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I feel like I need to start with some disclosures. I first played Dungeons & Dragons in something like fourth grade and have been a gamer ever since. Hell, I even started a game company.
I’ve also been fascinated by Jack Chick for at least 20 years. I have a binder full of Chick comics I’ve collected over the years. I’d like to own the whole collection, but I can’t bring myself to order them. Giving Chick Publications money (much less my address) seems…icky. I’ve watched the God’s Cartoonist documentary read Daniel Raeburn’s excellent IMP issue about Jack Chick. I’ve written articles about him.
I’ve even used Chick as inspiration for RPGs. I wrote an adventure that uses the afterlife as imagined by Jack Chick as a starting point (Waxman’s Warriors). And have you ever thought that “The Death Cookie” is a weird name for a gaming website? That’s because we got it from a Chick tract. The short version is that Leighton and I used to do dramatic readings from the Chick website. We’ve got special voices for recurring characters and everything.
In other words, I am the precise target audience for a Dark Dungeons movie, and that’s important. This is not a movie for a general audience. If you’ve played role-playing games or read Jack Chick’s work, you probably won’t hate it and might even get a few laughs out of it. To really appreciate this movie, though, you need at least some familiarity with both (the more the better). If you’ve never played D&D and have no idea who Jack Chick is, you’ll probably find Dark Dungeons utterly baffling.
A Reasonably Faithful Adaptation
The movie makes a few changes, like making Marcie and Debbie college students rather than high school kids and giving one of the other players (Nitro) a minor role, but mostly sticks to the plot of the tract. It’s important to understand that Dark Dungeons is not, technically, a parody. Jack Chick gave producer JR Ralls the rights to make the film and he upheld his end of the bargain by making a faithful adaptation. Except for a few Easter eggs, everything in the movie that seems like comedy–the stylized “50s educational film” dialog; the delusional conspiracy theories; the willful ignorance about “RPGers” and “RPGing”; even the barely-repressed lesbian subtext–are all there in the original tract. Of course, any attempt to faithfully adapt Chick’s work is going to seem like parody, and I think the filmmakers knew that.
Other than expanding the events of the comic panels out into full scenes and adding some framing and padding, the main addition to the plot concerns the activities of the cult who only appear as shadowy figures in the tract. This provides a sort of secret history for the tract, where we find out that the cult is orchestrating everything (even Marcie’s suicide) in order to summon a certain tentacley fellow whose inclusion was, if I’m not mistaken, one of the stretch goals of the Kickstarter campaign. The other major addition is a nod to Mazes & Monsters in which Debbie goes down into the steam tunnels to fight the monsters that she’s inadvertently released by playing D&D instead of accepting Christ.
When I first opened my copy of the DVD, I was a little disappointed to see that the movie’s run time is only 40 minutes, but after watching it (twice), I don’t think that stretching it to feature length would have added anything. The script is perfect. The acting, directing and other aspects of production fall somewhere in between slickly-produced amateur movie and low-budget indie flick. With the possible exception of the creature effects (which have their own charm for an 80s horror fan like me), nothing about the movie’s production is bad. It’s just obviously done on a limited budget.
The DVD extras are less impressive. In addition to the commentaries (which I haven’t watched yet), there are two features. The first is “How to Make a Movie for $1000 (But Not Really).” In it, Ralls shares his extensive expertise (from making one movie) at length over high-speed clips of the filming. The second is “A Lifelong Dream: The Making of Dark Dungeons.” It features interviews, behind the scenes stuff, and a few random bits that don’t seem to serve any real purpose. There’s some interesting stuff there, but it’s badly organized and there are a lot of pointless clips. I lost interest quickly. I think they just copied the “maybe use for behind the scenes extra” folder directly to the DVD without a bit of curating.
As I said at the beginning, this movie was made for a very specific audience, and for that audience it’s very close to perfect. If you’ve ever uttered the words “I don’t want to be Elfstar any more. I want to be Debbie!,” preferably at a table covered with rulebooks and funny dice, this movie is required viewing. The farther removed you are from that demographic, the less likely you’ll enjoy, or even understand, Dark Dungeons.