Dark Dungeons (2014)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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Dungeons and Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012)

Ah, Dungeons and Dragons. Waster of many hours of my youth, as a player of the paper-and-imagination RPG way back when, and waster of several hours of my adulthood, as this is now the third film in the series. Although series implies some sort of progression, or acknowledgement of the other films’ existence, and this film certainly has neither of them.

The first film was clearly an attempt to start a franchise, with Marlon Wayans, some wisecracking white guy who looks like he should have been in “Boy Meets World” or “The Wonder Years”, Jeremy Irons, looking thoroughly embarrassed throughout, and that bald fella who was also the baddie in “The Mummy”. It was, of course, a load of old rubbish. My viewing partner for all three of these films has been my former housemate, and he mentioned to me his big problem with the first film was it bore no relation to D&D, the game. I personally wouldn’t have given a damn if the film had been okay, but whatever.

The second film I really don’t remember at all. Baldie from the Mummy was…probably…in it again, but past that my mind’s a blank. Thanks, memory! Now, if you could just wipe out those two Transformers films I watched for some reason, too, that’d be grand.

So, we go on to the third film. My good lady wife decided discretion was the better part of valour on this occasion and went upstairs to read, leaving me and my old housemate to battle through this on our own. And you know what? I really rather enjoyed this.

Nhagruul the Foul! He’s a baddie who sold his soul to some demons, and whose body was turned into the Book Of Vile Darkness. His disciples then went a –killin’, and it was only the newly formed and god-blessed Knights of the New Sun who stopped them, and who managed to destroy the ink that made the book (when it was separated to stop the Knights from finding it and destroying it).

The film starts in a becalmed land – the Knights have protected the land for many years, and are about to welcome their first new member for centuries, Grayson (the son of a current Knight). He’s bummed out because it appears that the Sun-God didn’t bless him during the initiation process, and while he’s off having a sulk all the other Knights are slaughtered by Nhagruul’s people, looking to put the Book back together (they need to torture a pure Knight, and extract his liquid pain in order to form the ink). So Grayson is forced to take his sun medallion and go into the revenge business on his own…that is, until he meets a group of adventurers in a tavern and decides to go undercover with them in order to get closer to the target of his revenge.

Here’s where I think the film gets interesting. It’s definitely pitched at fans of the role-playing game – there’s “famous” items from the game littered throughout the film – and I think this group of adventurers is a parody of the way most actual games of D&D go. To the players themselves, they’re having a good time, but most groups of teenagers / gamers are a nasty, unruly lot, and to outsiders (like the villagers they meet during the film) they must seem like a group of heavily armed gold-and-sex-obsessed psychopaths. I think it’s too deliberate and over-the-top to be an accident, but this went right over the heads of most people who watched it (all several hundred of us straight-to-DVD RPG fanatics).

The tattooed, super-nasty female member of the group, Accordia, gets saved by Grayson as they’re raiding a red dragon’s lair, and therefore she is his, to do with as he sees fit. They have a very odd conversation (odd for a fantasy film, certainly) and then get down to some sexual activities. Here’s the second reason I like this film – I think the scriptwriter wanted to make a fairly complex psycho-sexual thriller about a cop going undercover with a gang of violent thieves, but a producer went “only way we’re making your script is if you turn it into a Dungeons and Dragons film” which led to some hasty rewrites / mental breakdowns / getting a D&D fan to put the final polish on the script.

Will the gang of adventurers stay together long enough to help Grayson defeat Nhagruul, destroy the book forever and rescue his Dad (oh yes, his Dad was kidnapped by the baddies for the ink-extraction process)? What effect will Grayson’s pure-heartedness have on the evil Accordia? I will leave those questions for you, the viewer, to puzzle out.

I’d definitely recommend this film. Okay, it was made for a budget of 7p, some of the acting is not all it could be and it’s a damn Dungeons and Dragons film, but it knows its fanbase, it’s not too long, and the film itself gives the engaged viewer plenty to chew on. Feel free, too, to completely ignore my attempts to make this film seem like more than it really was – judging by the other reviews I read, the fact it was considered too poor to even show on the SyFy Channel speaks volumes about its quality.

Dungeons and Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness on IMDB