Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review: Dungeons and Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness

As cinema, the Dungeons and Dragons films are a bit of an oddity, existing as they do for the primary purpose of driving viewers into the waiting arms of Wizards of the Coast's flagship product. Yet each sequel assumes a higher level of familiarity with D&D tropes and concepts than its predecessor.

The astoundingly bad first film (Dungeons and Dragons, most notable for Jeremy Irons' absurd performance) assumes basically no familiarity at all, and indeed was likely perceived by the hardcore D&D nerds to be nothing so much as a soulless cash-in, borrowing franchise elements but not their context. See also either one of the J.J. Treks.

The far lower-budgeted, but surprisingly decent, second film (Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God) actually resembles many D&D campaigns in tone, rather than resembling all the worst things about The Phantom Menace as its predecessor did. Yet it doesn't assume much D&D knowledge of its audience. There's even a scene where a character explains the difference between arcane and divine magic, which would've seemed insulting to the hardcore fans if they hadn't already seen the first movie and thereby known true insult.

Dungeons and Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness, on the other hand, makes casual and completely non-explanatory references to such things as goliaths, vermin lords, the shadar-kai, and the Shadowfell. As someone who had at least a vague idea of what all those elements mean, even I felt a little lost at times. What helped me follow the proceedings was that I have a sense for the rhythm of a D&D campaign arc, which Vile Darkness resembles at least as much as the second film.

And though the hardcore D&Ders might prefer Vile Darkness due to its deeper immersion in the setting, Wrath of the Dragon God is a better film, with a more solid cast and a story that's less unevenly paced. Yet despite its flaws, I am happy to say—because this dread always comes upon me when watching a fantasy movie—that The Book of Vile Darkness is still leagues better than Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of Jeremy Irons' Scenery-Chewing.

The uninitiated should know that the titular Book of Vile Darkness is both a MacGuffin within the game world and the name of a game expansion volume which has gone through two editions now: the one for the 3rd edition game and the 4th. I've never examined the 4th edition version, but the first one was full of Grand Guignol ludicrousness. I was happy to see that the film version toned it down to more of a Heroes of Horror level of subtlety.

That said, fans of gross horror will likely find something to like here, which makes it unique among the D&D films thus far. The scene with the little undead girl-thing was particularly, well, vile and dark. When you factor in the eyeball thing, the sex, the Pinheadesque villain, and the torture, it might not seem like this movie toned ANYthing down from the book version. Well, that's just how far the book version goes. (It was sealed and marked "for mature audiences only" when it came out.)

But does all this grisly pageantry add up to anything? Well, sort of. Vile Darkness is a tale of faith; our hero (played by a young James Marsden clone) is a member of the "Knights of the New Sun," a fading paladin-esque order. When hero boy's father and sponsor is kidnapped by bad guys, he is persuaded by a random NPC villager to infiltrate the bad guys' order; thus, hero boy ingratiates himself into the Sinister Adventuring Party.

They are:

  • the especially villainous bald guy…a blackguard?
  • the shadar-kai girl and party leader…a shadowcaster? Do they even have those in 4th edition?
  • the vengeful goliath…probably a barbarian
  • and the vermin lord, the best acted of any character in Vile Darkness. He looks like Bill Corbett's Observer meets Bill Sadler's Death, and he steals every scene he's in.

Naturally, this group of vile dorkness is suspicious of Bucky McWholesome, but he manages to bed the shadar-kai nonetheless. This creates some mild interpersonal conflict, but mainly plays into the hero's internal moral struggle—how much must one become an evil murderhobo in order to be accepted by a party of evil murderhobos?

The film's overall feel is pretty SyFy. (It aired on SyFy but has not been released on home media in the U.S.; I saw it on YouTube.) So you can't expect much real character depth, or complex examination of the Donnie Brasco-like character beats. Part of me hoped the movie would live up to its title and end with the hero becoming the evillest of them all, but alas, it's a redemption ending.

As to the Anti-Hero's Journey, he ends up killing a couple party members as their quest progresses—from the grim opening city, to a dragon's cave, to a small town that they totally go apeshit in, and eventually to the 4th edition equivalent of the Plane of Shadow. I liked the big reveal for the latter setting well enough that I think I'll steal it for a D&D campaign sometime—indeed, I'm kind of surprised I've never pulled that particular stunt before.

All the same, a clunky climax and an underused, underexplained villain make Book of Vile Darkness a somewhat disjointed viewing experience. If you go in expecting about the same level of competence as most low-budget fantasy, you'll be mildly impressed. And it'll certainly put RPG-playing viewers in the mood, and make those of you without gaming groups a little wistful. But so far, they have yet to make a D&D movie that's half as fun as even a kinda lame D&D campaign.

Star Score: 2.5 out of 5

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