Growing up in the 90’s and 00’s, I had a pretty easy time when it came to being a nerd, relatively speaking. Video games were all the rage with all the kids in school, and even card games like the Pokemon TCG and Magic: The Gathering didn’t necessarily make you the target of bullying or ridicule by any particular group of people. Many older folk who grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s, however, who played RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons were shunned, not just by fellow kids who called them nerds, but by adults as well. Due to some overblown (and likely fictitious) stories about kids killing themselves over D&D, as well as the fact during this time in American culture the Christian “Moral Majority” was becoming a thing, many religious groups made it their mission to try and spread the message thatD&D was evil. After all, just look at the cover of this book!
It’s no wonder some parents were freaking out! You have a group of adventurers around what is clearly an unholy alter, with a couple of guys trying to pry a gem out of the statue’s eye, and you have what looks like a lizardman set as a sacrifice on said alter! It’s no wonder why some groups raised the stink that it did, and it’s no wonder why some of them started to come up with these fantasies that these kinds of games were teaching kids how to cast spells and summon demons and stuff like that. During this panic, you started to see lots of different ways in presenting this message that RPGs are bad. Some of you may have heard of a little movie called Mazes and Monsters (a real far out game) starring a young Tom Hanks in one of his first roles. Jack T. Chick also felt the need to tell the world about the “evils” of RPGs, which he did with Dark Dungeons, a 22 or so panel comic book that showed an “average” D&D session and player. It’s ham-fisted, over-the-top, and lacks any basis in real life, but according to Mr. Chick it’s totally what happens if you play RPGs. It really is worth a read, because quite frankly it’s so unintendedly funny!
In 2013 JR Ralls decided to follow his dream of putting Dark Dungeons to life, and using the 1000 dollars he won from a lottery he put together a Kickstarter that raised over $25k, twice the amount he was looking for in the first place. He had decided to make the movie in the first place not because he agrees with its message, but rather because it’s so over the top that it just becomes that funny. That’s right, folks: the Dark Dungeon movie is not a parody.
Please note that while I’ll be talking about spoilers in this part of the review, they’re only going to be spoilers if you’ve never read the tract I linked to up a couple of paragraphs ago. I’d highly recommend at least reading the comic first though before continuing!
The story is about Debbie and Marcie, two very religious girls who have just started college and are looking at making an impact on the world. During their orientation, they learn of the RPG club, a group of kids that play RPGs and are generally portrayed as being “bad”, but because they’re the most popular group on campus they can’t be kicked off. Debbie and Marcie decide to join the group, and quickly gets sucked in to the world of RPGs, where they go without sleep for days at a time and only think about playing the next game. Their grades start slipping, but Debbie manages to keep herself afloat when Ms. Frost, the dungeon mistress, teaches her “real ultimate power”, and Debbie casts a mind-bondage spell on her teacher who gives her an A+ on her paper. Of course, what Debbie and Marcie don’t know is that a secret coven is enacting their final plans to summon Cthulhu into the world, and every time Debbie uses magic they bring the plan another step closer to completion. Things really come to a head when Debbie and Marcie try to get Marcie up to level 8 in order to let her learn the ultimate power, but when Blackleaf, her character, is killed, and is rejected by Debbie who doesn’t want to lose her power, Marcie hangs herself in her dorm room and leaves a note saying “It’s my fault Blackleaf died”.
It’s at this point in the movie when you realize that despite everything being done tongue-in-cheek, with the hammy acting and the pop references, the movie is being done as a faithful adaptation to the source material. When JR Ralls came up with the idea of making it into a movie, the last thing he wanted to do was make it into a parody or a mockery. He didn’t believe in what the tract was telling him, but he believed in that the story had every right to be told as-is in a movie. To be honest, the suicide scene really is kind of gut wrenching: we just saw Marcie give up everything she had loved, had everything else stripped away, even her love of her best friend, and ended up life like that. It’s possible that moment was made more poignant over the tragic death of Robin Williams last week, but even so, it is a powerful scene.
In the end, Debbie tries to defeat the coven with her magic powers, but once she realizes that it’s hopeless, Michael, the guy at the beginning of the film who told her to stay away from the RPG club, comes up to her and tells her to repent and take Jesus into her heart. They go to a church service that night, who tells them about the evil of the occult and to throw away their C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien books, and to get rid of all that stuff. Debbie accepts Jesus, and the coven’s plans are thwarted as the castle they’re in explodes and Cthulhu sinks back into the ocean. It ends with Debbie and the church service burning RPG books and materials in a field, as Michael gives Debbie a bible.
At 40 minutes long, Dark Dungeons isn’t a long movie, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the source material isn’t exactly long either, and even at 40 minutes you can feel that the movie sometimes stretches itself a little thin in my opinion, mostly around the point in the film after Marcie dies and Debbie goes to the steam tunnels. Some more religiously minded folk might take some offense to how Marcie and Debbie, and other Christians are portrayed. After all, every time a Christian is brought up, they’re either talking about Witnessing to a group of people, or about how they have or how other people need to accept Jesus into their hearts. I wouldn’t say though that this film is anti-Christian at all, however: after all, they were pretty faithful in adapting Mr. Chick’s tract into the movie in the first place, and every Christian in those tracts behaves the same way.
That being said, the camera work is fantastic, the acting, hammy as it is, is top notch, and even most of the effects are pretty good too. Mistress Frost (played by Tracy Hyland), might just be the best part of the movie, with her over-the-top delivery and casual disdain for other people’s problems. It’s the perfect kind of movie to watch with a group of fellow RPGers in order to riff on some of the stereotypes presented on the film, as well as to laugh at a lot of the inside jokes. For 10 bucks you can get a DVD of the movie from Zombie Orpheus Entertainment, the folks who helped produce and distribute the film, which comes with commentaries from the cast, the writer, the writer + director, the producers, and the designers. There’s also a Making of Dark Dungeons, as well as “How to Make a Movie for $1000 (But Not Really)”. I would recommend this movie wholeheartedly.