate of Dar’s village is the symbol of his people. “It’s my belief that nobody knows that,” says Coscarelli.
14. Pepperman’s hands were used for most of the inserts of Dar’s hands.
15. Dar’s sword was created for the film, and while everyone joked about who would get to keep it none of them ultimately did. It was stolen during post-production. They say they still want it and are offering a “pretty good-sized reward.”
16. The river that Dar runs through swinging his sword around like an excited little boy was struck by tragedy a few months later. It’s the same location where Vic Morrow and the two children died while filming John Landis’ segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
17. There were about twenty ferrets used to act as the pair we see onscreen. Some were trained for specific skills like running with keys in its mouth or (presumably) getting this close to a tiger’s mouth. Pepperman kept a pair for himself.
18. The script originally asked for a black leopard, but the trainers decided tigers were more easily trained and chose to simply dye some tigers black. The dye wore off fairly quickly though so several shots reveal varying degrees of blackness. I swear someone told me a tiger died during filming due to the dyeing, but clearly that was a cruel hoax perpetrated on my sensitive animal-loving side.
19. Kiri’s (Tanya Roberts) topless introduction at the waterfall required the water to be trucked in — there’s no waterfall without it. The pond she swims in is natural, but being winter time it was also very cold. Pepperman suggests viewers watch “frame by frame” to see the look of discomfort on her face. “Just be sure to look at her face,” reminds Coscarelli.
20. Their initial special effects company asked for $50k to create all of the practical work for the film, but when they sent an intern named Frank Isaac to check on the status he called Coscarelli to say he had just fired the company. The company had received all of the money but had only done “three percent of the work.”
21. The pyramid cost them $52k.
22. One issue they grappled with concerned the scenes showing Dar enjoying a meal. “Geez, shouldn’t the Beastmaster be a vegetarian?”
23. Child actors weren’t allowed on-set with the tiger, but Coscarelli didn’t find out until they actually started filming with a script featuring multiple scenes of just that. Pepperman points out that they were allowed exceptions “as long as we had a plexi-glass wall between him and the tiger, the tiger chained down to a 5-foot chain, and a marksman with a .30–06 rifle on the set at all times.” They ended up using a short extra in a wig instead.
24. Coscarelli asks Pepperman if he ever thought the movie would have the kind of longevity and popularity it’s enjoyed while they were actually making it. “No,” is the reply. Pepperman recalls being surprised years later to discover that it became the second most-requested film on TBS after Gone With the Wind. Coscarelli meanwhile remembers being told in the mid-’80s that HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s On.”
25. Stuntmen/women are paid a day rate but then get an extra adjustment based on the severity of the stunt. The masked guard’s high fall earned the stuntman “a few thousand dollars” extra.
26. “A good falling horse is worth a lot of money,” says Coscarelli. “Basically they get five or eight hundred bucks per fall.” Apparently, the best ones are born with the natural grace and ability to fall with only a slight tug.
27. Coscarelli recalls critics calling the film a rip-off of Conan the Barbarian, but he points out that the film opened in May while this one opened just three months later. “As is so frequently the case with movie critics they don’t think things through, and there’s no way we could have ripped off Conan or even seen Conan.”
28. Kiri dies in the original script, but they had to change her fate because “that was one of the conditions of financing that she needed to live to the end.”
29. None of the stuntmen wanted to take a tumble down the side of the stepped pyramid until newcomer Mike Curtain volunteered. He wanted to break into the business, “and the only way to break in is to do something really stupid which would then be taken as being daring.”
30. Pepperman points out the constant lack of blood on Dar’s sword despite all the guys he slaughters. “That was a conscious decision,” says Coscarelli. “We always wanted a PG-rating so kids could see this movie so we figured we wanted to have our violence but there could be no drops of blood whatsoever.”
31. They had nothing to do with either of the sequels or the TV series, but Coscarelli wishes “they would have carried on the relationship between the boy (Joshua Milrad) and his warrior friend Seth (John Amos).”
32. The helicopter shot at the end showing Dar and Kiri atop the rocks does a good job hiding the fact that the tiger is chained down and a trainer is hiding nearby. “You don’t want to have your two lead actors on the top of a rock with a tiger being spooked by a low-flying helicopter.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- Coscarelli: “I think people need to cut us some slack because this is a good twenty years before digital.”
- Pepperman: “We actually had ambulances standing by, and there was a steady stream. Not that we’re proud.”
- Coscarelli: “Marc Singer really got himself in shape for this movie. He was ripped before ripping was popular.”
- Coscarelli: “So there’s one sort of conundrum here Paul which is that his father’s the king, but his brother is the heir, which makes Tanya’s character his cousin. We never did address that correctly.”
- Coscarelli: “I’m not sure the audience ever really understood what was going on here.”
- Coscarelli: “One of the things we worried about a little was that maybe we had too many endings on this movie.”
Coscarelli hasn’t made a movie since 2012, and that’s a damn shame. His commentary here once again reveals him to be a filmmaker who knows his business, speaks his mind, and shares some fun anecdotes and details along the way. I’m not sure how The Beastmaster would play with someone seeing it now for the first time, but as someone who saw it in 1982 and has watched it more than a few times in the years since it remains a fun, goofy adventure.