(AKA Warlock), 1979 Starring Thom Haverstock, Wendy Crewson, David Main. Directed by Ota Richter.
In the early 1980s, the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game craze swept North America. There was 12-sided die as far as the eye could see, and parents fought back with urban legends about teens who were so engrossed by the game that they formed suicide pacts and went on killing sprees. Helping to sink the fad back to the dingy campus rec rooms from which it rose was Mazes and Monsters, a 1982 TV movie of the week starring Tom Hanks. Like a celluloid Jack Chick tract, Mazes and Monsters connected the dots between mass murder, medieval RPGs, Satan, and weak-minded players no longer able to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Originally made in 1979, Skullduggery was rereleased in 1983 in an apparent attempt to cash in on public interest over the darker side of the RPG world. Like Mazes and Monsters, Skullduggery also features naive gamers controlled by the devil and it even stars Wendy Crewson, who also rolled the dice in M& M. Despite possessing all the elements of another trite after-school special, Skullduggery isn't an anti-Dungeons & Dragons film at all. But perhaps it would have been more fun if it was, because instead, it's a contrived romp of heavy-handed symbolism that is generally hated by audiences.
Skullduggery starts in 14th century Canterbury, England, where an evil Satanist with a jester doll on his wall casts a curse on a king and his lineage. Flash forward to present day Toronto. Adam, who works in his family's costume shop and his girlfriend Barb, a nurse, like to spend their nights like any romantic couple by playing Dungeons & Dragons in the back room of the shop. Adam's character is a powerful warlock, but in real life he's nowhere near as interesting. As the couple walks down the street, Adam foresees his confusion between fantasy and reality and remarks to Barb that, " Sometimes I feel like one of those figurines on the board."
That weekend, our happy couple is working wardrobe at a local talent show. Adam is creeped out by Simcoe, a magician who keeps giving Adam weird looks. On stage, Simcoe performs a completely mute magic act, in which he makes a rose bleed. Remember those TV magic specials that would make a point of saying "no camera tricks" Skullduggery makes no such claim, and jumps in the film are detectable before Simcoe's tricks are revealed.
During the play, Adam starts having "flashbacks" of Canterbury and suddenly thinks he is the D& D warlock. Watching a girl playing Eve succumbing to a phony snake on stage, Adam says an incantation and sees a real snake curl around the girl and kill her. The audience apparently sees none of this, but they are astonished when the girl drops dead from an unexpected heart attack. If that wasn't odd enough by itself, the camera keeps cutting to a unidentifiable figure in shadow putting pieces of an Adam and Eve puzzle together. Behind him is not only billowing smoke, but the same jester doll from the beginning.
Back in the game, the "Dungeon Master" gives Adam, Barb and a couple other players a new scenario where they have to kill a woman in white. Adam dresses as a doctor, and goes to the hospital where he sees a nurse in a long white coat. He follows her around the hospital, and when she notices him, she mistakes his insane blood lust for romantic interest and invites him home. Back at her bachelorette pad she comes on to him, but when he doesn't respond she asks, "Are you gay?"
Hearing the Dungeon Master's instructions in the back of his mind, Adam grabs a sickle being used as a wall decoration(?!) and chases the nurse through a church graveyard. She bangs on the door of the chapel for help, but the lone occupant, a pianist in a red sequined suit(!) does not notice her. Finally Adam tracks her down and kills her, which is intercut with shots of the devilish Liberace character plodding away on the piano. His duties completed, Adam recites an ancient chant and offers up his best heavy metal salute to the dark lord.
That night, Adam shows a swatch of white cloth to "prove" to his fellow gamers that the woman in white has been slain. All the others laugh at him, wondering if he might be taking things too seriously. The Dungeon Master outlines a new campaign, in which there is a satanic cult the players must infiltrate. A house named "Villa Evel" is ruled by the devil and his "apostles from hell," and the only way to complete the mission is to kill them all. The dungeon master tells them that the password to get into the house is "skullduggery."
Just then, a suspiciously dark woman comes into the shop, and Adam leaves the game to help her. She needs a 14th century dress for a costume party, and when she finally finds one she likes, Adam celebrates his sale by donning a giant Easter bunny suit and killing her. In her clutched hand he finds the party invitation, and learns that the event is going to take place at Villa Evel, a house owned by a certain Dr Evel (no relation).
If the plot of Skullduggery has seemed a little bizarre so far, bear with me, because things are about to go full throttle into flamboyant gibberish. At the house, Adam arrives with several costumes under his arm, and gives the password. Once inside he meets the dark and mysterious Dr Evel, sees that damn jester doll again, and glances over the "apostles," who are disco dancing to the wonderfully odd Skullduggery theme song.
Adam dons a variety of disguises and fulfilling his curse (and the object of the game), kills them one by one. He murders a girl on rollerskates, and stuffs her remains in an oven. He skewers two men trying to force themselves on one of the female party guests, and sprays a girl with a gas that turns her into a skull. Finally, Adam appears dressed as the warlock, and performs a magic trick in which he drowns a woman in a fishtank. At that point, Dr Evel decides that he's had enough, turns on the lights and calls the police as Adam slips away into the darkness.
With a SWAT team raiding the costume shop in search of Adam, Dr Evel reveals himself not only as the Satanist from the beginning, but also as the man putting the Adam and Eve puzzle together, AND as Simcoe the magician. At the shop, the police are confused by the jester doll in a suit of armour and giant balloons just long enough for Adam to slip away and appear before the Dungeon Master to report on his progress. And guess what? The Dungeon Master is really Dr Evel in disguise. I'll bet you didn't see that one coming! Also of note is the final scene in Skullduggery, in which one of the gamers is murdered, and falls to the floor pointing at his wound with his middle finger. It's a reference to an earlier bit of dialogue about which finger you should point with, but I think it's pretty obvious that this is Richter's big "fuck you" to the audience.
In Skullduggery, the role playing game isn't really the vessel for evil that it is in Mazes and Monsters. Dr Evel controls Adam through a variety of ways, including stage magic, and Adam's inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality really stems from an ancient curse. So blame the game for ruining teens if you want to, but you'll also have to turn off that Doug Henning special. Although Adam's murders are certainly reprehensible, Skullduggery downplays the horror and goes for a jesting tone similar to Psycho Girls. For instance, director Ota Richter appears as a janitor with a tic tac toe game on his back that gains more X's and O's throughout the movie.
But all of this heavy and confusing symbolism in Skullduggery has led to the obvious question what does it all mean? Is it all a mindfuck like the last scene seems to suggest, or is there some hidden, deeper meaning that Skullduggery is trying to impart? In hopes of solving that riddle, let's take stock of what we have: A 14th century curse. Adam and Eve (in the puzzle and in the play). A reappearing jester doll. An easter bunny suit. Using a board game to command a weak-minded killer. Perhaps the film is trying to say that original sin is some sort of "curse," that as a result of Eve's transgression, evil resides in everyone just waiting to emerge. Having watched Skullduggery, I tend to agree with Richter, since his evil has already been unleashed on the world in this confusing exercise in pretentious filmmaking.