Friday, September 17, 2010

SKULLDUGGERY (1983) - a role playing game becomes a conduit for evil, instead of the usual nerds arguing about how to best handle an orc invasion

 Here is the amazing opening credits theme song, which approximates what might happen if Jethro Tull and The Shaggs jammed together on a “hey kids, D & D will turn you crazy and stuff” tune. 

Laugh at our friends up north if you must (Montreal notwithstanding). Chide those Canuckleheads and their Labatts Blue and their hockey pucks and their drunken goofball antics and their Degrassi-fueled dreams and that “aboot” nonsense. However, against all odds, they stand mighty as the sole proprietors behind the Dungeons and Dragons-sploitation slasher subgenre (a one film genre, but a genre nevertheless).  A riff on Mazes and Monsters (although it may have been made first, but wasn’t released until 1983), Skullduggery takes a “brain gone schizo from role playing games” plot, applies a slasher template, and then runs it through a fractured mind obsessed with symbolism (I'm referring to the director, of course). 

Other countries (the U.S.A., for example) simply never had the balls to follow up with a D&D slasher entry of their own, so thorough was Canada’s dominance in this particular subgenre that to even enter into competition was simply foolish, a surefire opportunity for embarrassment and defeat. If life is a series of Olympic trials, best not even show up if you’re not seriously competing for a gold medal.  

Both Tom Hanks (the star of Mazes and Monsters and some other stuff) and Adam, the hero in Skullduggery, go crazy playing an RPG and come to believe that they are actually their respective game characters. The difference is, Adam is governed by his dungeon master, taking cues like Son of Sam took cues from his dog. Instead of a heroic quest, his dungeon master pits him against innocent women, whom he presents as evil witches or soldiers of Satan or what have you, only interested in “draining his powers” or other destructive affronts against the male species. Thankfully, he spares his lovely and talented costar, incredibly played by Mazes and Monsters co-star Wendy Crewson, who broke free from the narrowest early career typecasting short of Jennifer Rubin (of Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and Bad Dreams) to have a long and varied career. Meanwhile, the guy who plays Adam, the stilted somnambulist hero, had a small role in Terror Train and little else, perhaps because he is a shitty shitty shitty shitty actor. 

For those that don’t know, the dungeon master is the ringleader and referee of D&D, making judgement calls about the quest, and making sure all rules are enforced, lest the game becomes a farce and nerd rage takes over. Speaking of which, the rules for this particular variation confuse me. Mazes and Monsters (the game within the film) was basically a ripoff of Dungeons and Dragons, with the name changed to avoid legal hassles, as the story was also loosely based on a real case where some kid supposedly went crazy. 

However, the game in Skullduggery is a whole other kettle of geeky fish (yes, they’re wearing little taped glasses). Unlike D&D, it revolves around a game board that has a cardboard castle sitting in the middle. Adam wants to play as a warlock, and creates his character by rolling stats. However, the whole point of role playing games is that you have a character that you keep using for each new adventure, building him/her along the way. Anyway, he roles a 7 for charisma, and Wendy comments “that’s the highest score I’ve ever seen!”, as if he has just accomplished some feat. However, it was clearly just a random roll of a die, and since there are no seven sided dice, it must have been less than the maximum amount (maybe he rolled a seven on an eight sided die). I guess they just jotted down some random gaming dialogue without ever working out any rule logistics. So, it vaguely resembles D&D, but is psychotically askew and opaque, just like most everything else in the film. 

So, why the heck would his dungeon master want Adam to kill random women? The long winded answer to this question begins in the prologue set in medieval times (not the restaurant, although it rocks). An evil satanist places a curse on a distant relative of Adam, a king named Adam, played by the same actor to hammer home the point. His evil witch sidekick is a precursor to Wendy, I guess (she plays both characters), yet the modern day Wendy is the one good natured character in the film. Whatever. She presents king Adam with two apples, one of them filled with poison, and asks him to choose. He chooses poorly and falls limp, and the witch also sticks him with a poisoned needle, on top of the earlier satanic curse. I guess satanists like to be as thorough as possible. The astute viewer may also notice an Adam and Eve painting, a jester puppet, and a death tarot card within the frame, which are reoccurring motifs throughout the film (and not just motifs either; they literally just show up out of nowhere). 

I know you are probably already confused, but I will trudge forward undeterred. The movie periodically cuts away to a mysterious figure putting together an Adam and Eve jigsaw puzzle. There is also an annoying magician that pops in from time to time, as well as a “Dr. Evel” that throws a costume party (I’ll get to that later). It turns out that every single one of these assholes are different forms of the same evil character, the satanic warlock from the prologue, all conniving to control our hero as a puppet for the purpose of murdering women. 

So, you see, “Evel” (not the dude in the jump suit driving his car over cliffs and stuff, although that dude rocks) controls Adam, the "first man", to destroy various incarnations of Eve, who was responsible for introducing evil into the Garden of Eden by eating that stupid apple. What results is the most obtuse misogyny in the history of cinema. I guess we’re supposed to believe that Adam is being tricked into revenge, under control of a spell by the very force that the original victim (Eve) unknowingly unleashed. 
Since Adam ends up destroying Evel in the end, are we to believe that Eve is also just another victim of this evil force, but by the hands of Adam, who is simply a puppet? That men hate women because of some long instituted religious fantasy? I have no fucking idea. Either way, it’s unique as a sleazy, woman hating variation on the most hoary of biblical metaphors. 

So, Adam and Wendy work together at a costume store when they’re not playing the game with several buddies. When they aren't doing that, they are the costume department for a talent show at the local junior college. To juice up the excitement, we get to see these various acts. For example, there’s the reoccurring magician asshole who performs on stage, causing a rose to bleed. Yeah, it’s really magical that you took a rose that squirts water and filled it with fake blood instead. Asshole. 

There is also a renaissance type play, a traditional Italian dance, and an Adam and Eve play (of course). The renaissance play is particularly mind blowing. Here we have awkward and inept Canadian actors attempting to seem less Canadian (so Americans won’t be creeped out by their foreignness) while playing characters who are terrible actors, unable to convey a medieval character (presumably British, although it’s hard to tell). I sense the 4th wall crumbling, with a 5th wall being erected from the rubble. 

The structure of the film is slow, random, and fractured, and not to mention nonsensical. Not only is Skullduggery nonsensical as a whole, it is filled with individual nonsensical touches, which in turn allows it to fall together logically, in a reverse sort of a way. There is the jester doll that appears in nearly every scene, which I guess is supposed to be symbolize that jesters are unfunny assholes that are really creepy when they suddenly pop up for no reason. Near the end, when a SWAT team descends upon Adam, they see the jester lynched from the ceiling. It disappears and immediately reappears inside of a walking suit of armor before being shot to death. I hate jesters, and I really hate characters that need to magically appear in every scene for no reason, and especially characters that are not governed by any rules or logic. 

There’s also a reoccurring rabbit motif, which may also tie into the bible, what with Easter and stuff, but I admittedly don’t know shit about Christianity. There’s also a guy wearing a gray jumpsuit who repeatedly walks into frame, mostly unnoticed by the other characters. In what has to be the strangest use of symbolism in cinema history, he has a tic tac toe game on the back of his suit, and every time he pops in, another space fills up on the game board. Near the end, the board is finally filled, with a line drawn through for victory, but not for three X’s or O’s in a row. 

I guess this is supposed to convey to the audience that the director doesn’t play by the rules, or that life is governed by a set of arbitrary restrictions. Who the hell knows. I guess the film is ultimately a stream of symbolic gestures, constantly referring to itself. By the way, I lied about the film coming together in any sort of logical fashion. I guess the film turned my brain into mush, and at this point, my standards for what constitutes “logic” have been mostly obliterated. 

Equally strange are the death scenes. There is the scene where Adam dresses as a knight and attempts to murder the super hot chick playing Eve, but narrowly misses twice, while she remains oblivious. However, she dies during the performance of a supposed heart attack, after Adam imagines that she was suffocated by a python; a bit phallic, me thinks. He then visits a fortune teller, stabbing her after she pulls out the death tarot card (as in the opening); her death is also ruled a heart attack (?!?). He later stalks a nurse through a hospital, and this scene is interrupted twice by a guy in a gorilla suit smoking a cigar (?!?!), ending with him injecting her with poison. When several doctors find the body, they immediately diagnose it as another heart attack (?!?), and we hear on the radio that police think that there is a local heart attack epidemic, but they are doing further tests to see if in fact a serial killer was responsible. 

I guess it’s lucky for Adam that every female death in town is immediately chalked up to cardiac arrest, despite one victim in particular suffering a deep stab wound, her blood gushing out near a dagger covered in his fingerprints. Me thinks the local police station could use a forensics department, or at least a doctor on staff that has a vague idea of how the human body works. 

Upon immediately fleeing the nurse crime scene, Adam is hit on by another nurse, and she drags him to her apartment for some hot nursey action. Also, the dead nurse was having sex with a patient right before she was murdered. Maybe the movie is trying to present all women as whores, minus Wendy Crewson, who declines several men who keep hitting on her in lecherous fashion. Admittedly, when I see hot and horny nurses, I can’t help but think I need to get sick more often. 

Well, Adam isn’t into nurses for some ungodly reason, and instead attacks her, pulling a convenient scythe off the wall. He chases her into a graveyard (note to chicks: do not run into a cemetery when fleeing a psychotic), and she immediately pounds on a church door for help, hoping that Jesus or the holy ghost or whoever will save her (or maybe just a regular person). Instead, a fake Liberace is playing the organ, smiling as if to mock her. Maybe he’s just a really flamboyant priest who is too involved with his dandy fop music to notice a woman screaming and pounding on the glass. 
Either way, Adam magically turns into a knight and stabs the nurse with a sword that he magically produces out of thin air. This was all just a fulfillment of Adam’s quest to murder an evil sorceress, but, in reality, he ended up snuffing out a poor innocent soul, a slutty nurse who just wanted to make the world feel a little better. 

There is also a scene where Adam, working at the costume store, is helping a tasty lady find the right costume for a party. He convinces her to try on a medieval dress, and she appears to be getting turned on, as Adam’s stilted monotone deliver apparently turns every woman into a raging harlot. For some reason, she starts stabbing a dummy (?!?), and then Adam pops into frame wearing a bunny costume (?!?). He stabs her in return, grabbing her invitation to Dr. Evel’s costume party, which was all part of the dungeon master’s next quest for Adam. 

Adam shows up at the party carrying a bunch of costumes. He changes into one of the costumes, waits for a woman to hit on him, and then murders her in predictably obtuse fashion. There’s a roller skating girl (Starr Andreeff of Ghoulies II and Out of the Dark), whom he chops up and roasts in the oven. A randy ballerina seduces Adam by offering him a sip of ceremonial blood, and they head down to the basement for some puerile pirouettes. He doesn’t end up boinking her, just as he doesn’t boink any of these women that hit on him (which is all of them except for Wendy). Maybe he’s impotent, and this murder spree is his way of punishing these whores through a different form of penetration, and the whole D&D quest/curse stuff is just his way of subconsciously justifying this murder spree. Why not. 

Either way, he sprays pipe steam in her face for some reason, and she magically turns into a plastic skull (?!?). He then puts on a full suit of armor, and a Hawaiian chick then hits on him, saying “get me a can opener” (he he). Two guys who look like extras from Cruising immediately try and rape her, and Adam impales all three with a spear. I guess he was trying to only spear her, and the two rapists just got in the way. He also chases another girl around before stabbing her through a door, but she ends up surviving. My guess is that she won't be attending any parties in the future being thrown by a Dr. Evel, or a Captain Satan, or a Dr. Acula, or any other similarly suspicious sounding host. 

The next murder is the strangest of all. Adam finally dresses up as the warlock, his game character, and takes another woman through a fluorescent doorway while a nearby cross flares up. Some guy shoots an air bow and arrow (it’s like an air guitar, but a bow and arrow, if you follow) at the jester doll hanging on the wall, and the doll falls limp and starts bleeding. You’d think this would finally kill off this jester fucker, but no. The entire party is watching and waiting for Adam, but he escapes, and they notice that he has drowned the girl in a fluorescent fish tank, along with the jester (who still isn’t dead). 

Someone immediately calls the police, but they don’t show up until the next morning. They try to arrest a dirty hippie (who carries a copy of the Wall Street Journal stuffed in his pants), as his hands are covered in ketchup for some reason. It’s nice to see that the local bacon brigade is on the ball. Dr. Evel explains to them that Adam was responsible, and a SWAT team descends upon the costume store for a final showdown of sorts. 

With Adam arrested I guess, the gaming group plays one last game with him in spirit to honor his memory, symbolized by placing the suit of armor he wore in a chair. I don’t understand how an empty suit of armor can play a role playing game, but maybe I lack imagination. Sure enough, they put several dice in the armored glove and simulate a roll. 

All of a sudden, the empty armor stabs the dungeon master, who reverts back to Dr. Evel with his middle finger extended (one last jerkoff move). Adam was a devoted servant of “Evel” up until his last breath, even killing off SWAT teamers in his quest. So, in his ghostly state, I guess he finally realized that he was being played for a fool. However, I don’t think this Adam guy should get a pass. At some point, you gotta question why some force is using a nonsensical role playing game as a conduit for you to kill innocent women. Maybe it sounds like a great idea at face value in your fractured state, but I think a little self-awareness and self-examination would go a long away into keying you that something isn't kosher in Denmark.

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