A Review of Dark Dungeons, The Film Every Roleplayer Should See (Before It’s Too Late)
This is very serious, you guys.
I was born in the ‘80s, so my understanding of the religious freak-out over Dungeons & Dragons was acquired secondhand. Dark Dungeons, however, is something I’m very familiar with. Let’s set the stage: Enter Jack Chick, a fundamentalist Christian comic book artist. Since 1970, his company, Chick Publications, has sold hundreds of millions of copies of his illustrated evangelical tracts. If you’re a tabletop gamer, or if you frequent the nerdier corners of the internet, chances are you’ve seen this one:
Produced in 1984, Dark Dungeons has a somewhat legendary status among roleplayers. This is the crème de la crème of moral panic, the ancestral cousin of Harry Potter book burnings. In the tract’s disjointed pages, we learn that arguing about grappling rules around a Cheeto-dusted table is anything but benign. RPGs, you see, are a tool of Satan, used to lure young minds into actual witchcraft.
I know. I know.
Enter our second player, Zombie Orpheus Entertainment, an indie production company associated with the cult classic Gamers films. They joined forces with JR Ralls, a fellow who had acquired the film rights to Dark Dungeons. But though one could sensibly expect a company of die-hard gamers to take the offensive, ZOE opted for another approach. A parody would’ve been too easy (or perhaps, too difficult). Instead, they gave Dark Dungeons the thing it has always needed: a dead serious, totally faithful film adaptation.
It’s at this point that I’m reminded of a very different movie: Singin’ In The Rain. (Bear with me.) Its antagonist is fictional film star Lina Lamont, whose odious personality and lack of talent have been carefully hidden from the public eye. As Lina reaps the rewards of her undeserved success, our heroes realize that to bring her down, they don’t need to stoop to her level. They simply stand back and let her speak in her own voice.
If we are to take the Dark Dungeons film at face value, then I have to admit, I’ve learned a very important lesson: I’ve been playing RPGs wrong this entire time. In the grim subculture unveiled on screen, RPGs are the core draw of wild, orgiastic frat parties, complete with red cups and kickin’ bass. It was my understanding that such parties are the thing you miss when you spend your hard-earned cash on prestige class supplements, but clearly, my eyes had not been properly opened. As the party swells to a climax, a chiseled bro stands atop a table, his voice booming over the din. “Are you ready to RPG?” he cries. The crowd cheers. And oh yes, I am ready.
The protagonists of this cautionary tale are Debbie and Marcie, two doe-eyed college freshmen, eager to see the world and spread the Gospel. But after they fail their will save against the campus “RPGers,” their lives take a tragic turn. They fall into the clutches of Mistress Frost — the most hardcore DM I’ve ever seen — who is only too delighted to acquire some new blood. Covens, possession, and death ensue.
It was the best laugh I’ve had all week.
Though the story is played with an admirably straight face, there are a few subtle moments in which the filmmakers give us a coded wink. The line “I use magic missile to attack the darkness” is deftly woven in. Debbie’s spells manifest in glowing Tengwar, and she performs a LARP-style coup de grace on a demonic attacker. Perhaps ZOE couldn’t resist poking just a little fun. In any case, though these moments put a few dents in the we are very serious about this vibe, it’s the source material, not the in-jokes, that defies belief. I was certain that the bit where Marcie bemoans having spent her senior prom partying instead of preaching to her classmates was straying too far into the realm of parody — until I learned that Chick himself thinks Halloween is an excellent opportunity to convert the young children who show up at your doorstep. It’s easier for me to believe in actual wizard duels than it is for me to understand that mindset, but I suppose truth is always stranger than fiction.
I find it keenly hilarious that of all the media in which I’ve seen geek culture portrayed, Dark Dungeons is the one that treats a primarily female roleplaying group as an incidental, normal occurrence (for the record, my current group has but one token gent). But while this is — no joke — a story about women, don’t confuse a passing of the Bechdel Test with a positive message. In our female leads, we see two classic stereotypes: Marcie and Debbie, our sweet, virginal, not-too-bright damsels, and Mistress Frost, who oozes seductive malice. They are counterbalanced by a trio of men — the Christian friend, the concerned professor, and the soul-saving pastor — who are paternal, protective, and always in the right. If only our girls hadn’t ignored the advice of men who know better! If only they had listened to that nice blond boy!
As I’ve shared many a gaming table with friends of Christian faith, it’s worth mentioning that Christianity itself is not the laughing stock here. Granted, I’m writing this from a secular point of view, but in my eyes, it’s clear that we’re meant to be laughing at the notion of Dungeons & Dragons literally turning you into a Satanic spellcaster, not at those who spend time at church or in prayer. This is a movie I’d be perfectly comfortable in showing to my religious friends. In my circle, at least, they’re usually more exasperated with extreme fundamentalists than I am.
With a running time of forty minutes, Dark Dungeons is a quick watch that would do well as an appetizer served before an RP session. I doubt that the film would have much appeal to those outside of the pen-and-paper scene, but your mileage may vary. As with the Gamers films, the low-budget seams are easy to see, but the sheer sense of fun makes them easy to forgive. If you’re looking for a good chuckle, I think you’ll enjoy this.
Then again, I’m a happy agnostic who spends her free time tweaking character sheets with her female partner. You probably shouldn’t believe a word I say.
Dark Dungeons can be purchased and downloaded online for $5.