B-Movie Inspirations: The Dungeonmaster (1984)
Also known as Ragewar: The Challenges Of Excalibrate, I found this movie in an old article about old awful 80s fantasy films. And this one was pretty awful. although it had great potential. The article included several movies I had already reviewed so I decided to give this one a chance. My research found that it was somewhat inspired by Disney’s Tron, but only mildly. The studio changed the movie’s name from Ragewar: The Challenges Of Excalibrate to The Dungeonmaster in part because of the popularity of D&D at the time. So obviously, I had to review it for RPG inspirations.
The movie stars Jeffrey Byron from Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn fame, as Paul, a computer geek with interesting and rather visionary talents. The movie starts out in the 80s modern world where we see some of his computer skills and talents. It is implied that he was “experimented on” by someone, giving him some very unique abilities to connect, diagnose and communicate with computers. Before there was wireless, touch screens and Google Glass, this guy could use his glasses and watch to wirelessly connect to his home computer, diagnose computer problems, and change traffic signals at will.
We are then introduced to his girlfriend, a dancer named Gwen. She and his AI personal computer Cal (short for X-CaliBR8) fight a battle for Paul’s attention. One night while they slept, something weird happens that the movie does not clearly explain. Paul and Gwen are somehow teleported to a Hellish realm by a mysterious devil-like figure named Mestema (played by the great Richard Moll). Somehow, Cal the computer is connected to this but it’s not really explained how. I am pretty sure the subtext is that computers are of the devil, though. Having worked in computers for nearly 25 years, I can safely say that is not far from the truth.
Mestema (I really hate that name for a villain) sees Paul as a new challenge. Although not clear in the movie, some of the text on the internet say that Mestema is a dark sorcerer bored with defeating all things magic and sees technology as the new threat. There is a lot devil and Satan references and symbolism throughout. Mestema plans to send Paul against seven challenges and if successful, he wins Gwen. If he loses, Gwen remains with Mestema. Reminiscent of Hercules and his twelve labors, Paul faces off against various beings and situations armed only with a portable version of his X-CaliBR8 mounted on a bracer.
This is where the movie really falls apart, however. The story actually had so much potential. It would not have blown the budget if they just had a little more imagination. Instead, they settled on Paul’s laser-shooting wristband for most every solution. Each challenge was a separate story that maybe lasted 10 minutes, and was written by a different person. Bold move in my opinion but in the end, the story fell short.
The segments were:
In Ice Gallery written by Rosemarie Turko, Paul and Gwen are placed separately in a frozen gallery of “criminals” or denizens of hell. They include Bloody Mary, Jack the Ripper, the werewolf, the mummy, a unnamed Samurai, a Zombie, King Louis and of course, the worse of the all – Albert Einstein??? I guess, in the 80s, he was deemed evil or hell-worthy because of his contribution to the bomb. None of this really makes sense but you roll with it. I got stuck on the movie-monsters in Hell, but whatever. Something like the Nightmares of Hell would have made more sense.
Gwen begins to freeze up while Paul is trying to find her and a way out. Mestema proceeds to turn the heat up and of course, all the figures begin to thaw out. The two find each other and have to find a way out. The end solution is surprisingly not technological, however, and very stupid in the end. This is one of many examples of a lost opportunity in writing and storytelling. I thought the whole point was for technology to overcome magic but instead, it’s just some mysterious crystal being held by the un-thawed Einstein (why was he still frozen?). Somehow, Cal knows that Paul needs to just throw this ice crystal, and everyone wins! Yay! It’s just stupid.
Why not use technology to defeat each creature in more ways than just Ask Cal? I realize it was supposed to be short but the end solution made no sense. I suppose because the crystal was in the hands of a man of science, that it is a metaphor for science defeating magic but I found that very weak. It could have been a book or something closely related to knowledge and science. Let the light of knowledge destroy all your nightmares. Or something like that. If you needed to cut something out, take out the whole aspect of Gwen freezing (we already know it’s cold) and instead add her figuring some aspect out of the mystery. Instead of making her yet another damsel in distress, make her a equal partner with Paul in figuring this challenge out.
Demons of the Dead, written by John Buechler, had Paul appear alone in another realm of Hell, ruled by a puppet-effect demon. Paul faces off with a couple of zombies and then meets the puppet demon, Ratspit. Paul must face his own death, according to the demon puppet. How does that work out? Paul staring down his own zombie-self and saying “Meh.” Again, stupid and it has nothing to do with technology defeating Mestema or magic.
A redeeming moment in this scene is the line uttered by Paul “I reject your reality and substitute my own!” (partially borrowed from a Dr. Who episode) and I think this gets to the point of the encounter. Paul is supposed to die at the hands of Mestema, resulting in zombie-Paul, but Paul realizes it is only a single possibility of many and rejects that reality altogether. Although fairly imaginative and cerebral, the execution of this encounter is really poorly done. Facing one’s own death needs to be more dramatic and meaningful. I think, once again, lack of budget killed the potential in this scene. And a realm of Hell should look more epic than something thrown together with hot-glue and discount Halloween decorations.
Of course, RPG scenes have need no budget and so this is how I would have done the scene. Paul awakens from the teleportation effect on some kind of stone dais, the only light in a seemingly cavernous room shines on him like a spotlight. The dais is just high enough that the a dozens of zombies surrounding him can not reach him. This is the moment that he realizes that he could be surrounded by thousands upon thousands of zombies in a huge cavern. Ratspit called himself the “caretaker of the dead” and controlled the “discarded husks that once contained the human souls.” If so, then there would be millions in his realm. However, cinematically, I would only show a few just his feet and imply there are thousands and maybe millions around him.
Somewhere above him, perhaps sitting on his thrown on some ledge in the cavern is Ratspit, who challenges him to face his own death. At that moment, another dais raises out of the crowd of zombies. Standing on it is his zombie-self. It proceeds to walk over the crowd of zombies below him, using the heads as stepping stones. During this time, perhaps Paul has flashes of future challenges and how he might die – death by the torture devices of the Heavy Metal band, death by the Slasher and death by the Stone Canyon Statue – all greweling and gory. Meanwhile, Cal could be calculating the possibilities of each, somehow tapped into this vision. The zombie-Paul then reaches Paul’s dais and perhaps a combat ensues but Paul eventually rejects the death saying it is only one of many probabilities, sighting mathematically all other possibilities, tying it back to technology and science.
Heavy Metal written by Charles Band brought me back to my 80s metalhead days. The great 80s hair-band WASP makes an appearance in this one. Paul is sent to a modern heavy metal concert in some crowded dive. Gwen stands chained in some torture apparatus while WASP plays their song, The Tormentor. The crowd is full of vicious big-haired fans trying to prevent him from getting on stage to save Gwen. The lead singer Blackie Lawless, threatens Gwen with a machete. After another awkward and poorly shot fight sequence between Paul and the band, Paul uses Cal to determine the solution was sound waves – blast the band and crowd with a massive burst of sound waves and they will be free. Wow, Cal has better speakers than an iPhone!
Again, a missed opportunity. They thought of hacking into traffic lights to allow Paul an uninterrupted jog as well as hacking into ATMs to get money (both in the beginning scenes of the movie) but they did not think of hacking into sound systems of a rock band. Admittedly, they did not really identify the source of the sound; it just happens. But I assumed it was from his Cal device and not the sound system. Although this whole scene was a stupid excuse to get a WASP song in the movie, it had potential if they really wanted to explore it. The producers truly failed on this one because the dive they found was so cramped and small. I feel it would have been more successful on a big stage where Paul would have to climb up to save Gwen. Budget problems, again!
Again, imagination has no budget. I would have had this in an arena with various torture devices in the background on stage. I would also tie this into Gwen interest in dancing and perhaps plug this early on. I would have her as a dance girl in one of the devices, something she has been trying out for. Due to plants earlier in the movie, Paul knows there will be an accident and realizes it will cause the death of Gwen. He rushes to stop it but demon-things as well as stage security try to stop him while he climbs back stage and attempts to save his girlfriend. He uses the sound system to stun the demon things and everyone else, so he can nab Gwen from the faulty torture device.
Stone Canyon Giant written by David Allen is my favorite of all of the challenges, primarily because it uses stop-motion and was probably the single most expensive challenge in the movie. Paul is transported to another world and like in almost every case, he awaken in it groggie from partial unconsciousness. While trying to awaken from whatever magic Mestema used to transport him, two grunting dwarves snatch up his wrist computer and run off. Paul chases them down for a bit until he stumble across a temple with some kind of giant monkey god statue with a jewel in its forehead, sitting on a throne. The dwarves apparently placed Cal on an altar in front of the statue. He retrieves it only to awaken the giant statue that apparently shoots lasers from his jewel. A short fighting chase ensues, where the dwarves annoy him while he tried to get a shot off at the statues, and it ends with Paul shooting the statue in the jewel. Ouch!
While simple, this told a lot of story and left you wanting more. What were the dwarves? Why did they feel the need to leave an offering? I enjoyed this challenge thoroughly and there is no wonder it was featured a lot in the trailer. I think the lost opportunity was with the dwarves. Instead of making them just grunt, why not let them tell more story? So much more potential here but finally a legitimate use of the Cal wrist computer.
Slasher written by Jeffrey Byron is a very tropy and predictable story but it still has its moments. It seems out of place, however, after so many challenges based in fantasy worlds. Paul again is transported to another world – this time the modern one where he is basically framed for a murder that is apparently part of a series by a serial killer. As it turns out, somehow Cal figures out that Gwen is the likely next target and Paul has to save her. Paul has to escape the police and hunt down the killer using Cal. This would have been a much more meaningful challenge if (1) it was truly connected to the real world and (2) Gwen’s character wasn’t stupid in it. Suddenly, Gwen has amnesia and is in the real world seeking a dancing gig. Why? See below for my comments on connecting it to the real world.
Cave Beast written by Peter Manoogian is perhaps one of the lamest of all the challenges but in part because I do not think some of the story came across well. It is another lost opportunity. Paul is teleported to a cave opening where he hears a female voice calling out. He thinks it is a trap and resists going down into it, However the cries continue and he eventually gives in. Somewhere hidden in the cave is some kind of demon-troll, throwing exploding crystals at him. He uses Cal’s lasers to bring down the cave ceiling on the creature only to discover that it was an angel trapped inside the trolls body. She implies that she somehow “transgressed and was banished to this cave” but nothing is explained. She then vanishes, implying that she did not actually die. This could have been expanded to something far greater.
We have already established that Mestema with demon and devil imagery. Why not make this angel-person a trapped enemy of Mestema and with some act of compassion, Paul frees her from her cave prison. And then, at a moment of dire need in the final battle, she appears to return the favor. Such a missed opportunity.
Desert Pursuit written by Ted Nicolaou rehashes Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, by re-using the same vehicles in a similar post-apocalyptic setting. Paul and Gwen find themselves in a aircraft graveyard, somehow implying a post apocalypse. They are attacked by desert figures in these aforementioned vehicles. A chase ensues and the only value of this scene is Gwen finally shows she is more than a damsel in distress. Otherwise, it is simply a sad excuse of a ending story and probably was not needed. I guess they just needed a chase scene.
In between each segment is various encounters between Paul and Mestema, one of which involved them battling it out with virtually created dragons that really do not seem to do much. This segment alone would be awesome if they had half the budget of today’s films of this nature. In the end, it comes down to an awkward fist fight between Paul and Mestema where Paul ends up pushing him over a cliff into some lava that was only planted a few minutes earlier.
Also, throughout the movie, the Cal-bracer device has the ability to do all kind of things not possible in the 1980s but some are possible today, giving it a rather visionary subtext. He uses it to track down Gwen in Slasher, for example, almost simulating GPS location. At times, when convenient,. Cal also responds to voice commands, like Ceri. He also accesses police files remotely.
He also uses it constantly as a weapon, shooting lasers at everything. Most of his solutions involve shooting something out that wrist computer. Unfortunately, the effect is shooting out perpendicular to his wrist rather than a much cooler effect of shooting parallel from his wrist. I found that kind of stupid. You tell me which one is cooler?
Come on, there is no comparison. Additionally, there are times that he uses voice commands, while at others, he has to tap the screen or press buttons to get the wrist weapon to operate, creating a frustrating delay factor. There isn’t really any consistency with the weapon aspect of the wrist computer. In the end, the wrist weapons was really the ultimate missed opportunity. Although they did use this idea at the end to save Paul from falling into the pit of lava with Mestema in materializing something for him to grab, it’s frustrating that they did not allow the wrist computer to materialize a technological based weapon or tool to help him in each challenge.
There were two challenges that take place in the real world. This is another lost opportunity in story and in an RPG campaign, can make for a much more intense challenge. If they had connected these two events to the real world in the beginning, perhaps planting news headlines or TV broadcasts of a “concert accident that kills a dancer girl” (see above) or a “serial killer on the loose,” then these challenges would have deeper meaning and more impact. The bothered with a scene where Gwen is dancing with a bunch of nameless girls. Why not connect one of them to the serial killer as a victim. A boyfriend that comes and picks her up while Paul is there meeting Gwen (seen in a flashback). Later, Paul sees her face as a victim in the newspaper and he begins to put together the pieces. That’s a lot better than the way they handled it in the movie – “The paper you read is tomorrow’s headline…” and it’s Gwen’s face on the page. That’s just stupid.
I realize that is a lot of detail for a bad movie, but there was a lot of story potential in it.
The 12 Labors: From an RPG point of view, a series of challenges is a common theme in any genre. As mentioned, it goes as far back as Greek and Roman mythology. Each challenge should have a solution, however, but the GM should not railroad them in that direction. Leave clues for one way, but leave enough room for the players to come up with their own. Sometimes, the player can come up with better solution than you thought of.