THE EMPIRE BEGINS – THE DUNGEONMASTER (1984)
In 1985 DC comics published an experimental 12-issue miniseries called DC Challenge, which told one complete story, but with a different creative team for each issue. In each issue the writer would use various plot twists and impossible situations to paint the characters into a corner, and it was up to the next team to get them out of that mess before introducing their own curveballs.
It was the sort of truly bizarre creative exercise that you would almost certainly never see these days. It just has too much potential to go horribly wrong. But it’s these sorts of go-for-broke experiments that can be so fun.
The Dungeonmaster (aka Ragewar) doesn’t quite live up to that go-for-broke mentality, but it remains a gleefully bizarre example of an anthology film that refuses to play by its own rules. It’s disjointed, often incomprehensible, but always full of imagination. It also serves as a sampler platter for Empire International, as it features names – Peter Manoogian, Ted Nicoleau, John Carl Buechler – that would be critical in the development of both Empire for the rest of the decade.
The plot, such as it is, involves computer programmer Paul Bradford (played by Metalstorm‘s Jeffrey Byron) and his near sentient computer “Cal” (short for X-CALBR8). Paul’s girlfriend Gwen is jealous of Paul and Cal’s close relationship, but if you thought that might lead to a plot involving an evil computer destroying Paul and Gwen’s life.. You would be wrong. In fact, almost all of that set-up is for naught, as that night Paul is whisked away to some weird fantasy land where he’s told by the evil wizard Mestema (Richard Moll) that he’ll have to complete seven challenges to win his, and Gwen’s, freedom.
Each of these seven challenges represent what is essentially an anthology segment, and reflect a variety of genres and subject matter. I should note that differently titled versions of The Dungeonmaster have these segments in a slightly different order, which gives you a sense of how the creators were unencumbered with concerns for pacing. First up is Rosemarie Turko’s attractive, but ridiculous, “Ice Gallery” where Paul and Gwen are briefly trapped in a nefarious wax museum where the figures come to life, until they grab a crystal from Einstein’s (?!) hand which effectively blows up the baddies.
That’s followed by John Buechler’s zombie fantasy “Demons of the Dead”, which features some predictably great makeup on some sword-wielding undead. Paul fights them off easily with his wrist lasers (powered by Cal’s advanced computer tech), and then has to face a zombie version of himself. Paul refuses to fight, stating that the corpse represents just a single possible reality, and that’s that. He also delivers the line “I reject your reality and substitute my own”, which will be familiar to fans of Mythbusters.
Not bizarre enough for you? Next up is Charles Band’s “Heavy Metal”, which is really just a music video for the song “Tormentor” by the metal band W.A.S.P. Paul makes his way through a crowd of metalheads before facing off against W.A.S.P. lead singer Blackie Lawless, who has Gwen tied up for some undefined reason. He briefly turns into Mestema before getting zapped by Paul’s wrist-mounted deus ex machina. Absolutely ludicrous, but a fun musical interlude.
Next up is legendary stop-motion master Dave Allen’s “Stone Canyon Giant” featuring a massive statue coming to life and stomping after Paul before, you guessed it, getting a laserbeam to its forehead. Nothing to write home about, but has some nice animation and the outdoor locale makes for a nice change of scenery.
Then we get the lengthiest segment directed by Gerald Ford’s son (!) Steven, and written by Byron himself. “Slasher” is a fairly slick, stylish stalk-and-slash entry featuring Paul dumped on the streets of L.A. (still in sci-fi gear) and having to track down a knife-wielding psychopath. The serious-minded tone is a nice change of pace from the previous silliness, but the short runtime doesn’t allow for much suspense.
Then we get Eliminators‘ Peter Manoogian’s surprisingly forgettable “Cave Beast”, which is some sort of misguided morality tale involving Peter facing off with a cave creature, but discovering (after dropping a pile of rocks on its head) that it’s actually a cursed angel. Apparently, he could have won the contest by not actually fighting, but it seems like he wins either way. Truly bizarre.
Finally, we get a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-inspired car chase segment called “Desert Pursuit” from Subspecies‘ Ted Nicolaou. It ends with a nice fiery car crash (involving Byron’s vehicle from Metalstorm), though it also seems to end with the death of our two main characters. Apparently Mestema has a really loose definition of “victory”.
Which brings us to the final confrontation between Paul and Mestema, which basically involves Paul baiting him into a hand-to-hand fight, which Mestema somehow immediately loses and falls off a cliff. It appears Paul will be following him, but then his magic wrist computer shoots out a convenient laserbeam for him to hang onto. Everyone gets whisked back to earth, and Gwen decides that accept Cal and marry Paul after all. Huzzah.
The Dungeonmaster is simply too short and sloppy to have any truly classic segments, but its mix of special effects, fantasy and unfiltered imagination makes for an awfully entertaining 80 minutes. While many of the concepts are half-baked, there’s also a loose feel to the various stories that still feels rather refreshing. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it announces the arrival of a new kind of low budget company that doesn’t feel compelled to follow the genre rules of old. It might be the first film that can truly be called an Empire Pictures picture, but it’s far from the last.