The Dungeonmaster (1984) The Dungeonmaster / Digital Knights / Ragewar: The Challenges of Excalibrate (1984) -**½

     The Dungeonmaster probably isn’t going to convince anybody who wasn’t already a fan to give the works of Charles Band’s old Empire Pictures studio a try. That’s rather unfortunate, because I can imagine no reason for its existence except to serve as an Empire Pictures sampler platter. Although not technically an anthology, The Dungeonmaster is constructed as a succession of seven (!) virtually self-contained episodes, each written and directed by a different Empire luminary (Band himself, John Carl Buechler, Ted Nicolaou, etc.) in one of several styles characteristic of the firm. The trouble is, the domestic home video cut of The Dungeonmaster runs just 73 minutes (the British theatrical release, entitled Ragewar, used a substantially different edit, probably clocking in at some other figure), and six of those minutes are consumed by just about the slowest-crawling closing credits you’ll ever see. There’s barely enough time for the individual segments to establish an intelligible point, let alone tell any sort of separate story, and the frame narrative holding them all together is as stupid and nonsensical as anything to which Band ever signed his name— and lest we forget, this is the producer who gave us Fairy Tales!

     Paul Bradford (Jeffrey Byron, from Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn and The Seniors) is a computer engineer, designer of the extraordinary new X-CALBR-8 system. Imagine a consumer version of the HAL 9000, but without all the murder, and you’ve got the general idea. Bradford is really into this machine of his, so much so that he’s apparently had some kind of gizmo installed in his body allowing his central nervous system to network with it directly— but don’t expect to learn any of the hows or whys of that, because the subject never comes up again after being mentioned briefly in conversation between Paul and one of his coworkers. Cyberpunk transhumanism notwithstanding, Bradford certainly is heavily dependent upon X-CALBR-8 (or as he affectionately calls it, Cal). Interfacing with it via a heads-up display in his glasses, he uses the computer to access his bank account, to track his daily exercise regimen, and to call up at a moment’s notice whatever information he finds himself needing about anything. Paul’s girlfriend, Gwen Rogers (Leslie Wing, of Strangeland and The Frighteners), thinks it’s weird and creepy, and maybe even a deal-breaker for the long-term viability of their relationship. Consequently, Paul doesn’t exactly bolster the case for his marriage proposal tonight by saying that Cal’s analysis of their personality profiles indicates an ideal match. He and Gwen may still go to bed together after that, but Gwen definitely goes to bed mad. Luckily for them, however, they’re about to get a couples’ counseling intervention from Satan.

     Wait— what?!?! No, it’s true! Satan comes to Gwen in a dream, in the guise of the deathless wizard Mestema (Richard Moll, from Galaxis and The Sword and the Sorcerer), and abducts her into a parallel dimension. Then he abducts Paul, too. You see, immortality can get boring, and it’s been many a millennium since Mestema has enjoyed a good fight. This new magic of Bradford’s— that is to say, X-CALBR-8— seems like just the sort of challenge to liven up the Devil’s day. With that in mind, Mestema has devised seven contests to pit his sorcery against Bradford’s, with both Paul’s soul and Gwen’s as the stakes. Dubbing Bradford “Excalibrate” (get it?), Mestema tricks him out in a sort of futuristic brigandine, a bit like Robin Hood by way of Tron. And because even Satan knows it’s uncouth to hit a man wearing glasses, he switches Paul’s X-CALBR-8 interface from Google Glass to Nintendo Power Glove— which is kind of interesting, since even the less advanced of those contraptions didn’t exist yet when The Dungeonmaster was made. Anyway, let the games begin:

1. Paul is transported to a desert canyon, where he must use Cal’s laser mode to battle a stone colossus (animated by segment director Dave Allen) with only one vulnerable spot. It is perhaps indicative of Mestema’s concept of fair play that this challenge begins with the X-CALBR-8 gauntlet being stolen by a pair of stone-age dwarves (Phil Fondacaro, from Hard Rock Zombies and Land of the Dead, and his brother, Sal, whom you definitely won’t recognize inside the full-body creature suits he wore for Return of the Jedi and Invaders from Mars).

2. Paul must disbelieve his way out of the subterranean realm of a demon called Ratspit, who first summons zombie goons to manhandle Bradford, then tries to psych him out by conjuring up Paul’s undead doppelganger from a possible future in which Mestema triumphs.

3. Together with Gwen this time, Paul has to escape from hot-and-cold-running caverns inhabited by living wax dummies of every monster ever played by Paul Naschy (plus Albert Einstein and a samurai).

4. Paul must rescue Gwen from becoming the climactic human sacrifice at a concert by hair-metal cheezoids WASP (no, really).

5. Bradford faces yet a third fight in a cave, this time against a gargoyle who tosses explosive crystals at him from the safety of an alcove that Cal’s lasers can’t directly reach.

6. Paul has to rescue Gwen again, now from a serial killer (Danny Dick) who preys on models, dancers, actresses, and such. He has only an hour to do it, though, in the face of constant interference from two cops (Eddie Zammit and— get this— Mack Ademia) who mistake him for the slasher.

7. It’s a wallet-size remake of Metalstorm, as Paul and Gwen engage post-apocalyptic barbarians in a running firefight, driving futuristic vehicles recycled from the aforementioned film.

     And then when it’s all over, there is of course an unscheduled eighth bout, in which Bradford implausibly takes on Mestema mano-a-mano. This avatar of Satan is a bit of a sore loser, you see.

     Despite the glaring, overwhelming faults enumerated at the beginning of the review (plus a few I haven’t mentioned yet, like Byron Jeffrey’s utter uselessness as an action hero), The Dungeonmaster deserves a bit of credit, and may even get enough of it to satisfy those who already have the taste for Empire’s unique brand of schlock. I always enjoy John Carl Buechler’s monster makeup and puppetry, and this movie is positively loaded with them. Similarly, as a lifelong sucker for even the worst stop-motion animation, I get a little charge out of Paul’s fight with the colossus of the canyon, even if Dave Allen at this stage of his career was no Jim Danforth, let alone Ray Harryhausen. More fundamentally, though, there’s a sense in which The Dungeonmaster’s counterproductively episodic structure is strangely apt. Remember that the hero of this movie is first and foremost a computer wiz, and that Mestema, at least at first, wants a good-faith test of his own powers against the novel “magic” of digital technology. Isn’t it kind of perfect, then, that the Devil’s seven challenges should so strongly echo the sensibilities of mid-80’s video games? Think of the canyon colossus, with its one vulnerable target area. Think of the slasher segment, with its arbitrary time limit and its secondary enemies that have to be dodged on the way to achieving the real goal. Think of the crystal-lobbing cave gargoyle, which can be struck only by a lucky ricochet, or by bringing the ceiling down onto its head. The post-apocalypse segment, although obviously a retread of a picture that Empire had released the preceding year, also recalls such hybrid driver/shooter games as Road Blaster and Spy Hunter. Even the “rescue the girl from WASP” sketch has an arguable arcade angle, insofar as The Dungeonmaster was made at a time when the hard rock band Journey had licensed two completely separate tie-in video games within recent memory— one of them a commercial coin-op cabinet, and the other a cartridge for the Atari 2600 home console system. (And given heavy metal’s subcultural self-image, it seems natural to imagine that WASP would have preferred to be cast as the villains in their hypothetical Atari game.) And of course the entire concept of a game with several successive levels, each with its own unique setting, style, technique, and object of play, is an obvious parallel, although only a handful of actual arcade games (Gorf, Tron, and Phoenix spring to mind) had carried the premise to quite the same level as The Dungeonmaster by 1984. I’m not convinced that a movie constructed according to the logic and rhythms of mid-80’s video games is something that anyone particularly wanted, but if we’re going to have one anyway, then “The Devil Went Down to Silicon Valley” isn’t the worst hook to hang it on.

     The Dungeonmaster’s best-hidden virtue, though, is one that it didn’t even possess originally. Look again at all the ways Paul uses his interface with X-CALBR-8, all the things that are supposed to mark him as such an impossible tech-weirdo that Gwen can barely imagine herself having a normal life or relationship with him. Now think about the apps you have on your smart phone. During the evening leading up to his and Gwen’s capture by Mestema, Paul uses what now look like obvious analogues for Google, Fitbit, Siri, Alexa, and even Tindr. In 1984, these tools were well and truly within the realm of sci-fi, and evidently struck Charles Band as electronic crutches that only maladjusted freaks would ever want to use. Going into 2020, though, they’re just part of people’s regular lives, and the only material difference between The Dungeonmaster’s “real world” segments and the real real world of today is that it didn’t occur to Band to give X-CALBR-8 telephone or text-chat functionality, too. Despite having no agenda more ambitious than to set up a basis on which the Devil could mistake a computer enthusiast for a wizard, The Dungeonmaster somehow arrived at a much more accurate prediction of 21st-century life than many self-consciously serious works of futurism. This movie might be worth a look for that, even if the main business of a lame-ass hero battling a lame-ass sorcerer with a lame-ass computer leaves you cold.



Can you believe the B-Masters Cabal turns 20 this year? I sure don't think any of us can! Given the sheer unlikelihood of this event, we've decided to commemorate it with an entire year's worth of review roundtables— four in all. These are going to be a little different from our usual roundtables, however, because the thing we'll be celebrating is us. That is, we'll each be concentrating on the kind of coverage that's kept all of you coming back to our respective sites for all this time. This review belongs to the third roundtable, in which we cover movies which we thought we'd have reviewed a long time ago. Since I've been doing that all along, though, I'm interpreting the theme in a rather more restictive manner, and taking a second (or however-manieth) crack at a couple reviews which I'd already tried to write, but couldn't quite make come together. Click the banner below to peruse the Cabal's combined offerings:




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