I grew up fundamentalist Christian. We weren’t Chick tract fans. Mom said the artwork was creepy. But I sincerely believed the moral of Jack Chick’s infamous Dark Dungeons tract as a teenager. We didn’t have any fantasy or science fiction in the house. “Even the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien” condoned witchcraft and could give Satan a foothold in our souls. We could watch the wonderfully terrible works of the Christiano Brothers, and while we all mocked the production quality, I applauded the virtues they promoted.
A decade and a half later, I, still a Christian but now a progressive ubergeek, discovered there was an indie film version of Dark Dungeons in the works. This was my introduction to Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. I couldn’t wait to see what this gamer comedy production company would do with Chick’s magnum opus.
I couldn’t have been more impressed. The Dark Dungeons film made me laugh, cringe, shudder, and laugh again. Its portrayal of Chick’s writing, fundamentalist culture in general, the kind of movies made by people who genuinely believe those messages, and the RPG nerds the movie was really made by and for, is an inspired adaptation straight from the heart of the Chickverse.
Debbie (Alyssa Kay) and Marcie (Anastasia Higham) are played beautifully straight (and beautifully un-straight, but more on that later). They could be the heroines of a film made for church youth group lock-ins. This is where the creative decision to produce Dark Dungeons as an adaptation rather than as a parody or satire really pays off. Watching these girls, I didn’t feel like the movie was making fun of people who might see themselves in Debbie and Marcie. They’re the most real things in this faithful interpretation of Chick’s surreal world. Side observation—both the film and the tract pass the Bechdel test, between Debbie, Marcie, and Mistress Frost.
Ah, Mistress Frost (Tracy Hyland). Thief of scenes and thief of my heart. She is the living embodiment of the Satanic Panic. She’s what I imagined as a child when I heard that there were witches everywhere disguised as normal people. I felt like Mistress Frost deliberately sacrificing Marcie made sense even though it wasn’t in the tract, since the tract was from a time when people believed witches were rounding up kids for ritual sacrifice.
Still, Marcie’s suicide is the one part of the film I feel somewhat conflicted about. In the tract, Marcie’s character dies. Marcie freaks out because she has to leave the game FOREVER and rolling a new character is not a thing. Marcie hangs herself. I’m a terrible person, so I think that sequence of events is pretty funny at face value. Like everything else in the Chickverse, it’s absurd, over the top, and in no way connected to reality.
In the film, Marcie is clearly in love with Debbie, who may or may not return her feelings. Marcie wants to advance in the game so she can keep spending time with the girl she can’t admit she’s crushing on because she’s a Good Girl who would never have such abominable thoughts. Marcie gets straight-up assaulted in a LARP scene, and Debbie doesn’t defend her. Marcie is banned from the game and thus from sharing a major part of Debbie’s life. Marcie goes home, trades her dark LARP costume for her light Good Girl costume, and hangs herself. Minus the bit where the DM drives Marcie to suicide to bring about the return of Cthulu, this sequence of events feels a lot more grounded in reality than the one in the tract. Nearly every fundamentalist-raised queer woman I’ve talked to has a Debbie in her past. It’s common knowledge that LGBT+ people are at a higher than average risk for suicide. It goes without saying that assault causes lasting trauma. Because this sequence feels so real, it’s extremely uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, maybe suicide plots should be uncomfortable to watch.
In any case, we quickly return to the bizarre unreality of the Chickverse. Church and heteronormativity, personified by the Preacher and Mike, save Debbie from the mortal sin of geekdom. The JourneyQuest monster is banished from the steam tunnels. Cthulu does not return after all. Acts Something:Something. All our sins are belong to Jesus.
I wonder if Mistress Frost can use The Real Power to cast the earworm credit song out of my head.