Back in the 1980s, sword and sorcery films seemed to be a go-to genre. Roger Corman himself made a handful of them as all you needed was some open spaces, a strapping hero in a leather loincloth, and preferably some buxom beauties who were in some sort of trouble, probably from some sort of evil wizard. One person who saw a great opportunity to make a fantasy epic was probably not the first one to come to mind.
After making a couple of family-friendly films, Don Coscarelli burst onto the scene with his horror film Phantasm. This fever dream of a film caught the imagination of audiences everywhere as the Tall Man began to haunt their dreams. More importantly, film executives were paying attention to how well the film had done. Coscarelli now could line up his next film. He wanted to create a fantasy film about a hero who could talk to animals. The Beastmaster was about to be born. This is a movie we love here on JoBlo, having done an Awfully Good on it, as well as a Fantasizing About Fantasy Films episode where star Marc Singer joined us! When it came time to actually film the movie, Coscarelli would soon find that the real horror of his life may be bringing this film to life. So let’s find out what exactly happened to The Beastmaster here on WTF Happened To This Movie.
Riding the success of Phantasm Don Coscarelli was ready to do his next film and had been thinking of a book he had read when he was younger called The Beast Master. He liked the concept of the book where the hero had the ability to telepathically talk to animals. The rest of the story didn’t really interest him as it took place in the future. Instead, he decided to set it in the past in a medieval type of story involving magic, swords, and a deposed prince. Some of the films he had loved as a kid were the Hercules films starring Steve Reeves. He combined elements from both the book and the elements from these types of films and came up with what would become The Beastmaster. Coscarelli would say that he combined some of his favorite elements from Japanese Samurai films and Disney animal movies.
In the film, a king is dethroned by his evil consort. As part of the plan, the king’s unborn son is taken from his pregnant wife by a witch. Her intention is to sacrifice the baby to ensure that the prophecy of the King’s son killing the consort doesn’t come true. Before she can act, a villager stumbles upon her and kills her. He takes the baby home with him to raise as his own son.
Many years later the baby has grown up and found that he has an incredible ability to talk to animals. His village is ransacked by a horde called the Jun (pronounced Ja-Un). He is the only survivor and sets out to avenge the death of his family. Along the way, he encounters different animals that he befriends. A Black Panther (played by a dyed tiger), two curious ferrets, and an eagle.
He soon runs into Kiri, who he becomes infatuated with. While trying to follow her he then runs into Seth and Tal. He decides to journey with them back to a sacred temple in hopes of finding Kiri again. When they arrive he learns of Maax (pronounced May-Axe) who sacrifices children for the sake of the village. As viewers, we know this is the evil consort that orchestrated the kidnapping of the Beastmaster years before. Now he must help his new friends overthrow Maax and rescue his father the King who is still alive and imprisoned inside of the castle. All of this is set in a medieval world where magic is real, and everyone is adept at using a sword.
Don Coscarelli began shopping the script around, but none of the studios seemed to be interested. One of the foreign distributors of Phantasm had caught wind that he was working on a new script and told him that they were interested in investing in the new film. Don agreed but was not ready for what their contributions would bring to the film. They would have almost $5 million dollars to make the film which is the biggest budget that Coscarelli had up to that point.
The problems started almost immediately. They started to get rewriting notes from his new producers. This was something Coscarelli hadn’t encountered before as all of his previous movies had been made independently. On those films, he had the final say on everything. He began to rewrite different parts of the film as they wished.
As casting was starting it was apparent right away that the money men were going to have way more of a say in the making of the film than Don thought. They began overruling some of the actors he wanted to hire for the role. Don had met with an 18-year-old Demi Moore for the role of Kiri. She was excited to do the part, and Don thought she would be great in the part. He was immediately overruled as the producers said that they didn’t think Demi Moore was a very good actress. After that, Coscarelli met with famously eccentric actor Klaus Kinski to play the part of Maax. Kinski was onboard but was asking for $5,0000 over what the budget was for the role. Coscarelli knew what he could bring to the role and said he would find the money somewhere else in the budget to make the casting happen. Once again he was vetoed on the decision, and Kinski was pushed aside.
The role of Maax would end up with Rip Torn. When he showed up to set to meet with the director, he had his own ideas of things that should be incorporated into the character. Torn wanted Maax to look like a turkey vulture. He suggested a prosthetic nose to help accentuate that look. Coscarelli agreed that it did end up giving Maax an interesting scowl but that the problems with the nose piece on set probably wasn’t worth it.
While shooting during the day in California, if they were outside, the piece would start to melt. Even though they were shooting during the winter, the sunshine would still affect some of the special effects. This would cause delays in some of these scenes as the effect then had to be pieced back together.
Coscarelli would also find out very quickly why the two big rules when making a movie are don’t work with animals and don’t work with children. They had set up a meeting with an animal trainer for the film as they were going to need some black panthers for the role of Ruh, ferrets for the roles of Kodo and Podo, and an eagle for Sharak (pronounced Char-Roc). The trainer said he had a black panther that would be perfect for the role and that the others should be no problem. Don was happy and ready to work with them but quickly found out that the producers had gone behind his back and made a deal with a smaller animal training company.
When Don met with them he found that they didn’t have any panthers. Instead, they would be using four different Tigers. When Don mentioned that Ruh was supposed to be a black panther as he didn’t want to deal with the stripes, the trainers mentioned that they would just dye the tigers black. They would keep hair dye on set for touch-ups which happened frequently.
During preproduction Don was told that while the tiger was on set, none of the child actors could be present. Also, a sharpshooter had to be in place with a rifle aimed at the tiger at all times during filming. This completely ruined some of the scenes of the movie that had been planned. Some quick rewrites and the use of short doubles had to be used to fix this last-minute stipulation.
On the first day Marc Singer was on set, they were filming the scene where young Dar discovers his powers when a bear comes out of the forest and threatens his father. The bear was a Russian bear and was the only one working in Hollywood at the time. When the bear came out of the forest, he immediately began attacking his handler. The cast and crew went running from the set and locked themselves in nearby vehicles until the bear had been recaptured. The handler went off to the hospital and the crew then told Marc it was his turn to film his scenes.
This didn’t deter Singer though. In an interview on the Vinegar Syndrome release of the film, he stated that he tried to let the animals know he understood that they were in charge on the set. He claimed that the main tiger used in the film named Kipling was the first performer he said good morning to when he showed up in the morning and the last performer he said goodbye to when he left. Singer says this led to them having a great working relationship on the film which kind of shows in the movie. His character of Dar is constantly patting the large cat on the side and on the back throughout the film.
Probably the biggest diva on the set was the eagle that they were using to film. Singer claimed it didn’t like him at all. The bird would refuse to fly on cue most of the time. They had to put the eagle in a closed basket and then attach it to a helium balloon. It would fly up high enough, and they would unlatch the basket using radio control. They would then film the bird flying back down to the ground. This caused numerous delays. Singer says that during the scene when he pulls out his sword for the first time, the bird was supposed to fly by but instead opted to attack him. It used one of its talons to cut him from his right shoulder blade all the way down his back to his left kidney.
The easiest animals it seemed to work with may have been the ferrets. While they couldn’t really be trained to do many tricks or skills, they were heavily food motivated. Many times they would just place food where they needed them to go, and they would happily run to that spot. A couple of things were able to be done such as one of the ferrets running with keys in its mouth, but luckily not much was required from them.
One of the biggest hurdles of the animals being on set was the final shot of Dar, Kiri, and Ruh on the top of the mountain as a helicopter was flying around getting the shot. The tiger was chained down, so he couldn’t move very far, and an animal trainer was hidden in a nearby rock. They were worried the helicopter would spook the tiger and cause him to lash out. Luckily there were no problems.
When it came time to do the close-ups for that scene Coscarelli had an idea, but the trainers told him he was crazy. He had hoped that he could get a shot of one of the ferrets poking out of Dar’s pouch and interacting with the tiger. They told him that the tiger would probably try and eat the ferret. He asked if they could try and they reluctantly agreed. The tiger had been heavily fed so that he wouldn’t have an appetite while they were filming. Then every trainer was on hand in case they needed to immediately separate the tiger from everyone else. They rolled camera, and they pushed the ferret up. His head poked out, and the tiger looked over. The two animals quickly smelled each other so it looks like they touch noses. Don said cut and very quickly they separated the ferret from the tiger. They had nailed the shot, and as it ends the film, it works fantastically.
The animals weren’t the only issues the crew had on set. Don Coscarelli, in his book True Indie, suggests that the relationship between him and star Marc Singer didn’t get off to the best start. He said during one scene, Dar was supposed to be charging at the camera, and he would run past. They would cut and then move on to the next scene. But when they filmed it Singer charged at the camera, ran past the camera, and then purposefully collided with Don who was sitting in his director’s chair. He would end up flipping backward in his chair and falling to the ground. Singer began to laugh with the rest of the crew at his expense. He felt like he was being hazed on the film but wasn’t sure why. They seem to get along fine by the time the film was done, but there was some back and forth during filming that Coscarelli doesn’t look back on too fondly.
Since they were filming during the winter, some of the cast didn’t have a pleasant experience as they were required to wear very little. Singer would often describe his outfit as a leather hula skirt. He said while filming the scene where Dar falls into the quicksand, that the crew behind the camera were all wearing parkas and gloves while he only had a loincloth on. Tanya Roberts was half-naked and swimming in a pond. The waterfall behind her in this scene was man-made. The water was sent in to create the waterfall part while the pond was all natural. As soon as they yelled cut, the crew would run over and wrap her up in blankets to keep her warm. Don’s co-writer on the film Paul Pepperman says if you pay attention during that scene that you can see her discomfort with being in the cold water.
Once the film wrapped, Coscarelli headed back to start the editing process. He was able to assemble his director’s cut of the film but was quickly kicked out of any further editing on the film. The producers took the film over, and someone mentioned that the film seemed like it should be longer. The editor was then given instructions to lengthen every shot in the film. This gives the film a slower pacing which changes some of the tone that Coscarelli was going for. He was very upset that he wasn’t able to be there for the creation of the optical effects. Don says that some of them like the dust cloud created in the distance by the horde coming to ransack Dar’s village looks terrible. When Vinegar Syndrome put out their 4K version of the film they offered Don a chance to come back and redo some of the optical effects. The original theatrical version and this new version with improved opticals are both offered as part of the set.
The film came out but didn’t receive much fanfare. It performed modestly but ended up being overshadowed by the release of Conan The Barbarian a few months later. Which is also a point of contention with Coscarelli, when he hears people say that Beastmaster is just a Conan rip-off. He reminds people that they were in production at the same time and that his film was in no way connected with anything to do with Conan. It’s just a coincidence that they were thought of at the same time.
With the small performance at the box office, everyone associated with the film figured it would disappear into history. What they didn’t realize was that a few cable channels would create a cult following with the film. They began to run it in constant rotation, and fans finally began to discover the film. Eventually jokes began to make the rounds that HBO stood for Hey, Beastmaster’s On. Or that TBS meant The Beastmaster Station. Whatever the situation, the film collected a hardcore group of fans.
Eventually there were talks of a sequel. In what had to be more than a coincidence, the film Masters Of The Universe was released five years after the original Beastmaster. In that film, the characters come from Eternia to Earth. This proved to be a cost-saving measure that helped keep the budget of the film from going out of control. In order to accomplish the same thing, the sequel to Beastmaster was given a similar plot. Dar is forced to go through a portal to Earth to keep his evil brother (not Tal) from stealing an atomic bomb and using it back in their world. Most of the action is set in present-day L.A.
The film titled Beastmaster 2: Through The Portal Of Time would not have one person returning for the film. Don Coscarelli sold his rights for any sequels or TV series so the projects were made without his involvement. This also meant he didn’t receive any payments for the film either. The film was less well-received than the last one but would spawn one more sequel in Beastmaster III: The Eye Of Braxus. This TV movie would once again see Dar meet up with his younger brother Tal (played by Casper Van Dien) who was now King. Seth was replaced with Tony Todd for this film. The budget was small so the film looks a lot different than the others. It looks like it may have taken a cue from the Hercules and Xena TV series that were popular at the time.
A few years later the property would be turned into a TV series of the same name. The lead role was recast with Daniel Goddard taking over the role as Dar. He would travel through different lands and use his power to help people. Marc Singer would later join the cast of the show as the character Dartanus.
Even after some of the negative feelings about the film, Don Coscarelli still loves the film and is glad he got to make it even though the finished product may not be what he wanted. During an appearance on The Movie Crypt podcast, he told hosts Adam Green and Joe Lynch about his troubles on the film, but that he knows people love it so he has to accept that when the film was done it now belonged to the audience and to just enjoy the love people have for it. Joe Lynch was going through a similar situation with Knights Of Badassdom at the time and took Coscarelli’s thoughts to heart.
According to Coscarelli, the original negative for Beastmaster has been lost. It was being stored at a residential house when the original owner moved and accidentally left the film canisters behind. The whereabouts of the film has never been discovered, and he has looked to fans of the film for help.
Back in 2020 Coscarelli regained the rights for the original film and hopes to find the negative to give it a proper upgrade. Along with a new transfer his hopes are to reboot the franchise and see what new stories they can tell with Dar and his animals. With today’s technology, they might be able to get closer to his original intentions for the film and see where that takes it.
For those of us that grew up in the 80s, Beastmaster became the live-action He-Man movie we always wanted. No matter what strife the movie endured during the making of it, a whole generation grew up wanting to be Dar and to talk to our animals. Thankfully the film lets us relive our childhood and see the amazing story anytime we want. Oh, and what the f*ck was up with those moth-man creatures?????
Crispin, A. C. “Andre Norton: Notes from the Witch World, Part Two”. Starlog. No. 147.
Siskel, Gene (August 27, 1982). “Okay ‘Beastmaster’ loses in overtime”. Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 3.
True Indie by Don Coscerelli
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/wtf-happened-to-the-beastmaster/