“Dark Dungeons”, Movie Review and how Role Playing saved my life

I have already posted an article about the Dark Dungeons movie, based on the classic Jack Chick comic strip. With the movie recently released, I was quick to download my copy and watch it. Rather than just give you the type of review you can read all over the web right now, I thought I’d start … at the start. Back in the 80s where Jack Chick and those of his ilk had a serious impact on Role Playing as a hobby. In fact, they were indeed dark days. To get the most from the movie you really have to understand those times. As someone who lived on the periphery of it, I wanted to give you a little of my history.

My Introduction to Role Play

Most of the furore regarding the evils of role play was largely confined to America, however Australia wasn’t free of haters. It was in the mid 1980’s that I was shipped off to a new school for stupid family reasons. Incarnica had already moved out of home by this time and I was very much alone in a new school in a small town. A town which had that sort of scary hillbilly vibe towards strangers which you might have seen in movies, just less banjos and more dark silent staring.

It was about 6 months into this experience when I saw a couple of guys sitting in the shade of an awning with pieces of paper and dice. I lurked nearby, I had nothing better to do. They were talking about barbarians, magic ladders and using a dog for propulsion through anti-gravity. I have always liked weird, but somehow these guys were doing weird with some sort of rules system behind it. I was intrigued, and as they were packing up I summoned up all the courage I could and asked about it.

I don’t remember his name now, but the more handsome of the gentlemen present took the time to explain what he could and invited me to talk more in the library the next day. I made that appointment and listened to him explain role playing while he sat with pencil, ruler and graph paper, constructing the map of some castle. I wanted to be more involved, not just because the game fascinated me, but because for the first time in six months someone was talking to me like I was a human being, not some alien trying to invade their domain.

In that time, role play saved me. It provided me with friends, which in turn, provided me with many adventures, not just in game, but outside of it as well. Already an avid reader of fantasy books, I finally had an outlet for my imagination, and better yet, people to share it with.

A few months later I learned that I was evil. It started with having all of my newly acquired role play books confiscated by a teacher during lunch break. I had to beg after school to have the books returned, the teacher only relented when I explained what he was doing was theft. I still had to endure a lecture on how the game was evil, and how it in turn was making me evil. I learned that God would punish me for playing these games. Now if this was a fancy religious private school I might have understood some religious connection, but this was a state funded public school, the kind of place that only entertains religion once a week with a compulsory religious instruction session. A few weeks later, it was announced that all such games were banned from the school.

I put the teacher’s rabid views down to people being their normal unpredictable selves. Shortly after this, one member of the regular gaming group suddenly hated us, apparently his parents didn’t want him hanging around with my sort of people and their evil cult game thing. I never understood it.

A few months later and I’m off to a new school. Once again, stupid family stuff I don’t care to share. This time I was armed with the power of role play. Role play gave me the confidence to ask around and find new friends. First it was one other person who’d played Dungeons and Dragons before, then it was another, and another. Before long I had a circle of friends who played in the library, with the librarian’s permission of course. Life was good.

Then it happened again. The library banned us from playing in there, which was perplexing, but we could find somewhere else to play. A few weeks later I am told that games of that sort are banned from all state schools. No reasons given but it apparently had something to do with all role playing causing people to commit suicide. Strange, how something that had brought me out of the lonely pit of darkness and despair, and given me fun and imaginative new friends, could be the cause of people killing themselves. I was willing to call bullshit on it.

Obviously I kept playing. I made more friends and had a ton of fun growing up and being a typical teenager. Constantly my interest in roleplay would inspire weird looks from people, even the occasional outburst of religious prejudice, but I was more or less ok. There was that one embarrassing evening when I grabbed the Tom Hanks movie Monsters and Mazes thinking it would help inform the family about my Roleplaying hobby. Bad move, don’t do it.

Some years later and I’m no longer living at home. A past friend of mine had received a substantial inheritance because her mother died in a car crash. She invited me to share a house with her rent free, where we would be able to game all day and live the kind of life only the young and foolish would covet. I accepted of course and the revelry began.

Cashed up as she was, my friend didn’t hesitate to purchase all the gaming books and related paraphernalia she had always dreamed of owning. We would play Epic 40K, Space Hulk, Gurps, Vampire and countless other games. They were good times.

Only a few weeks into the experience my friend and I were coming home from the pub. We were both fairly drunk. Contrary to the habits of many people of our age, we would only rarely drink or do drugs of any sort, we preferred to spend what money we had on gaming stuff. This night was the first time we had really taken time off gaming to go out and party. To make matters worse, my friend had also taken some speed. She had begged me to help inject her earlier in the night, it was a disgusting experience I’d never repeat as I hate amphetamines and needles.

Anyway, despite my warnings she was speeding as she drove us home and we had an accident, coming off the road at over 160 km/hour. Amazingly, and thanks to BMW safety technology, we all emerged in fairly good order physically, though I do still carry damage to my neck to this day. Emotionally however, my friend was broken. Her mother had died in a car accident and we had just come very close dying ourselves. The car was a complete write off, a twisted wreck from where it had tumbled after the aerial acrobatics it had performed. The police looked at us sourly and told us how lucky we were to be alive.

Emotionally shattered, my friend turned to religion. Within a week she had met a charismatic young man at church, a man I sort of found weird and more than a bit creepy. Within another week I arrived home to discover all the gaming stuff, as well as all the music cds, were all gone. Apparently my friend had gathered it all up and it had all been burnt because she had to purge the evil from her life. That evil … included me. She knew I wouldn’t give up gaming, so I had to get out of her life, and her home. Fortunately for me, gaming had given me other friends and they let my couch surf until I could find a new home. Many years later she and I met again. She apologised to me and without reserve she told me how stupid she had been, but we would never again be friends.

There are countless other little moments in my life that reflect the same issues. I know my modest history has nothing on the poor kids who were physically beaten for showing an interest in gaming, or just an interest in fantasy, but I thought it might be worth sharing anyway. The prejudice against gaming wasn’t as rabid in Australia as it was in America, but the vitriol had seeped down to here. Gaming was evil. Even reading books like the Lord of the Rings was evil, it was after all, known as the ‘Hippies Bible’ and we all know how evil those peace loving Hippies were right? Worst of all, gaming made you kill yourself.

In his book Mien Kampf, Hitler explains that in order to unify the people it’s important to bind them together in opposition to a common enemy. I suspect this is the same reasoning behind the religious attack on imagination. Imagination that empowers people to think for themselves. Nothing embodies this type of narrow minded thinking better than the Jack Chick comic Dark Dungeons. I realise the views of Jack Chick do not represent the views of the majority of Christians, at least modern day Christians. I’m also certain that there are some role players who would actually fit the views Jack Chick has. However I think the movie still stands as a warning against the potentials of mass minded ignorance.

On to the movie

I will do my best to avoid any spoilers and just talk about how it was all put together. The movie does honestly stay true to the comic in most regards, and it couldn’t have been as good if it had not. Many of the scenes are line for line taken from the comic, in all their hateful idiocy. What makes the movie great is how that message of hate was dressed and made presentable for the viewers. I have noticed a number of reviews attacking the movie for embellishing the comic, but in my view, the creators had to add something more to the script or it would be entirely unwatchable even if you believed in the message of the Dark Dungeons comic. Trust me, it’s what they added that makes this a good experience.

The level of detail is what makes this movie especially enjoyable. The movie is chock full of subtle gaming references, from gazebos through to a nod to a certain obscure Tom Hanks movie. If you have a history in gaming, especially table top RPGs, you will be bombarded with giggle worthy references, some dating back decades. I was especially amused by the lesbian undertones which one of the main protagonists introduces, as it is something I often relate to young Christian women finally boarding outside the home. Trust me, I knew some girls from an all women Christian boarding school, it’s a thing okay.

The production values were on the high end for a web series and they were actually very appropriate for the story, as it kept the overall feel light. The same applies to the acting, which wouldn’t win any Oscars, but it had that light hearted levity that helped keep the production above the dark message of the source material. Alyssa Kay, Anastasia Higham and Tracy Hyland all play their roles to perfection. Tracy Hyland was especially impressive as she channelled her inner Dominatrix in the role of Ms Frost.

What I really appreciate is that the ending was kept brief. It had to be done to remain true to the comic, but there is no entertainment value in it. Again, no spoilers, but the ending does sort of spoil all that came before. Like I said, it had to be included but it does leave a sour note to end on as it reminds us of the vile hatred that sits at the heart of the entire Dark Dungeons comic.

What I find especially brilliant about this production is that JR Ralls had the balls to get Mr Chick to give his blessing to the production. He had the permission to give the story in all it’s horrific badness, and that is why this movie should remain in the collective as an entertaining testament to how religion is used to attack free thinking and imagination. I don’t have any personal issue with the concept of religion, and I understand Jack Chick represents some of the worst of it, but the fact remains that is was used to fill people’s lives with fear and hate. Shame on Jack Chick and kudos to Mr JR Ralls for turning that hate filled comic tripe into something good.

If I had one complaint it is that the movie is actually only 39 minutes, including credits. So it’s not really a movie as such. However, in order to make it longer they would have had to pad it out too much, and wander too far from the source material. They covered what they needed to and they did it in style.

Final Word

They are only asking for $5 for a downloaded copy of this movie. I’m all for a little casual piracy, especially if there is a good reason for it, but $5 is a very small price to pay just to thank JR Ralls and Zombie Orpheus for creating this work. I believe it should go into the collection of any RPG player, both for it’s fun value, and as a reminder of days past (and sometimes still present). Almost nothing makes me laugh out loud these days, but I found I had a smile on my face for most of the movie. I’ll rewatch it again just to see if there are any little jokes I didn’t catch on the first few viewings. It can also serve as a nice bonding filler if your RPG session is running late or you want to watch something while waiting for the pizza.

As a young woman still trying to work out who she was in life, role playing taught me I could be anyone, so long as I spent enough XP on it ;-). Whether the person I became is a good thing might still be a matter for debate, but I like my character build. Role Playing empowered me to socialise and engage with people. When I went for job interviews, it was the skills I had learned in role playing that I used to be the person the employer wanted. I guess what I’m saying is that role play saved my life by giving me purpose, direction and a skill set that has been helpful countless times. It was never something that ever put me in fear for my life or my soul, in fact the results are very much the opposite.

On a final note, a small thank you to JR Ralls just for noticing my previous review and sending me an email to say ‘Hi’. It’s nice to get any sort of notice when you are such a tiny little blog, and his gesture was most timely for me personally. Once again it’s a testament to how Roleplay has a bonding quality that brings people together.