Saturday, we did a liveblog review of Dark Dungeons, a short indie movie based on the Chick tract of the same name. It was awesome and I hope y’all had as great a time as I did!
Some folks had requested I gather the comments I made during the movie and put them somewhere so they don’t have to crawl through Disqus to find them. I thought I’d put them here and start a new comment thread while I was at it.
TL;DR: I liked the movie quite a lot. It was a high-energy and completely straightfaced production, and it comes together effortlessly. Had they tried at all to poke fun by overdoing things, the movie would have failed. But because they just “played it like it laid,” it works. The humor here comes chiefly from realizing that Jack Chick, and therefore a sizeable number of his fans, actually believe that the events in this movie/tract are real.
Y’all were on fire!
Extremely observant commenter: “I think a big part of the motive behind demonizing things like D&D, Harry Potter, and many other sources of high fantasy fiction, is fear.”
I wish I’d thought of this first: “I guess you could call this movie a… *puts on sunglasses* Chick Flick YEAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!”
Fructifying the Dark One.
A dark council of Illuminati-like robed, hooded figures against a backdrop of Celtic-patterned blankets and wall hangings discusses their progress. Their leader asks how everyone’s working “to fructify the Dark One.” What’s hilarious is that this is definitely not a word that Jack Chick’s audience would generally know. Hell, it’s barely even a word I know. But it is a word. It means to make something fruitful.
The leader (who needs to begging to be memed sososobad) nods along approvingly as the one woman in the group, channeling Tilda Swinton, lauds her own efforts to popularize roleplaying games. (Seriously: the one woman in the group is the one who insists that RPGs are “the perfect gateway to embracing Satan.” It’s cute as hell given how way too many male gamers feel about women in the hobby–but it ties well into Jack Chick’s opinions about feminism.)
She declares that if they can just get a few more kids into gaming, “the stars will be right.” The group chants something that sounds vaguely Call of Cthulhu-ish, and we cut to a scene of dice being flung through blood, a college campus, and what looks like a super-Christian decorating scheme in a dorm room.
We cut to a scene of an idyllic college campus. I wonder if they were making a call to Animal House, because the campus looks just like the one in that movie.
Two girls are settling into their dorm room. Debbie is blonde; Marcie is dark-haired. They’re exulting in how awesome this year is going to be. Marcie declares that she’s thankful to have “a special gal” like Debbie as a friend. And I began picking up some serious subtext going on here. They couldn’t have made Marcie’s orientation much more obvious. And it’s amazingly awesome. It makes Marcie a very sympathetic character for me–and makes her later fate make a lot more sense (in the same way that Masala in Ben-Hur makes a lot more sense when one views him as a spurned lover, as the screen legend goes that he was). Debbie is, just as Ben-Hur before her was, totally oblivious to her lifelong friend’s romantic feelings.
(Worth noting: The moviemakers chose to advance the protagonists’ age from high-school to college-age as well as to move its setting from so-1980s-it-hurts to something more modern. A lot of other scenes have been added to develop a narrative that made more sense. These other scenes are obviously either callbacks to other Chick tracts or else totally within Jack Chick’s general worldview. I approve of this decision.)
The girls go to an orientation session, or at least to what a fundagelical might think one looks like. Mine looked nothing like this one. A smarmy git named Mike is running the show. I knew a great many guys just like him when I was Christian. He’s perfect. In the tract, Mike is a Gary Stu to end all Gary Stus: square-jawed, handsome, tall, athletic, caring, and protective.
It’s quite a strange orientation. Mike doesn’t tell the classroom full of freshmen anything about where the gym is, what the cafeteria’s hours are, or what the school’s honor code contains, but he does encourage them all to “join an organization” and shows them a 1950s-style filmstrip about all the different groups available for them to join. The film then cuts to an ominous warning for the students to STAY OUT OF THE STEAM TUNNELS, showing the doorway in a really scary shot. I don’t think this was in the original Chick tract, but definitely the idea of roleplayers getting obsessed with steam tunnels is part of fundagelical lore and a distinct part of the Satanic Panic that both inspired and was fueled by this tract.
Obviously, at some point in this movie we’re going to the steam tunnels. It’s like a spot marked on a gaming map. No matter how weird, dangerous, or pointless the place seems, every party is obligated to visit every single location on a map. Sorry, it’s a rule. (Also: this filmstrip is 50ish years old and nobody’s fixed whatever is wrong with the steam tunnels.)
The girls leave orientation talking about what groups they’ll join. They stop cold in the doorway as they see a bunch of kids walking toward them. OMG These are kids so cool they’re crackling.
Marcie asks who they are, and Mike explains, with clear disgust, that those are the ARR-PEE-GEE-ERRS (“the RPGers”). The guy in the middle is, we’ll learn later, the Game-Master’s right-hand-lunk, Nitro. Yes, “Nitro.” And apparently Nitro and his little clique is called “the RPGers.”
Also, they do the “slow walk to a rowdy rock beat” thing that indicates they are way too cool for school.
Mike tells the girls, “We’ve been trying to get them thrown off-campus for years, but they’re just too popular! Until we can get them banished for good, it would be best if you just kept away from them.”
Really. Marcie asks what an RPG is, and he just tells her, all earnestness and melodrama, that she doesn’t… need… to know. And he gives them a stern warning: “I’ve seen a lot of students try to dabble with RPGs. They just wanna see what it’s like! But after they’ve tried it once, not one–NOT ONE!–has ever stopped.” And the girls look at each other, impressed and frightened.
I couldn’t help but note that clearly I’d hung out with the wrong crowd. This isn’t universal, but most gamers aren’t exactly the really popular kids on campus. Also, I’ve known a lot of young people who’ve “dabbled with RPGs” and then stopped. Most people think it’s fun, but some don’t. But if Christians see RPGs as this Pied Piper who permanently ensorcells kids, that definitely explains some of their hatred for gaming.
Mike doesn’t seem even slightly concerned for the souls of these gamers. He hates these other kids and genuinely fears them. Not a bit of Christian love to be seen here! Nor does he invite the girls to any Christian groups on campus. But that’s fundagelicalism in a nutshell, really. Their narrative as the beleaguered underdogs persecuted by the oh-so-cool trendy secular/gamer/atheist kids wouldn’t fly well if the audience knew or remembered just how much proselytization and fellowshipping goes on in colleges.
So now we’ve got the sides lined up. Mike and the heroines are the Good Guys; Nitro and the RPGers are the Bad Guys. Whew! Glad we got that worked out.
The Rave/Roleplaying Game.
Of course, the first thing the girls do is, apparently, attend a party thrown by the ARR-PEE-GEE-ERRs.
After some more awesome gay subtext, Marcie finagles an invitation to a party, because if they don’t party with heathens then there is literally nothing else they could be doing except hanging out together in their dorm and gosh, what would be more boring than that?
Now, actual gamers might have a few problems with how their hobby and fellow hobbyists are portrayed here, but again, this isn’t about reality. It’s about how Jack Chick views gaming and gamers. This whole “games are just an excuse for an orgy,” “RPGs are totally antithetical to Christianity” mindset goes back to the 1980s. It is literally something I had to deal with as a teenager–and something that really offended me even at the time. So when I describe what’s going on, please remember that even as a gamer girl I dressed and acted like these two girls, and was actually as religious as they seem to be (maybe more so, since for a lot of this time I attended church and went to other religious events, which neither of them appear to do in the movie). So they go into the house for the party.
The girls are, of course, totally out of their element in all this raucous noise and dancing and drinking, since that’s how Jack Chick imagines Christian girls would be.
The party, of course, is a typical D&D session. Nothing weird or unusual going on here. All gamers have a booze-fueled rager right before sitting down at the gaming table.
The heroines are very freaked out, but before they can leave, Nitro (the cool guy in the leather jacket from the slow-walk-to-a-beat scene earlier) shows up to shove drinks in their hands and get them dancing. It struck me as very date-rapey and creepy, but Marcie declares that this is “the best party ever.” Also noteworthy: all of the people at this party are really hot.
But just as things are getting out of hand, Nitro stops everything to declare that it’s time to game, at which point Mistress Frost–the GM–shows up in a low-cut velvet dress, way too much makeup, and long black hair, the uniform of witches the world over obviously. She’s the GM. I’ve never seen a GM so much as dress up for a game, but she goes all-out. Her table is magnificent too.
A commenter noticed that this was a lot of “shwag” for a gaming table, and it is. The “last man standing” style of gaming is far more suited to a tournament than reality, as well. In most games, characters don’t die much at all (though some games are designed around the idea of frequent character deaths). Though the girls are initially reticent, the gamers accuse them of being chickens and they relent, sitting down at the table.
While I’m wondering just which of these kids’ mothers Ms. Frost is, she explains about how a gaming character is a sort of “spirit” that possesses a gamer. Again, this is what fundagelicals often really believe. She assigns them their characters: Marcie is now “Black Leaf,” a thief, and Debbie gets assigned “Elfstar,” a cleric who possesses “the real power,” though Ms. Frost doesn’t explain what that is when asked. It’s not common to assign a player characters, but I’ve seen it before, so okay. She blesses them: “May your rolls be ever natural!” (a benediction that makes no sense whatsoever; a “natural roll” just means an unmodified result on the dice, so she’s basically saying “may all your rolls be unmodified!” but modifiers are usually very helpful so WTF?).
“Huzzah!” shout the gamers. Nitro tells them, near tears, that this was “the best RPGing” he’d seen “in fifteen years,” which means he’s been gaming since he was like 4 (and I’m betting that means Ms. Frost is his mother), and says that from now on they will be known as “the Invincible Duo.” And the girls are hooked.
The robed Illuminati figures celebrate the girls’ seduction into gaming. One declares that they won’t play because they like it, but “because they feel they have to.” This sounds like a very accurate description of Christian life to me, but more importantly let’s reflect on the sheer narcissism that fundagelicals display in their own lives. They see themselves as being the heroes in their own movie, and yes, they do view their spiritual/metaphysical endeavors as being of the utmost importance in the grand scheme of things. “Get over yourself” has never been a more appropriate thing to say than it is right here.
Debbie Goes Wild.
Debbie transforms herself into a gamer. She starts slipping on her schoolwork. Her smarmy professor chides her for being into “those wicked RPGs” and tells her with grimaces about how “far-out” they are with their “spells” and whatnot. When she tries to say that all that stuff is just in the imagination, he replies, all total concern, “Is it? Is it?”
She tells him she’d literally do anything–anything!–to pass the class, which would be the beginning of another kind of movie entirely, but he just tells her to quit playing RPGs. Marcie comforts the distraught Debbie and suggests just one more game.
At this game, Ms. Frost advises Debbie that she’s now level 8, which means she’s ready for that “real power.” She walks the girl over to the robed Illuminati, who apparently meet at the same house as the gamers do, and they tell her she’s ready to be inducted as a priestess. The next scene has Debbie sitting in her dorm room, holding a magic book, and casting a real live spell. It looks like glowing Elvish script floating around her.
Again, this is totally what fundagelicals think magic looks like. They think that kids can really learn real magic spells that really do stuff in the real world, and that gaming is a sort of training-ground for learning this stuff. If magic spells really did anything, we’d know it by now–there’d be evidence of it everywhere. But there’s the same amount of evidence for the reality of magic as there is for the reality of prayer, which is to say none whatsoever.
The spell is apparently to make her professor give her the A she needs to pass the class. Debbie, her hair and makeup now a clear imitation of Ms. Frost’s because that’s the uniform of Real Live Witches, smiles slyly as he hands her back the paper. If I could cast a spell, an A on a paper would be the last thing on my mind, but apparently that’s what this spell was.
Incidentally: when Debbie gloats to Ms. Frost later about her successful spell, I can’t help but wonder if a similar spell explains why Mike’s Christians can’t get rid of the ARR-PEE-GEE-ERRS. If so, that’d mean that the gamers’ spells beat his prayers. Oopsie!
The girls’ dorm room is now festooned with all kinds of gamer crap, including flash cards with basic stat info for thieves and a movie poster for Journey Quest, another production from Zombie Orpheus Entertainment that I will now need to watch.
There’s more romantic subtext, and a conflict: Marcie’s only level 7, and she needs to be level 8 to do the skyclad ritual (that’s a Wiccan ritual that is done naked). Apparently that is the cutoff. Debbie, who is level 8, will have to do it without her friend if she can’t level in time!
I love the music choice here–very “music box ballerina” vibes as Debbie strokes her roommates’s delicate little hands and drives her wild.
Driven by this urgent need, the girls ask Ms. Frost for something harder that will get Marcie leveled. She suggests LARPing (live-action roleplaying). The girls are outfitted in costumes.
I don’t need to say that this LARP doesn’t look a damn thing like any I’ve ever seen or played in. They’re playing the same characters that they play around the table, and if they die in the LARP they won’t ever be allowed to play tabletop ever again, ever. Ms. Frost gives Debbie a book written in, apparently, Arabic. Debbie asks Marcie to read it, and reluctantly she does.
It’s the incantation popularized by Call of Cthulhu: “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.” This incantation was said to be part of the Necronomicon, which in my day was considered a real thing–and which was written in Arabic originally, at least as was claimed. It still sounds totally racist to me.
But the girls’ recitation of the magic spell actually does something, as the robed Illuminati reveal. Cthulhu starts to rise! OMG! But he requires a “sacrifice,” one of the Illuminati tells Ms. Frost. Before she can straight-up murder a fool, they tell her no, it has to be a suicide.
So after becoming possessed by an evil spirit, Ms. Frost flat-out kills Marcie’s character Black Leaf by fiat, declaring the character dead. (By the way, this is totally unacceptable. Speaking as a GM, this whole idea makes me just cringe.) Nitro attacks Marcie, similarly possessed, and genuinely hurts and frightens her. But even when Nitro gets all rapey at Marcie, stroking her cheek while he’s got her pinned, Debbie refuses to help until Ms. Frost says she can. Just as Debbie thinks she’s successfully rescued Marcie, someone shoots a motherfucking dart into Debbie’s neck and poof, just like that, Black Leaf is dead. Even Debbie rejects her at that point. It’s really very heartbreaking, and the cinematography here is very well done.
Ms. Frost hams it up, making Marcie totally distraught.
Rocks Fall, Marcie Dies.
In a touching scene, Marcie dresses in the clothes she wore at the beginning of the movie, does her hair the same way, prints out a suicide note, and then hangs herself. It’s really ten times as deeply touching as what Jack Chick tract gives the audience. He, a Christian, couldn’t arouse nearly as much sympathy as this movie does. (The note, incidentally, is done in the same font as in the tract–a very nice touch!)
When Debbie gets home, she finds her friend dead.
Debbie paces at Ms. Frost’s house, talking and talking about Marcie’s death, until the GM snaps at her for caring about “some lousy loser’s life.” She reveals that the game’s mythology is totally true and real, and that monsters will soon be spilling out of the college’s steam tunnels, and that Debbie is personally responsible for this evil’s arrival and for her friend’s death. Debbie, in response, says she’ll head to the steam tunnels to fight these evil forces–which is what Ms. Frost wants.
Debbie suits up as Elfstar, complete with a 20-sider and a cat bell on a necklace, and heads on down there.
And there are really monsters there that almost kill her and she seriously casts Magic Missile and everything! Serious Mazes and Monsters call-out! In the tract, this doesn’t happen, but it’s such a part of the Satanic Panic that it works perfectly here. I’m not sure what the monster is supposed to be. One monster even pretends to be the ghost of Marcie.
When Debbie cries out to “God,” the monster and ghost vanish. Really. And guys, you know this totally happened to me too, right? Right? I laughed out loud when that happened.
Mike Jesus Saves the Day.
Mike, who we haven’t seen even once since the orientation scene, shows up to find Debbie crying in her dorm room after the fight. (Yes, that’s a poster behind her for another The Gamers movie, Dorkness Rising.) She’s still in costume and her door is open wide, so he just comes in.
She cries to him about all the terrible stuff that’s happened. He tells him that he told her that Jesus was the only answer, and that he’s been “praying and fasting” for her. He takes her to church to hear “a speaker who came out of witchcraft and knows what you’re up against.”
The preacher talks like every one I’ve ever heard, with the cadence and patter of a sideshow barker or an infomercial salesman. He gives a come-to-Jesus speech and Debbie rushes forward alone to repent. (This is the only revival service I’ve ever seen where only one person came forward.) The Illuminati, a bunch of pudgy neckbeards and Ms. Frost, show up in ghost form to tell her to stop, but she declares that iconic line: “I don’t want to be Elfstar anymore! I want to be Debbie.”
The Illuminati freak out as their computer screens go nuts. The RPG Illuminati gal declares that the “stars are no longer right.” Cthulhu goes back to sleep. The castle they apparently meet at blows up.
The fire from the castle turns into a bonfire presided over by the preacher. Debbie and other gamers burn their books and gaming stuff: their notebooks, their player manuals, and their fantasy novels. There are a lot of Easter eggs here–The Hobbit, Pathfinder, a Harry Potter book, and a variety of others burn.
Mike hands her a Bible and I swear to DOG I thought she was supposed to throw that in too. His resolute action and expression make it look like he’s handing it to her for that purpose. I hope, I hope, I hope that was intentional because it’s one of the most awesome scenes in the whole movie for me because of that.
But no, she hugs it to herself. And then the movie ends, with a credits roll set to a song about “Dark Dungeons.”
I Totally Loved This.
I could tell that this movie was a real labor of love. It’s also the kind of awesome indie production that deserves support. I heartily suggest that if you like it or the other stuff I’ve mentioned by this production company, that you help them out. Here’s the link for this movie, and from there you can find their other stuff.
Fundagelical worldview: 10/10
Lesbian subtext: 10/10
Similarity to actual tabletop roleplaying: -10/10
Final song: 10/10
Score: 120/10 will watch again
And… did watch again, come to think of it.