I hate to admit it - because I'm as shocked as the next man - but Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book Of Vile Darkness is actually pretty bloody good.
Sure, it's not going to win any awards, but I was expecting something as craptacular as Camp Blood, when in fact it's a fairly decent swords and sorcery B-movie.
For those who worry that these movies might be harming the public perception of the Dungeons & Dragons game or Wizards Of The Coast's IP, this movie does a convincing job of portraying the exploits of a party of "murder-hobos" in a typical D&D campaign.
The plot sees neophyte Knight of Pelor, Grayson (Jack Derges) infiltrating a group of evil adventurers in the hope that they will lead him to his kidnapped father.
The group, led by Shadar-kai witch Akordia (Eleanor Gecks), is looking for the fragments of an evil ancient artifact, The Book Of Vile Darkness, on behalf of the villainous Shatrax, who seeks to return the world to state of chaos and darkness from his base within the Shadowfell.
Yes, the film is packed to bursting with Third and Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons name-dropping, most well used to create the impression of a fully-rounded world, but some - such as Grayson's visit to The Adventurer's Vault shop to stock up on magical items - are quite groan-worthy as they highlight weaker aspects of more recent iterations of Dungeons & Dragons.
|Bezz (Barry Aird) - the rot-mage|
But even so, thanks to some surprisingly impressive special effects, we're treated to variety of visually stunning uses of magic spells - both by Akordia and the party's wonderfully anarchic (chaotic evil?) rot-mage Bezz (Barry Aird), enchanted items (Grayson may purchase his "bag of holding" from a shop, but it's still pretty cool to see it in action) and a fantastic array of monsters: the armoured energy man is nice and the dragon is good, but the stand-out creature is the undead child that feasts on negativity. This twisted little horror show could have walked straight out the pages of a James Raggi Lamentations Of The Flame Princess adventure module.
Then, for the final act, we - and the party - are transported to the alternate dimension of the Shadowfell and even on the limited budget of a direct-to-DVD fantasy flick, this is incredibly striking.
This is where we also finally get to meet Shatrax, a superbly realised villain with a stapled-shut mouth who "speaks" through a pair of female servants chained to him.
Like many of the monsters here, because I'm not up on Third or Fourth Edition D&D, I don't know if Shatrax is an original creation of the filmmakers or an antagonist lifted from a game book, but nonetheless he's head and shoulders above the pasty-faced villain of the first two D&D flicks (Damodar).
Dungeons & Dragons 3, of course, has plentiful weaknesses: there's some groanworthy dialogue, some sorry acting and I can't guarantee that the plot makes 100 per cent sense but this is, by far, the best of the Dungeons & Dragons' movies to date (not that that's saying much) and I'd argue a very accurate live-action portrayal of what goes on in the heads of most people who regularly gather around a gaming table to indulge in a slice of 'theatre of the mind'.
|Akordia (Eleanor Gecks) the Shadar-kai|
As well as the requisite violence there's a decent amount of sex here as well. This caught me slightly off guard as the previous D&D movies have been very prudish in that regard, but I guess scriptwriter Brian Rudnick was truly channelling Monte Cook and Robert Schwalb's controversial Third Edition supplement when he sat down to compose this piece.
I have no idea what non-gamers will make of the Book Of Vile Darkness, as so much is heavily rooted in a hodge-podge of game lore (for instance, the Shadar-kai are from the Forgotten Realms, while Pelor is a Greyhawk god), but gamers looking for a visual representation of a Dungeons & Dragons game world won't be too disappointed if they approach this with an open mind (and probably a few cans of beer).
The story is actually quite secondary to the enjoyment of the film for its presentation of a game world. If you simply refuse to accept that Grayson can convincingly infiltrate this party of high-level (presumably) evil sorcerers, fighters and assassins, then just enjoy the magic and monsters. That worked for me.
However, the most bizarre aspect of this movie is the blurb on the back of the DVD box:
|Click to embiggen|
The protagonists are not a "band of heroes" - the whole point is they're band of villains - they're not "defying an empire" (there is no empire ever mentioned), they are not fighting "against evil", they are evil. Yes, there is a single dragaon, but, again, no evil emperor.
This blurb is basically a string of generic fantasy words strung together by a work experience person to fill space on the back cover of the DVD. Ignore it and just watch the film.