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The Dungeonmaster
(a.k.a. Ragewar)
(1984)

Director: Various
Cast:
Jeffrey Byron, Richard Moll, Leslie Wing


A long time ago when I was a teenager, I used to dream of making it big in Hollywood. And when I talk about Hollywood, I of course mean the part of Hollywood that has to do with the motion picture industry. I used to dream of being some major and well publicized player in the film industry, like a movie director or an actor. But I eventually realized that not only would such positions endanger my privacy, they would require a lot of hard work. So my Hollywood dreams eventually drifted to ones where I would be connected to the industry, but in a more private behind-the-scenes position, like a best boy or a set construction worker. If I was given the chance today to work in such positions, I would be seriously tempted. But I would only take on the job if I would be working with other people doing more or less the same job. This would ensure that what I would be doing would be correct. To tell the truth, if I were a big shot on a Hollywood movie such as a director or a producer, I would want many of the lowly positions in a film crew to be held by more that one person, so that I would be assured that nothing would go wrong. Though at the same time, I would be careful that there weren't too many people doing the same job. Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff once recalled that when he visited the set of the notorious movie Cleopatra when he was in Italy on other film business, he noticed crew members wearing badges reading stuff like, "Grip # 24" or "Electrician #36". "Why the hell would any picture need thirty-six electricians?" he wondered.

Obviously from this story, studios need to keep a close eye on film crews to make sure there isn't any waste there on a film project. For that matter, studios should also take a look at the creative angle of a film project to make sure there isn't any waste. I'm talking about positions such as screenwriter or director. Now, there are times where both positions can use the work of more than one person. I remember a couple of times collaborating on script projects with other people. Both scripts never got finished, but I remember discussing with the other people various ideas for the scripts. Some of my ideas were welcomed by the other writers, while others were shot down. Looking back, I can see that some of my ideas were indeed bad, so I was glad to work with another person who could see which of my ideas would work and which would not. So sometimes scripts can use more than one writer. With directors, that is a somewhat different story. For some newbie directors, having someone else share the director's chair can certainly help. It's somewhat different when it comes to more seasoned directors. The most famous example is probably the team of Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker, who together in the 1980s directed the cult comedies Airplane!, Top Secret!, and Ruthless People. But after those three movies, they never directed a movie all together again. I once read an interview with one of those three directors where he explained their splitting up (at least when it came to directing) by saying that it was getting uncomfortable sharing the same director's chair.

I can kind of understand what he said. I can see that directing a movie with one other person would inevitably mean the clashing of ideas. I can only imagine what it would be like with The Dungeonmasterthree people in total. From what I have seen over the years, when a movie has been made with more than one director for whatever reason, it has a higher than average chance of not working. A movie needs to be made with one clear vision, and extra eyes can shake things up in a bad way. So when I heard about the movie The Dungeonmaster, it seemed to be a recipe for disaster. That's because the movie was directed not by two or three directors, but seven in total. And most of those seven directors also contributed to the writing of the screenplay. Though I concluded from all this that the end results had to be a mess, it promised to be a mess that at least was memorable. The chief protagonist of The Dungeonmaster is a young man by the name of Paul (Byron, Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn). He has a girlfriend named Gwen (Wing, High School Musical) that he loves, though Gwen feels their relationship is a little strained because of Paul's constant work on his pet project, a personal computer that he relies on for many things. But it turns out Paul is lucky to have his computer, because one day out of the blue he and Gwen are captured by a sorcerer from another dimension by the name of Mestema (Moll, No Dessert Dad, Til You Mow The Lawn). We learn that over the centuries Mestema has challenged and defeated a number of magical opponents, and is seeking a new and worthy opponent with new skills - and Paul with his computer seems to be just that person. Holding Gwen hostage, Mestema subsequently subjects Paul to a string of unique challenges he must overcome if he wants himself and Gwen to be freed. And Paul only has his computer and his wits to help him conquer each challenge.

There are seven challenges in all that the character of Paul has to go through, with each segment helmed by a different director. Since The Dungeonmaster is more or less seven vignettes loosely connected together by the wraparound story, I felt that the best way to critique the movie would be to write an in depth analysis of each segment instead of writing about the general quality of things like special effects and acting. The first challenge Paul has to face ("Ice Gallery") was written and directed by Rosemarie Turko. The challenge has Paul finding himself in an ice cave filled with Mestema's frozen past opponents - who of course come to life and threaten to kill Paul and Gwen. This sequence is pretty short, and it's just as well, because it is extremely flat. The obviously soundstage set ice cavern set is small and covered with Styrofoam. The frozen opponents, from Jack The Ripper to a samurai warrior, hardly get a chance to make an impression. Probably the worst thing about the entire segment is the writing. Paul and Gwen take being suddenly transported to this strange and threatening environment a mere minute or so after being kidnapped surprisingly well. And it's never explained how Paul not only suddenly figures out how his computer (which Mestema has provided to him via changing it to an attachment on his arm) can help him defend himself against one opponent, he also suddenly knows that an ice crystal in the cavern has the power to defeat all his opponents. In short, the only cool aspect of this segment is the low temperature in the cavern.

The next segment ("Demons Of The Dead") was written and directed by special effects guru John Carl Buechler, and involves Paul being transported to an underworld full of zombie warriors controlled by a small monster named Ratspit. This segment is an improvement over the first... slightly. The cavern set looks both bigger and more impressive, and the zombie makeup is okay. However, Buechler's puppet Ratspit creation is somewhat of a disappointment. It not only looks very small (about the size of a cat), the facial expressions of this puppet are extremely limited. But that didn't bother me as much as the scripting of this segment. Once again, the character of Paul almost instantly knows what to do with every challenge in this environment, not even breaking a sweat. When the protagonist in a movie isn't seen struggling with a challenge, it's hard to get on his side; he becomes a know-it-all instead, and you get annoyed with him. Indeed, by the point the character of Paul was starting to turn me off.

We then go to the third challenge ("Heavy Metal"), written and directed by Empire studio head Charles Band. This challenge proves to be the most frightening so far - Paul must face the heavy metal band W.A.S.P. at a night club! Band tries to scare the audience in part by having the band perform one of their strident and easily interchangeable songs, but apart from that touch, the entire segment falls flat. When Paul walks toward the band to face them, he has the great challenge of heavy metal fans in the night club pawing him. Ooh! And once Paul reaches the stage, once again he has a challenge that hardly gives him a problem at all. This time around, instead of Paul suddenly coming up with a solution, the computer on his arm suddenly tells him what needs to be done, and does it for him. And in seconds, W.A.S.P. is defeated and the challenge is over. Though seeing W.A.S.P. get vaporized certainly is pleasing, there isn't anything else of real merit to say about this segment.

Moving on, we soon get to the fourth challenge ("Stone Canyon Giant"), which was written and directed by special effects master David Allen, best known for his stop-motion animation work. So it comes as no surprise that this segment features some stop-motion animation depicting the title menace Paul has to face. I will say this about this segment - the stop motion giant stone figure is a fairly impressive special effect accomplishment. The animation is smooth, and the stone giant looks imposing. But the special effects are the only good thing to say about this segment. The segment starts off with some promise, with Paul's computer on his arm being stolen by some little people. Ah, I thought, now Paul will have to use his brains to conquer this particular challenge. But to my disappointment, Paul not only got back his computer shortly before the stone giant came to life, he simply used his computer to fire laser beams at the giant to defeat it. I don't think it's necessary to say why all of that severely underwhelmed me.

The fifth challenge ("Slasher"), while directed by actor Steven Ford (Eraser), happened to be written by the actor playing Paul, Jeffrey Byron. In this segment, Paul finds himself back in modern Los Angeles, but quickly finds out that a serial killer has set his sights on Gwen - and the police think that Paul is the one behind all the killings. This segment has a little atmosphere here and there, but it's not enough to save things. Every challenge Paul has to face in this segment, from being arrested by the police to facing the real serial killer, is once again quickly overcome by his computer each and every time. And once again, I don't think I have to say why that irked me.

Peter Manoogian (who later directed Eliminators and Arena) wrote and directed the sixth segment, "Cave Beast". Yes, this makes three of the seven challenges that take place in a cave! So it should come as no surprise that this lack of originality also extends to Paul once again having to use his computer to get through the challenge and not struggling that much at all. Trust me, other aspects of the segment (like the cave beast itself) are not worth mentioning at all.

The seventh and last segment ("Desert Pursuit") was written and directed by Ted Nicolaou (Subspecies), and involves Paul and Gwen getting into post apocalypse shenanigans a la The Road Warrior. However, the Mel Gibson movie had a budget, while the penny pinching Charles Band only apparently gave Nicolaou enough money to hire just four bad guys and three decked-out vehicles. While it might have been possible despite the limited funds to generate some excitement, Nicolaou seems unable to raise the excitement level of the desert car chases above the level of mere routine.

So as you can see, none of the seven showcase segments in The Dungeonmaster are worthy of merit, at least as a whole. For that matter, the wraparound material (directed by Charles Band) isn't any better. I could go on for a while detailing the many problems with this wraparound footage, from the obvious padding to the extremely disappointing (and underwhelming) way the inevitable climactic one-on-one duel between Paul and Mestema is handled. But the biggest disappointment with this linking material has to do with the character of Mestema himself. While there are hints he is more than just a sorcerer, we don't get more than hints about this character. When he first shows up, it's all of a sudden and sorely lacking explanation, and his subsequent appearances flesh him out very little. Worse, he doesn't seem to be all that evil, more just a guy who likes to get into mischief. This may explain why actor Richard Moll doesn't seem sure as to how to play this guy. Moll shouts and gets angry, but it all seems very half-hearted. So adding the flat linking material into the pot, The Dungeonmaster ends up being pretty much a complete waste of time. That is, unless you have an interest in seeing so much talent misused and wasted.

(Posted January 19, 2021)

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See also: Black Sabbath, Freakshow, The Last Run

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