Although there’s no way to ever again think about or mention the proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth” without calling to mind the short film that took the internet by storm last year, few statements are more accurate when it comes to the abysmal failings of 1985’s The Dungeonmaster. The title is inaccurate, as there are absolutely no dungeons in this movie, nor is there a master of these unseen dungeons. The alternate title, Digital Knights, is also incorrect, as there is only one person who could reasonably be called a knight in this film. In fact, even the original title, Ragewar: The Challenges of Excalibrate (as it was known before the reaction from a San Antonio test audience convinced the producers to change it), was also wrong, as there is no war in this movie whatsoever, and, despite it being mostly garbage, you’ll feel more unfulfilled by the movie’s underwhelming 73 minutes than moved to any strong emotion; this movie can’t inspire mild interest, let alone rage.
In 1989, Charles Band founded direct-to-video production company Full Moon Entertainment. Although it’s easy to ignore how revolutionary this was at the time, Full Moon was the first studio to create features exclusively for the burgeoning home video rental market in much the same way Netflix began creating content for its subscribers when streaming video began to catch on as an alternative to broadcast TV. Their first film was the surprise hit Puppet Master, which was not only a sharp and commercially successful film but also included a featurette about the film’s production on both the VHS tape and the Laserdisc, a novel idea at the time. When Full Moon released its fifth feature, the sequel Puppet Master II, it also introduced VideoZone, a video magazine that featured introductions from Band, featurettes, ads for Full Moon merchandise, and interviews that spotlighted upcoming releases. It was a brilliant and inventive business model that reflects how Band was an innovator, despite a less-than-stellar reputation that features (probably true) accusations of plagiarism and failure to properly credit artists involved in his ventures.
The strange thing about Dungeonmaster is that it also demonstrates innovation, or at least attempts to. The film is about handsome computer programmer Paul (Jeffrey Byron), who has created an inexplicably advanced computer named X-CaliBR8, which, in addition to acting as his FitBit/Google Glass/smartwatch, allows him to interface with ATMs and control traffic lights while being kind of a dick to commuters. Also, “Cal” (voiced by an uncredited actress) can process data like some kind of god, answering seriously open-ended questions featuring an anxiety-inducing number of factors with more speed than it took me to construct this sentence. Paul’s girlfriend, Gwen (Leslie Wing), is jealous of Paul’s relationship with the sultry-voiced computer, but she accepts his seemingly impromptu marriage proposal with only minor hesitation.
That night, the couple is kidnapped by Mestema (Night Court‘s Richard Moll–in fact, TV legend has it that he shaved his head for this role and then auditioned for the sitcom, leading the producers to suggest he keep it that way for all nine seasons), a sorcerer or demon or something, who transports Gwen and Paul to a quarry somewhere. He turns Paul’s magic computer into a gauntlet with buttons, and it is just as ridiculous and terrible as you are imagining; Cal identifies Mestema as the devil himself, which, were I Satan, I would find terribly embarrassing. Mestema exposits to Paul, to whom he gives the awful, awful name “Excalibrate,” that he has waited a long time for a challenger who’s up to his level or something and issues Excalibrate a challenge to seven trials, or else Mestema gets to keep Gwen. That’s where Band’s innovation comes into play: the rest of the film plays out as an anthology, with each of the seven trials being directed by a different person. This makes the story mostly incoherent overall, but some segments are better than others. In order to give the film a fair star rating, I’m going to rate each segment individually and then average them out.
The first trial contains the images that intrigued me most when I saw the trailer, as it features a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop motion statue monster. Entitled “Stone Canyon Giant,” this sequence was directed by David Allen; unsurprisingly, Allen’s earliest credit is for cult classic Equinox, where he worked on the movie’s beloved (if campy) visual effects. His only other feature directing credit is for the aforementioned Puppet Master II, but he was a stop motion artist and puppeteer on both classics like Willow, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and *batteries not included as well as disputably nonclassic but beloved movies like The Howling, The Stuff, and Prehysteria (which was released on Moonbeam Entertainment, Full Moon’s family-oriented division). The titular giant is bound to induce nostalgic reminiscence of Harryhausens of yore, and the segment also features an appearance by New Orleans native Phil Fondacaro, formerly the second most well-known little person in show biz (Peter Dinklage has knocked him down to third place, with Warwick Davis still in first by a wide margin, in my book). Overall, though, it’s mostly mediocre, and it isn’t helped by the fact that it includes the first of many times we will see Paul inexplicably shoot lasers from the wrist-mounted Cal. 2.5 Stars.
The second segment was directed by Band himself, and is a headache-inducing music video for W.A.S.P. in which Paul must force his way through a group of “scary looking” punks at a metal show before Blackie Lawless (as himself, I guess) can turn into Mestema and cut Gwen in half. It’s titled “Heavy Metal” and is just awful. 1 Star.
The third segment is titled “Demons of the Dead” and was directed by John Carl Buechler. Two years later, Buechler would direct the underrated classic Troll starring The NeverEnding Story‘s Noah Hathaway, a movie which has long been surpassed in popularity by its (notoriously and endearingly) awful not-really-a-sequel sequel. He went on to direct the seventh Friday the 13th as well as Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (wait, what?), as well as a bunch of stuff I’ve never heard of. I knew that this would be Buechler’s segment from the moment I caught sight of Ratspit, a highly detailed and technically perfect goblin puppet who rules the dead. Most of the segment is utterly forgettable. Fighting reanimated corpses should be more exciting than this! 3.5 Stars.
The fourth segment, “Slasher,” relocates Paul to contemporary New York, where he spends most of the time he’s supposed to be saving Gwen from a serial killer trying to escape from the custody of two clumsy cops. This sequence does have some striking visual elements in its favor, but it, too, is largely forgettable. This was the only directorial effort ever put forth by actor Steven Ford, whose roles include such noteworthy appearances as “Secret Service #2” in Escape from New York, “Nuke Tech” in Armageddon, the nameless “Four Star General” in Transformers, and “Prometheus First Officer” in Babylon 5: In the Beginning. 1.5 Stars.
If I remember correctly, the fifth segment was Rosemarie Turko’s “The Ice Gallery,” which works in the sense that it feels like an homage to Hammer Films. Paul and Gwen are once again separated in a cave full of fictional and historical monsters frozen like wax figures in a museum. Marie Antoinette and Jack the Ripper are there, alongside the Wolfman, a mummy, a samurai, and, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom, Albert Einstein. This is probably the most visually interesting segment overall, even if it’s dumb. Turko’s only previous film experience was writing, producing, and directing a film titled Scarred, about an underage girl who turns to prostitution to support her baby. She never directed, wrote, or produced anything after Dungeonmaster. 3 Stars.
“The Cave Beast” is the penultimate trial. It makes no sense. Paul gets lured into a cave and vanquishes a monster that is actually revealed to be an angel once defeated, or something, by figuring out how to reflect laser beams off of stuff. Director Paul Manoogian also directed Full Moon’s Demonic Toys and was the first AD on James Franco’s bombed directorial debut The Ape. 1.5 Stars.
The final segment was directed by Ted Nicolaou, director of TerrorVision and all of the Subspecies movies. He also directed Bad Channels, a Full Moon release about a radio station that is taken over by an alien infestation and features a Blue Oyster Cult soundtrack (I have a fondness for Bad Channels that I know is indefensible). His contribution to this film, “Desert Pursuit,” however, is a lazy Mad Max rip off that features, as you might have guessed, a pursuit through the desert in ridiculous vehicles. 1 Star.
Paul wins all the trials, challenges Mestema to a physical fight that the warlock loses, and throws Richard Moll into a convenient lava pit. The end. Wraparound story: 1.5 Stars. So, the average is just shy of 2 Stars (1.9375, if you want to get obsessive about it). Despite an intriguing approach, Dungeonmaster is a lousy movie overall. If you want a positive experience, track down and watch the film’s trailer, as it consists of the three good minutes of this movie and leaves out the chaff.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond