I like films like this, that allow me to tell old stories and have them be sort of relevant, and that allow me to do a bit of research on subjects I know a little about, but not enough to sound remotely smart. “Dark Dungeons” allows me to bang on about role-playing games and Jack Chick. But which to talk about first?
Jack Chick died just a few weeks ago, October 23rd 2016, and if the worldview he believed in so fervently is actually true, he’ll be living it up with the angels right about now; he’s most famous for his “Chick Tracts”, small comic books which tried to convert the world to his rather niche version of Christianity. He was vehemently anti-Catholic, Islam and Hinduism, anti-feminist, anti-homosexuality, anti-evolution, and believed that any translation of the Bible from after the King James version (1611) was blasphemy. The Southern Poverty Law Centre has classed the Chick Tracts as a hate group, and should you wish to indulge, most are available to read for free at www.chick.com. They’re beyond-simple morality tales, where people get converted from whatever deviant lifestyle they’re currently involved in by the simple method of some guy telling them a Bible story; and are Chick’s attempt to stop the trend towards what he saw as liberalism in the modern Christian church. As I read more, I noticed he was a “dispensationalist”, which is so spectacularly dull to anyone not already involved that my eyes refused to let me read the article on it. Thanks, eyes!
A couple of years ago, JR Ralls won $1000 in a lottery and contacted Jack Chick, to see if he could make a movie of one of his most famous tracts, “Dark Dungeons”, and I presume he was pretty surprised when Chick granted him the rights to use it for free. Click these words right here to read it, and be surprised at how closely Ralls stuck to the script (L Gabriel Gonda directed). But before we get on with that, a little word about the game that provides the backbone.
I started playing role-playing games, including Dungeons & Dragons, in 1989, when I moved to a new school in the same town and made many new friends (two of whom are my regular companions for our “Awesome Movie Monday” night, 27 years later). Rather than learning cool stuff about witchcraft or getting into Satan or committing suicide, we instead had a laugh playing games, using our imaginations, and generally being nerds. And not cool nerds like today, with lots of women players and multi-million dollar movie franchises catering to us; we were old-school nerds, objects of occasional mockery with barely a member of the opposite sex in sight (or the same sex, depending on preference – what I’m saying is, we were a bunch of single guys) and any fun we had, we had to make ourselves. I have many fond memories of RPGs with my friends, we even did a sponsored 24-hour gaming session for charity once.
All the rather pathetic anti-RPG sentiment of the early 1980s appears to have sprung from the case of James Dallas Egbert III, a deeply disturbed child prodigy who, after several attempts to commit suicide, was finally successful in 1980. Rather than blaming his extremely pushy parents, or drug addiction, the press seized upon the fact he played “Dungeons and Dragons”, propelling the game from almost complete obscurity to the front pages of newspapers and magazines all over the world. A grossly misleading novel, “Mazes and Monsters” (turned into the movie which gave Tom Hanks his first starring role in 1982) was published about it, and it’s in this media panic that Chick decided to write his pamphlet, which has a 1984 copyright on his site.
The movie! Satanists are super-pleased at poisoning the world with tarot cards, homosexuality, and RPGs; this segues into two women going to college, both Christ-loving girls who want nothing more than to proselytise. Marcie (Anastasia Higham) is also, via a few glances and pauses, a bit in love with Debbie (Alyssa Kay), but this is a short film (39 minutes!) so there’s no time for love here; while they’re at a sorority party, drinking and dancing lead inevitably to the playing of “Dark Dungeons”, and the two girls are swiftly drawn into its world.
They even start dressing up as their characters and doing “live role-playing” (LARPing), but Marcie is pressured into suicide when she’s kicked out of the game; will Debbie embrace “the real power” (she can do actual spells!) and allow the summoning of Cthulhu or will she go back to the straight and narrow, represented by some boring Christian dude who just wants to pray with her?
There’s a heck of a lot to like about this movie. First up is the two main performances, which are much better than any movie made for $1,000 has any right to have. Higham is fantastic, I think, but both women are great. Not all the acting around them is great, such as the evil Dungeon Master Ms Frost, who’s aiming for OTT but misses, but overall it’s strong.
Now, it’s clearly a parody, deep down. No-one would spend any time or money to make a real movie about a Chick Tract these days, and there are some decent laughs in the first portion. Perhaps a few too many of them require you to have been a gamer at some point? Heck, it’s as much in my DNA as my eye colour, so I can’t say what it’s like to not be a teenage RPGer.
But the surprising thing, as I said, is how closely they stuck to Chick’s original idea, and how serious the second half is. Almost everyone plays it dead straight, which is the best way for parody to work. I could even see Chick being pleased with it, which is something I’d never have expected to say at the beginning. Well done, Ralls and co!
Highly recommended. Available for $5 from http://www.darkdungeonsthemovie.com/, with a ton of special features (including five different commentaries and a documentary twice as long as the movie) for an amazing $2.50 too.
Rating: thumbs up