Over the weekend, we had another Yakmala movie day event. The theme was “Portals;” movies in which people are drawn from their usual environment (generally 20th Century Earth) and thrust into a fantasy world of swords, sand, and poorly developed antagonists with obscure magical powers. The films included the two Gor films, Timemaster, and the highlight of sorts: Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time.
While it was certainly the easiest film to follow during a day that included the mess that is Timemaster and the slog of the first Gor flick, Beastmaster II also features my least favorite plot contrivance to befall any fantasy or sci-fi infused property. To put it in ready-for-poster adspeak: “This time, they’re in our world.” You’ll find this happens in a lot of places, Neverending Story III: Escape from Fantasia commits grievous audio/visual harm with this premise. Masters of the Universe also centers around the well known core stable of He-Man characters and transplants them to Anytown U.S.A. where Courtney Cox and that bland guy from “Star Trek: Voyager” actually steal the movie from the title character.
It happens with such frequency, that by all Yakmala rights, it should be codified, like the Torgo and the Kroker. So let’s dig in a little bit and discuss why filmmakers take fantasy characters to the present day — er, late 20th Century. Seriously, I’m never going to get used to that.Okay, fine, the main reason this plot gets trotted out a lot is money. Specifically, the lack of money required to create the grand visions contained in fantasy environments. Consider the colossal investment New Line put into The Lord of the Rings and its — at the time — obscure Kiwi director. Industry press considered it a gamble and thought openly that New Line’s Robert Shaye might pack his bags after the first film in the trilogy was released to an indifferent and caustic audience. The conventional wisdom of the time was that fantasy films do not work.
Of course, that wisdom came from the very set of movies I’m talking about today.
But back in 2001, the Rings trilogy was not a sure bet. It featured everything the balance sheets said that audiences hated: swords, made-up languages, weird creatures, a bad guy who only appears as a giant eye, and that nervous kid from North. This shouldn’t have worked and yet … it did.
At that moment, I was elated not so much because I finally had a cinematic vision of Tolkien’s world that I could respect, but because its success would no doubt spawn a revival in sword-and-sorcery movies of both the epic and cheap varieties. Instead, all that happened was Eragon, The Chronicles of Narnia, and In the Name of the King: a Dungeon Siege Tale. Yes, I know, there’s a Boy Who Lived in England that could also be considered fantasy, but I was after something specific. In the wake of Star Wars, a cycle of knock-offs both vulgar and sublime followed as producers hoped to catch some of Lucas’s magic and earning for themselves. With only a few viable sci-fi options available, they went down the fantasy aisle as stories could easily — and cheaply — be produced in places like Turkey, South America, and Mexico. These easy to develop properties became the backbone of a fantasy film glut that produced things like the first Conan film, but also gave us Yor: The Hunter from the Future and Ator: The Fighting Eagle.
Into this environment, Don Coscarelli gave us the first Beastmaster. The story is fairly simple: Dar is a wander of the wastelands gifted with the ability to commune with the animals in a way that did not involve singing or illegal sex acts. He also has some sort of destiny and revenge to fulfill as his parents were murdered by the local wizard/priest/king. With him was a faithful bestiary that included an eagle, a black tiger, and two ferrets.
Go ahead … the sex acts joke can go here.
Like many fantasy movies at the time, it’s fairly barren in its aesthetic and much of its sets and props could’ve been bought from a previous production, but as Coscarelli proved with Phantasm, he can make very little go a long way. Thus, The Beastmaster is a genuinely entertaining sword-and-sorcery flick.
The film came out in 1982, which is the greatest year for genre movies ever. Films also released then include Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Dark Crystal, Blade Runner, Tron, The Secret of NIMH, and Conan the Barbarian.
I don’t think these movies all appearing in one year is an accident. They’re all projects that got rolling because of Star Wars; really, they’re the peak of a wave that began with cheap knock-offs like Star Crash and The Man Who Saved the World and would continue through much of the 1980s with films like Ghostbusters and RoboCop. I’d hoped to see a similar genre renaissance in the decade that has just closed. Instead, the period ended with The Smurfs.
Son of a bitch! This time, they’re in our world! How the hell did that happen? There’s no reason for that. They had the money. They … oh wait … I know what happened.
The genre wave was good business back in the late 1970s and 1980s. The audience was there to support Roger Corman’s foray into fantasy with films like Deathstalker, Barbarian Queen and The Warrior and the Sorceress. The celebrated geek culture of our current era didn’t just spring out of nowhere. We were raised by the late-stage Boomers that made this happen. Some of them had the conviction to paint their love of beefy warriors on their vans. They gave Led Zeppelin their U.S. following. Some remained closeted, but would sneak into their local theater and escape into any cardboard fantasy producers like The Cannon Group or Dino De Laurentiis could muster.
While The Beastmaster did okay at the box office, it’s legend began in its numerous airings on cable where it joined future Yakmala movies like Over the Top and Red Sonja in a heavy rotation that clearly damaged my brain. Then, in 1991, some producers acquired the rights and tried it all again, except this time, he’s in our world.
Like I said earlier, the film manages to hold itself together fairly well considering its low-watt ambitions. The 90s were not kind to the fantasy film. The wave from 1976 had passed and while kids like me thrilled to the product available on TBS and our local independent stations, we weren’t the ones buying movie tickets. Our parents had, for the most part, grown up and let go of the fantastical in favor of so-called mature pictures that talked about infidelity. By the time Beastmaster II was ready to film, the money was gone and all they could do was bring Dar to Los Angeles and pair him up with that early 90s TV sex-symbol, Kari Wurher.
The plot itself sees Dar follow his evil brother into “our time” as he hopes to recover a nuclear device that will allow him to rule all of Skyrim or Hyborea or wherever the hell these Beastmaster movies take place. Both Dar, his brother, and an opportunistic and bosomy sorceress all experience varying degrees of culture shock as they slowly make their way toward the military base where the atomic whatsits is located. Dar stops him and goes home.
Okay, let’s move on to Masters of the Universe, which arrived a few years earlier. It features He-Man, Tela, Man-At-Arms and a proxy for Orko as they chase a science-magic object to “our time” and interact with a couple of youths from the period. Eventually, they all make it back to Eternia and confront Skeletor, who falls down a pit.
Um … how about that Smurfs movie, in which Papa, Brainy, Smurfette, Clumsy, and Gutsy are transported to New York and help a young couple with their marital issues. Good lord, the infidelity movies of the early 90s have invaded the fantasy genre!
While these movies are certainly defined by budgetary and reception concerns, I think the recent appearance of the Smurfs in Manhattan highlights something more serious than just money in these portals through time. The Lord of the Rings begot only a few sword-and-sorcery movies that most fans of the genre recoil from. At the same time, we had the Star Wars prequels, which failed to create anything nearly as seismic as its predecessors. In fact, the lasting influence of those films is on the inward looking review shows that contemplate, with great detail, how it all went wrong.
The reliance on the characters arriving in “our world” is indicative of just how much we came to distrust fantasy, even as we turned around and commodified it in online game worlds. At the same time, any potential fantasy wave is chocked by the arrival of the Superheroes, who appear in cinematic facsimiles of our own reality. In some ways, that could just be wishful thinking. In others, it’s the height of our most juvenile obsessions. As opposed to the complete escape offered by fantasy realms, we seemingingly want the powers of another reality to invade our own.
But as a cinematic device, a portal through time is, inevitably, a sign of a questionable film. It is a crutch used by filmmakers too hobbled by budget or two lazy to conjure up a convincing alternate world where modernity is turned on its head and we can thrill to simple, uncomplicated clash of swords.
Then again, bringing characters from their milieu to “our world” did work once …
Therefore, studios and their accountants will always hope that it will work again.