Back in 2008, site editor Vincent reviewed the infamous Chick Tract “Dark Dungeons.” Chick Tracts are comic strip propaganda by Jack Chick, an evangelical fundamentalist Christian. In early 2013, we reported that JR Ralls won part of the lottery and decided to roll his winnings into making a filmed version of Dark Dungeons. He acquired the rights from Chick and launched a successful Kickstarter to fund the film. JR teamed up with a film crew known for making gaming and RPG-themed short films, called Zombie Orpheus. I supported the Kickstarter and even got to see a test version of the film to offer my input along with other Seattle-based supporters. I didn’t comment on that version because it was incomplete but the DVD arrived this past Monday and I want to review the film for you now. In my opinion, the best idea they had was to play it completely straight and allow the absurdity of the written word to shine through.
The original Chick Tract was only about 22 panels so even expanding it to a short film required the filmmakers to build out the story beyond what the comic strip shows. The film clocks in around 40 minutes which is long enough to tell a story about Marcie, Debbie and Ms. Frost where we get to know them, but not so long that we get bored. The film plays it completely straight. The gag is that the story itself is so out of touch and ridiculous, just let that shine through. It’s not a parody and doesn’t have much in the way of winking to the audience. However, I do sometimes wish they’d gone further with how literally they interpreted the source material. For instance, Chick Tracts are notorious for supporting their ridiculous claims with annotations to bible passages. Full disclosure: at the test screening, we were encouraged to give our thoughts and suggestions and I suggested this. However, they opted not to go this route.
The expanded backstory amounts to Debbie being more proactive as a main character. In the comic strip, she witnesses her friend’s suicide and is instantly helped by an evangelical Christian. In the film, following the suicide, Debbie realizes that RPGing have created some sort of monster and she goes down into a steam room to battle it. It gives the character some agency and redemption. Of course, ultimately she is saved and the Christians have a big book burning. I wish the film had gone even more heavy on the satire, making the religious folks as over-the-top as Ms. Frost. It’s funny but it could land harder. Also, the movie never calls RPGs “role playing games” or explains them on a basic level. This means that while the film is entertaining if you have a passing familiarity with RPGs, it could be tough to share it with a friend or family member that isn’t aware of what they are.
There are several elements that are really great in the film. The lighting, sound and set dressing are all top notch (save for one college classroom that’s way too small, but it’s brief and the professor is one of the best small roles so you don’t focus on it). From the fantastic opening credits to the hilariously on-the-nose song over the closing credits, the film looks and sounds professional. Also solid are the performances. Debbie and Marcie are attractive and likable. You care about them and their relationship. So when RPGs take over their lives and everything else suffers, you are invested. Ms. Frost really looks like the character in the tract. She’s over the top evil but it’s a knowing performance and completely faithful to the way the character is portrayed in the comic. The small supporting roles of the compassionate upperclassman, Ms. Frost’s henchman, and the professor are all really, really funny and all too brief.
Beyond the movie, the DVD is LOADED with extras. I haven’t encountered this much supplemental material since something like Fight Club. There are FIVE commentary tracks (writer, producers, cast, director, set designer) and then TWO documentaries about the movie. One is more about the Kickstarter itself, which is interesting and explains how to do one that is successful. The other is an hour and a half of the people involved discussing their 40 minute film. A documentary more than two times the length of the project seems a little indulgent. It’s interesting if you love the movie or if you are an independent filmmaker. Otherwise it’s really a lot of time to invest. Still, it’s hard to complain about so much bonus material.
Overall, I would probably give the film a B- for entertainment and an A for effort. I think the filmmakers were possibly afraid to offend Jack Chick because they are very, very careful not to devolve into parody. At the same time, we all know it’s ridiculous so a bit more of a satiric take on the fundamentalist Christians may have made for more fun. I think that if you are really into RPGs the overall entertainment grade probably goes up a few notches. I’ve never played one but am aware of them enough to follow the story. I probably overpaid on the Kickstarter to fund this (seriously, Vincent’s review of the original tract may give you more laughs) but it is definitely worth a rental, or in this case, the $5 they are now selling it for.
If you’re interested in getting a copy of the film, you can visit the official site, Dark Dungeons: The Movie. It’s $5 for a DVD. I believe they will eventually release it online for free.