Alex: On Dungeons and D-Listers we’ve tackled a lot about the fantasy genre. I’ve gone through newer low-budget fantasy movies, to low-budget fantasy movies that are so old your parents were still sexually active when they came out. I’ve also reviewed all three of the live-action Dungeons and Dragons movies, and even recently capped the trilogy off with a glimpse at the ‘83 animated series. But there’s something about Dungeons and Dragons that you might not know. Role-playing games… are the Devil. I jest, of course. RPG’s stopped being evil around the same time rock music did, and have since been replaced with things like Death Metal and George W. Bush. It seems silly now to look back and think that a harmless game that united geeks everywhere could be associated with serious satanic magic, but it wasn’t so obvious back in the day. Nope, D&D being satanic was pants-shittingly serious business back then, serious enough that movies were made about it. Movies… as in more than one. So, today, we’re going to take a harsh, unflinching glance at this dark era of our nation’s culture, from the serious to the satirical. Who do I mean by “we?” Well, I figured if I was gonna do this thing I’d either need a stupendous amount of alcohol or help from another critic — and since my booze budget’s tight this month, I’ve brought in the OG of Psycho Drive-In, the Dreamweaver himself, Paul Brian McCoy. And with our powers combined… we might just survive this thing. Paul: Waitaminute. I was told there’d be booze! Luckily the films we’re going to be talking about this week do have mind-altering effects, with 1982’s Mazes and Monsters serving as a straight up barbiturate with a touch of classic Eighties antidepressants tossed in, and this year’s satiric Dark Dungeons providing more of a mellow buzz like a nice hash brownie, where you think you might fall asleep and then suddenly you jerk awake with the urge to go for a walk in the woods while laughing until you can’t breathe. Or something like that. Both works are inspired by classic anti-RPG literature, although the term is a bit stretched when discussing a fear-mongering Rona Jaffe novel based on a poorly researched news article about a real-life college student’s disappearance, and the 1984 self-published Chick Tract (by Jack Chick) about the dangers of Dungeons & Dragons and the glory of Jesus. At least the makers of the film adaptation of Dark Dungeons have a sense of humor about the whole thing, whereas the writer of Mazes and Monsters, the amazingly named Tom Lazarus, was singularly lacking in irony or satire — hard to believe for a writer who made his name later writing for Hunter, Stingray, and Jake and the Fatman. Mazes and Monsters was just the latest in a string of movies he’d written inspired by tragedy and sadness (Survival of Dana about a teen living through his parents’ divorce, The Ordeal of Bill Carney about a paraplegic single dad trying to keep his kids, and Hear no Evil about a cop who becomes deaf vs. a biker drug ring), so it’s no wonder even the moments in this film that are supposed to be light-hearted and fun turn out dreary and drained of all life. Not even the manic-depressive energy of a young Tom Hanks can save this one. Alex: Though I’m not gonna say he (Hanks) doesn’t try. He’s clearly pouring himself out into the role… there’s just no role to really pour himself into. Mazes and Monsters is about a young man who is lured into the sinister world of role-playing because a cute girl is playing it and wants him to join in — while that’s much less unheard of now, it was absolutely hilarious to consider back in ‘82. The problem is that Tom Hanks (I absolutely cannot be bothered to learn his character’s name, he’s Tom Hanks) is absolutely batshit psychotic, the lurking kind of insanity that nobody notices at first, but eventually splashes up to get you like an extremely unfortunate toilet mishap. After a more rambunctious member of the group inspires them to try LARPing (ironically, this pops up in Dark Dungeons too — coincidence?), however, it all becomes too real for poor Tommy and he genuinely goes off the deep end. What starts happening after that makes even less sense than… the… other parts of the movie that don’t make sense. Hanks’ character, a “holy man” (shows how much research was done, they didn’t even call him a cleric!) wanders around the city like a psycho, stabs some people to death, and nearly kills his own stupid self in the process. There are a couple of chuckles throughout, but 100% of them are unintentional. Like, why would a priest stab some homeless guys to death? Yeah, D&D is a violent game… if you’re playing a fighter-type character. But for Hanks’ healer, he had no reason to be acting as violent as he was. The whole point was that he got too into his character — and then he proceeded to act in no way how that character would have acted. Paul: I hate to try and defend this thing, but to be fair, he did hold up his magic charm of whatchamacallit to try and fend off the mugger/monster. Stabbing him was a last resort. Honestly, the thing that bothered me most about the film was that there was no grasp of the passing of time! It opens with the police and news reporters searching for Tom Gump in the caves where they’ve been LARPing (thanks to suicidal Jay Jay, the 16 year-old genius with an amazing collection of hats), then it says “Six Months Earlier” and shows everybody showing up for the first semester or quarter or whatever of college — but it turns out this is a few days after Halloween, so six months earlier was like May. And then after the gang talks Forrest Hanks down from jumping off the World Trade Center, it flashes forward three months to a lovely springtime afternoon for the epilogue — which would clock in at February or March. If they can’t even get a regular calendar represented accurately, I guess it’s really too much to ask to have the actual events of the story presented realistically. And I have to ask, did this movie invent LARPing? The characters act like they’ve invented it? Alex: Nooot even close. LARPing was going on in the 70’s — this just shows how out of touch with anything even involving RPG’s this movie was. I’ve never had much of an eye for timestamps, it’s something that annoys me when I hear about it but that I seldom actually pay attention to. Considering the rest of this flick though, I’m in no way surprised that it got its own timeline wrong. Honestly, just thinking about this flick still irritates me. It took itself so incredibly seriously, giving you this unblinking glimpse into the dark and mind-twisting world that was role-playing, showing the massive effect it can have on the weaker-minded. Similar propaganda came out for other games and activities (EverQuest springs to mind straight away, as the treatment it got as the first real MMO rivaled the hate D&D got), and I always have to wonder why the hell people can’t tell the difference between mental illness and inherent evil in an inanimate object. And in the case of Mazes and Monsters, it doesn’t even have the saving grace of being a good movie, beyond the aforementioned unintended giggles. But maybe I’m just biased, and am too caught up in defending something that I’ve enjoyed since I was young (and still remain uncorrupted by… for the most part). Was this movie really as insulting as I feel like it was? Or is it merely the product of ignorance, and should be taken with a grain of salt? Paul: To be honest, I never got beyond character creation in RPGs so while I can understand the offensive quality of Mazes and Monsters, I was more caught up in just what a boring, generic film it was. There were brief moments of possibility in there, and it had a fairly progressive idea about relationships for the time, but everything was lip service only, with no real exploration of any of the issues raised. And it did try to raise some issues — in ham-handed ways without a doubt, but they were there. I mean, Jay Jay’s suicidal tendencies and loneliness were interesting and could have used some exploration, but instead he gets sidelined so we can concentrate on Tom Forrest and his wide-eyed simpleton approach to mental illness. I’d almost go so far as to say that the RPG element of the film was just a frill used to capitalize on profiting from a story of a troubled man who has a psychotic break. It created a framework to manipulate audiences’ emotions and say next to nothing about either RPGs or mental illness. At least Forrest Hanks’ mom apparently stopped drinking long enough to take care of her son once everything was said and done. Alex: That was definitely nice of her, and…. ffffff, I gotta say, if there was one thing about this that I enjoyed, it was the end. The faint charm, the care of his mother, and the illusion that Tom was improving, only to be dashed in a really bleak ending… yes, he’s safe. Yes, he’s not a danger to anyone at the moment. No, he’s not okay and he’s never going to be okay again. The juxtaposition between Tom Hanks rediscovering the wonder of adventure and the jaded views of his friends, as well, was… I’ll admit it, a pretty good capstone to an overall horrible film. Does this excuse the fact that this was an inane, ill-thought-out, dry to the point of brittleness, and otherwise unsufferable shard of mental filth? Absolutely friggin’ not! And I still hate this movie! Whether it was a cash grab, a soapbox, genuinely meant well, or whatever the hell it was, it was a bad movie with a bad message. Paul: The ending really was the best part. There’s just such a sense of defeat for Mr. I Intimidate Women With My Looks So Can’t Have A Real Relationship and Ms. I’m Too Smart For All The Men Who Find Me Interesting — they’re perfect for each other. I sense a future of alcoholism and infidelity for that couple. Jay Jay (Mr. Teen Super Genius With A Neverending Hat Collection) at least has a future ahead of him that might not be just involve becoming a bleak mainstream breeder. He may become a supervillain, or he may just kill himself. Hard to tell. At least the eternal manchild Gump is happy as a lark. So much so, it kind of undermines all the shallow anti-RPG stuff that came before, for me. In retrospect this kind of plays like a cautionary tale about giving in to societal expectations and how happiness is only achievable by rejecting the reality that society is forcing on these college kids. That’s how I’m going to read it, anyway — if only to salvage what was a pretty painful 100 minutes. In contrast to Mazes and Monsters, the novel, Jack Chick’s 22-page illustrated religious diatribe against the Satanic evils of Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Dungeons, is like a model of efficiency. Chick had his agenda clear in mind and there’s no fat on this story. It’s all lean. Crazy Christian Lean. And the film adaptation is similarly streamlined, although, to be honest, it kind of dragged a little itself — which is dangerous for a film that’s only 39 minutes long. Alex: But at least this movie I can talk about without being reduced to a frothing, blubbering rage. You’re absolutely right — the Chack Trict… er, Trick Ract… whatever, by Jack Chick was indeed a lean, mean machine, a crusade against the ultimate evil, and as dumb as it was, man was it powerful (dem feels!). It lends itself well to a satire, or so you’d think, and considering the minds behind this project, I had the absolute highest of hopes for it. Who are those minds, you ask? The sinister think-tank of nerds behind the live-action short The Gamers, and then the more polished, feature-length sequel The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, seemed like the perfect team to tackle something like Dark Dungeons. They have all the intimate knowledge of fantasy RPG’s required to make this shine, all the experience with the genre, and all the verve and humor to take Chick’s diatribe and turn it on its head. The big question is… why did they fail? Paul: I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it failed… It didn’t really do what I thought it would, and there are a couple of changes to the source material that I’m not sure I really understand. I guess this would be a good time for a spoiler alert. SPOILER ALERT FOR REALZ. Alex: (Unless you saw the trailer, anyway. In which case it’s totally not.) Paul: Oh, um… SPOILERS! Most of the short film is pretty faithful to the Chick Tract, although there are some character-building things as the film opens that are purely the invention of the filmmakers. It’s about halfway through Dark Dungeons that we discover that our cultists and RPG enthusiasts are not actually the Satan Worshippers of tradition, but instead are Cthulhu cultists, and the games and LARPing are in service to raising the Elder God. Luckily Jesus is on the case and the conclusion is practically word for word from the tract, but honestly, without a traditional horned devil, I wasn’t as impressed. It’s like the film shifted from satire to trying to snag geek cred points. Does that make sense? Alex: It does make sense, even if I hadn’t thought about it until now. It fits with the rest of the film’s more subtle jokes (which I shall list momentarily) but was too heavy-handed in that it was actually a central part of the plot, and deviates largely from the Tract. The big strength of Dark Dungeons was that it was as straight-faced as it could possibly be while being a satire. Nearly verbatim with the source material and just as dead serious, to the uninitiated it could be confused for being completely honest — which actually might be why Cthulhu was thrown in. The deadpan style of the movie and the non-RPGing characters lends itself well to the little wisecracks tossed in from time to time, all racking up heaps of geek cred and pretty genuinely hilarious to people who are already familiar with them. Among these jabs: “The Shadow?!” “The Shadow?” “The Shadow.” — a reference to The Gamers and its sequel. “I use Magic Missile to attack the darkness!” — a reference to An 8-Bit Reenactment of Dungeons and Dragons. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sighting of a Pathfinder sourcebook among the mass book-burning. The cultists’ monitors feature a holographic 20-sided die.. And, I’m sure, even more that I didn’t catch. This attention to detail was the film’s greatest charm for me, and showed that, despite the movie’s conceptual shortcomings, it was really made with love. That love shows. Paul: I think all of that was lost on me. But now that you mention it, I think you’re probably right about the reason for going Lovecraftian. At least now it’s clearly a satire, which begs the question of whether or not Chick knew they were going to be taking the piss with his holy work. But you opened by saying that Dark Dungeons ultimately failed. For me, I just found most of it a little boring and was disappointed with the inclusion of Cthulhu (maybe the only time I’m ever going type those words!). What problems did you have with it? Alex: It lacked life, that’s the only real problem. While the thought and the care were there, and the actors (specifically the dungeon mistress, my goodness) seemed to be having oodles of fun with their roles, there was something it was missing. I think that it could have been strengthened by either playing straight-to-type with the Tract and not changing it as much as they did, or by more loosely basing their film on the source material to give themselves more room to play. A lot of sections were verbatim with the Tract, and while that’s cute if you’ve already read it, I feel some parts of it felt forced and detracted from the pacing of the film — which, as you have pointed out, was many kinds of messed up. I haven’t had forty minutes last so long since the last time I watched an episode of Northern Exposure. Overall, it also lacked the focus needed to either make it a stand-out satire or a stand-out comedy. It was equal parts dedicated and irreverent, and with something as polarizing as what they were trying to attempt in a satire on Dark Dungeons, six of one and half a dozen of the other wasn’t enough. I came expecting a Baker’s Thirteen and I didn’t get it. That, and, what happened to all of the lesbians? I was told there’d be lesbians. Paul: There were lesbians. Well, one lesbian. Maybe. Sort of. That was a bit of a missed opportunity for satire, too, wasn’t it? RPGs will make you gay! I did appreciate the fact that Marcie (Anastasia Higham), the girl who was the most adventurous, the one who urges them to go to the RPG party, the one who clearly has a crush on her best friend, isn’t the one who goes completely over to the dark side, though. It added a little bit of depth and motivation for her actions that weren’t purely all about “I died in the game and have nothing else to live for” but seemed to be about feeling like she’d let her friend down or had been left behind. I would have much rather seen Debbie (Alyssa Kay) go. Alex: Then that crush disappeared as soon as the friend started being the one crushing on her. Maybe. Sort of. Not even bringing up the obviously sexually-predatory dungeon mistress. Hell, this angle was even in one of the promotional posters. But yes, that was a pretty neat angle honestly, and it was unexpected (until you get to the point where the characters receive their names, at which point you realize that things aren’t gonna go well for “Blackleaf”). To be totally honest, picking Dark Dungeons apart piece by piece reveals that all of the small aspects of it were polished and clever in their own way. It’s only when all of those pieces are placed together and the machine they make up attempts to function that its flaws become apparent. I’m actually being too hard on it. I liked Dark Dungeons a fair bit, and being totally objective, it was well put-together. I think its biggest problem may have been not living up to my expectations. Paul: I admit, my expectations were very high. I don’t know why that is, except for the fact that the concept itself is just genius. So much so that I really can’t understand how they got the rights to it. Apparently they were simply given the rights with the only stipulation being a credit for Jack Chick! That’s insane. But it’s got me thinking about going through the Chick Tracts catalogue and seeing if there’s anything else that’s ripe for adaptation. I think you’re spot on when you point out that it’s equal parts dedicated to and irreverent toward the source. It’s a fine line to walk and when they start adding original material it doesn’t quite live up to the sincere madness of Jack Chick and instead starts echoing Mazes and Monsters, which is a dangerous move to make. With that said, though, Dark Dungeons is a consistently high quality piece of work. The direction and set design are better than one would expect for a project with this small a budget. The digital effects veer between nicely subtle and absurd in the best of ways. I just wish Cthulhu hadn’t been included. Alex: So, whether you’re looking at “RPG’s are evil because they make you CRAZY!” or “RPG’s are evil because they’re THE DEVIL!”, each side seems to have its inherent difficulties in making a movie that’s actually sufficiently realistic and scary enough to convince the audience of their point. The reason of course being that the point is ridiculous and too absurd to take seriously even in the most dull of minds… part of the reason the Dark Dungeons film worked as a satire at all. They could make the film as dead-serious as they wanted to, always leaning on the fact that 0% of viewers are capable of getting the wrong message from it. The message in question is just too damn cockamamie. Mazes and Monsters still fails to be funny despite its absurdity, which I believe is grounds to order its creators flogged with a bag of d20’s. My Verdicts: Mazes and Monsters: 1/5 Dark Dungeons: 3.5/5 What’s your final say, Paul? Paul: I’m a little less hostile toward Mazes and Monsters, if only because the ending is so wonderfully bleak. And I did enjoy Dark Dungeons; I just missed Satan. So: Mazes and Monsters: 2.5/5 Dark Dungeons: 4/5 Alex: Well, there you have it, folks. Let it be known that Paul’s more forgiving than I am. (Kidding, kidding… or am I?) Thanks for helping me out with these two, if I’d had to do this on my own I would have ended up joining poor Tom Hanks, giving my mother back the same “magic coin” day after day for the privilege of living at home, staring at the wall and drooling for the rest of my life. Until next time! Dark Dungeons and its extensive Extras package can be downloaded here. Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons Chick Tract can be read and purchased here. Mazes and Monsters can be… aw nevermind. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 2 Responses Alex Wolfe August 29, 2014 Holy balls, I just realized that this is my 40th review. Log in to Reply Paul Brian McCoy August 30, 2014 You’re a machine! Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.