Dark Dungeons (2014) Review

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Dark Dungeons (2014)

~Review by Grawlix (January 2019)

Some of you have probably seen a Chick tract before. The little black and white, pamphlet-style religious comic strips are instantly recognizable by their art style, typeface and squarish speech bubbles, and seemingly grow like mold in places like bus stops and fast food tables. Chick tracts were the product of one Jack Chick, hence their name, who was compelled to spread the Good News, but too shy to do it in person. An adherent to a very specific brand of evangelical Christianity, Chick tracts attempted to educate readers on the soul imperiling evils of everything from drugs and alcohol to Catholicism and Islam to rock & roll and Harry Potter, all in a tone that made Reefer Madness look restrained. In geek circles, one of the more notorious Chick tracts was Dark Dungeons, originally published in 1984, which dealt with the soteriological dangers of playing Dungeons and Dragons. Born out of the Satanic Panic of the Early 80s, Dark Dungeons depicted role playing games (name checking D&D in particular) as a gateway into a world of black magic and Satan Worship, all in Chick’s unmistakable hyperbolic style. Things end badly – in Chick’s stories they often do – but you can avoid a similar fate if you repent now and say a prayer, thoughtfully provided on the last page.

Among gaming groups, the Dark Dungeons tract was something of a running joke, broken out occasionally during game nights as a reminder that the now trite pastime was once (and to some, probably still is) considered actually dangerous. Enter nascent movie producer JR Ralls, who decided that it was a story that needed to be filmed and, after contacting Jack Chick himself, was unexpectedly granted the rights for free with the only requirement being to list Chick among the writing credits. A Kickstarter followed, earning roughly $25,000 (twice the original requested amount), and somewhere along the line he also hooked up with Zombie Orpheus Productions, creators of the similarly themed The Gamers series of indy films, who undoubtedly provided some valuable additional help.

Thus, was the Dark Dungeons video brought into being, and by the standards of Kickstarter productions, it’s an impressive achievement both in scheduling (funded May 2013, released August 2014) and overall quality. I’ll admit to being initially disappointed to discover that it was only forty minutes long when the promotional trailers seemed to suggest a more feature length piece, but I quickly realized that this was probably for the best. There’s only so much footage you can wring out of less than 25 comic panels of story, and I’ve seen what happens when a movie tries to stretch a premise past its breaking point. The story follows Debbie and Marcie, two wholesome, Christian girls, who enter college as freshmen and end up falling in with the campus role playing club. The RPGers are depicted as hard partiers, but things get serious when it’s time for them to worship at the altar of the role-playing game, Dark Dungeons. The girls are instantly enthralled and advance rapidly, Debbie as the magic using Elfstar, and Marcie as the thief Black Leaf. Debbie ultimately shows greater aptitude, and upon reaching 8th level is introduced to a New World Order style cabal of Satanic druids who have been using the game as a recruiting tool and teach her how to wield real magic. Debbie puts this new skill to use to ensorcel her professors to raise her flagging grades. Marcie, however, lags behind, apparently due to a wavering commitment to the game and, after failing a particularly intense LARPing session, is summarily excommunicated from the group, beginning a rapid, and tragic descent. Debbie, now beginning to question her own decisions, turns to the teachings of Christ for salvation.

Like the Kickstarter itself, Poe’s law is in full effect for the movie, but certain additions to the script seem to betray the true spirit in which Dark Dungeons was made. There are references to the notorious Dead Alewives D&D sketch, the Fear of Girls shorts, and even the classic D&D-sploitation (and early Tom Hanks flick) Mazes and Monsters which was itself an adaptation of a novel inspired by the urban legends surrounding the real life disappearance (and eventual suicide) of James Dallas Egbert III in 1979. Cthulhu makes an appearance, and there’s a brilliantly grandiloquent original song that plays over the closing credits (these latter two were apparently stretch goals). Sometimes it overplays its hand. There are some lesbian undertones that were definitely not part of the original comic, among other reasons because Chick had absolutely no acquaintance with subtlety, and I was never sure if some of the shaky acting was deliberate or not, but Dark Dungeons wisely decides to play things pretty straight overall. Many of the scenes and dialog are taken directly from the comic and, honestly, needed no additional embellishment.

From a production standpoint, the movie is clearly of humble means, but things never dip to the level of embarrassment. The costumes look like they came off of store shelves, but consistently fit the chosen aesthetic, and the few instances of CG enhancement are used to good effect. For something made on a $25,000 budget, it looks far better than it has any right to.

Jack Chick, who was famously reclusive and adverse to publicity, died in October 2016 at the ripe old age of 92, so he definitely had an opportunity to see the finished product, though there’s no evidence that he ever did. I’d like to think he’d agree that it captured the essence of his comic quite well and I can only hope that his immortal soul, wherever it may have ended up, is permitted at least a wry grin at the flick’s existence. Corporeally speaking, I, personally, couldn’t help but be reminded of the 2001 documentary Jesus Camp in which, at least initially, everyone felt that their views were represented accurately, at least until more mainstream reviews began remarking on how unflattering the camp staff came off. Dark Dungeons frankly ended up more even handed than I expected it to be, though I still admit to laughing out loud multiple times. In the end, there are some things that just speak for themselves.

Final Grade: B

Obviously made on a budget, Dark Dungeons nevertheless succeeds with panache at its stated mission of adapting an infamous fundie comic strip into something its admittedly niche audience can appreciate.


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