Daniel Suchman Photography Just your average RPG group.
Dark Dungeons is a movie that dramatizes the infamous Jack Chick tract of the same name. For those of you inexperienced with the works of Mr. Chick, he is most famous for his warnings about the evils of games like D&D, rock music, and pretty much everything else that was invented after 1950. On the one hand, this is something funny; a remnant of history. On the other hand, such scares continue today on any and all sides of the political aisle, from GMO food to vaccinations to terrorists to nuclear energy washing up on shore from the Japanese tsunami. No one seems immune, and the Internet lets these things travel faster than ever.
I personally had my life influenced by this hysteria, as I was fascinated by role-playing games (RPGs) but due to some vague fear of cults and "real spells" I was banned from playing them. This was my status quo for many years until I reached my teenage years. I became the worst teenage rebel ever, making excuses for being out so I could attend game sessions, then smuggling D&D books back and forth. While other people took up drugs, illicit drinking, or casual sex I was trying to hide my Player's Handbook behind my back while leaving for the game store. It's pretty funny now but it led to some tense moments at the time. Having lived the hysteria, was I impressed by Dark Dungeons? Read on! [SPOILERS for those who don't know or can't guess how an evangelical tract about something Satanic is going to end]
1. The Humor
When the movie started, my wife, daughter, and I were all laughing. D&D as something the cool kids played! Creepy comedic dialogue delivered straight with some decent acting! I read somewhere that no one who had ever seen a session of D&D could ever think it was evil as it is actually pretty lame. I mean, I love RPGs (a bit too much at times), they are my hobby, but whatever hysterical people were imagining with Satanism and evil magic doesn't hold up when you see a bunch of people clustered around plastic and metal figures arguing about whose turn it is and who was in front.
Being as my family and I are all experienced gamers, it was a real treat for a while to see this alternate world where RPGs can't be stopped because "all the popular kids" are playing them. The scene where the fraternity head stops a dubstep, binge-drinking filled party to announce the "main event" of the party to be an RPG was great, not to mention a crowd of drunken college kids chanting "RPG" with cult-like fervor (see clip above). This is fun stuff. The actors playing Marcie and Debbie, two best friends whose friendship seems to constantly hint of something more, do a lot with what they have to work with. That's the good part.
Less fun is the last few minutes of the movie. In the original tract, the poor confused Marcie feels obligated to hang herself after her character dies - instead of just making a new character. This silly idea is treated more seriously in the movie as the Dungeon Mistress, Mistress Frost, is deliberately trying to incite suicide as part of some dark ritual. This was already creeping me out a little after seeing so much information on suicide last week with Robin Williams, but gets worse with the buildup. Instead of a normal gaming session, the girls are told they are ready for "L!A!R!P!" (live action role-playing, for the uninitiated), wherein a muscle-bound and shirtless thug chokes Marcie as he holds her down on the ground. She pleads for mercy, saying "I don't want this."
This part is totally lacking from the original tract and is either a weird attempt at rape humor, a really tone-deaf attempt at comedy, or a serious push to raise the stakes. Add mournful music as the defeated Marcie walks home and a moderately disturbing scene where she carefully preps her room, preparing her suicide note. I had to wonder if this is still supposed to be funny. Why did they have to add strange subtexts? What was going on here? I didn't feel comfortable laughing at assault and suicide. It seemed out of place in an otherwise light-hearted movie.
2. The Authenticity
Back on the funny track, this movie is full of gamer Easter eggs. We asked a few questions of the movie's "spiritual advisor"/associate producer, Chris Ode, and he mentioned that even he was an avid gamer and his favorite gaming experience was at seminary (I imagined Jack Chick crying a single tear as I read that part). I had already realized that the production team must be serious gamers, just due to the emphasis on common inside jokes among the gaming community. These are not subtle mentions either. When Marcie and Debbie earn their way into the gaming club with their awesome skills, using a magic missile on the darkness has a key role (much like the clip above). It is mentioned that the players also fight gazebos in pitched battles, which is another old gamer legend (see clip below).
There are also multiple references to steam tunnels, which was a parallel scare wherein allegedly D&D players would go hide in weird places to play games, the most famous case of which led to a movie with Tom Hanks. It's humorous to see a "Dungeon Mistress" dominating her players and doing things like burning their miniatures when they die in game. Is this stuff funny to a more casual fan? No clue, but we liked it.
Maybe not as much as The Room, but still.
We also asked the production team's resident pastor if this movie reflected Christian thought. Chris Ode had this to say: "...do I believe the film reflects the beliefs of Jack Chick and his tracts? Absolutely: that was the deliberate intent. Does it reflect my own theology? Absolutely not. Does it reflect the theology of most Christians? Absolutely not - though, unfortunately, there are those who think it does." Jack Chick has a strange, paranoid worldview. He also lacks much of an ear for dialogue, as his teenagers talk more like cartoon characters. This is borne out in the movie. The dialogue is overly dramatic and doesn't really make much sense. I imagine the makers of this movie yelling "That was the joke!" at their monitors right now as they read this, but even though the bad dialogue and stupid events were on purpose, it still doesn't necessarily make them enjoyable to watch.
I actually did enjoy them at first, but felt a bit of dread once I realized that the entire 42 minute movie would be done in the same over-the-top fashion. It ruins the drama a bit, but then again I guess this is where the humor comes in? On one hand, I totally got this movie. On the other hand, I really didn't get it at all.
3. An Ode to "Satanic Panic"
These days, I doubt anyone I know really believes in satanic cabals wearing creepy robes exchanging high-fives over encouraging homosexuality and spreading RPGs out into the unsuspecting world. Maybe the second, though I think the robes would probably still push things into farce. There was a time when this was not the case, though. "Satanic panics" were very common in the '80s and a bit beyond. Creepy murder cults doing evil things for Satan have been around since the Middle Ages, and seeing that bit of revival made for strange days.
In Dark Dungeons, the allegedly super-popular "RPG-ers" wander the halls dressed in all black, sneering at authority and all that. I actually believe this was what my parents thought would happen to me if I played D&D . That I would go from working on my character's life history and killing goblins to being part of some weird gang that actually casts spells on people. It's easy to laugh at this stuff now, but it was a big deal at the time. The televangelist-looking pastor in Dark Dungeons is played as a straightforward hero; in any modern production he would have a teenage harem, a drug habit, and either secretly be an atheist or think he was Jesus.
I was very disappointed when the "Big Bad" of Dark Dungeons turned out to be Cthulhu instead of Satan. Cthulhu is one of those things nerds love these days, ranking up there with zombies and steampunk for top gamer obsessions. Cthulhu is sometimes cute, sometimes scary, sometimes ineffable and sometimes just a boss monster that needs a good punching. I count three different Cthulhu games in this year's Ennie nominations. Three different games! I feel like overexposure looms dangerously near for Cthulhu these days.
I would have liked to see whatever wild-eyed version of the Devil would be translated for this movie. Satan was the thing in the early '80s, NOT Cthulhu. His inclusion was defended as follows: "we were committed to presenting the world of Jack Chick without exaggeration or misrepresentation, but this appeared to cross that line and I initially objected to its inclusion. However, JR Ralls (the writer) directed me to this article and I had no choice but to stand corrected: in the "Chickverse," Cthulhu is "all too real." I felt like this was a cop-out and way too much gamer red meat. Plus the article in question was not written by Jack Chick, though that could be nitpicking as it is on the website bearing his name. Either way, I could have done without a view of the old octopus-head, especially given that they didn't really have the budget to do very good CGI.