The Dungeonmaster (1985)
Paul, a young computer ace, is forced to pit his physical and mental skills against unimaginable odds when a hulking wizard looking for formidable opponents picks Paul as his next challenger. Paul faces a series of seven spectacular and death-defying challenges and must survive not only to save his life, but that of his girlfriend's, too! (From Scream’s official synopsis)
Once upon a time, I spent five weeks in a sterile hospital room that I wasn’t allowed to leave. I was stuffed to the gills with medication and was suffering minor hallucinations after several nights without sleep. The only good news was that I had access to Netflix streaming (which was still new at the time) and, in a fit of delirium, I decided to watch Empire Picture’s The Dungeonmaster (aka: Ragewar: The Challenges of Excalibrate and Digital Knights). I drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to parse the bizarre patchwork production, but remained fascinated by the near incoherent experience. Years have now passed and I’m hesitant to tarnish those foggy memories by re-watching The Dungeonmaster. Would it be as special through wide, unmedicated eyes? Did my enjoyment depend explicitly on the desperation of medical cabin fever? Could the movie possibly make sense following a full night’s sleep?
My fears were unfounded and The Dungeonmaster is every bit as joyfully goofy the second time around and with a clear head, no less. It turns out that the key component that misunderstood back then was that it is more or less an anthology piece, which explains the changing dynamics of the story and locations. Inspired by Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982), Empire (and later Full Moon) head Charles Band wanted to make a movie in which a hero from the real world is challenged by a collection of video game scenarios, each conceptualized by a different filmmaker. The writer/directors involved included Band himself, Dave Allen (Puppet Master II, 1990), John Carl Buechler (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, 1988), Steven Ford (mostly an actor by trade and most recently seen in Transformers, 2007), Peter Manoogian (Eliminators, 1986, see below), Ted Nicolaou (TerrorVision, 1986), and Rosemarie Turko (Scarred, 1983). It’s an uneven and often indefensible mix-and-match approach to filmmaking, but, the overall effect is like a Ramones concert – if you don’t like this song, don’t worry, there will be a different one in a couple of minutes. It's hard to resent any part of the movie for very long, because downturns are quickly forgotten every time a new environment is introduced. The choppy experience is anchored on better-than-average performances of Jeffrey Byron as the film’s hero and Richard Moll as the shiny-eyed villain (doing the same voice he’d use to portray Two-Face on Batman: The Animated Series).
Though still technically an Empire production, The Dungeonmaster initially spent years in purgatory after the studio folded and emerged as the more franchise-driven Full Moon. It fits Full Moon’s business model better and, given the breadth of the talent involved, acts as a sampler of what that studio had to offer in the coming decades. There’s also an early appearance by shock-rock band W.A.S.P., assuming you’re into that kind of thing. Like Scream’s DVD, this Blu-ray includes the unrated version of the film. The key difference between it and the PG-13 original video release is the opening section, which features brief full-frontal female nudity.
The only official DVD release of The Dungeonmaster came from Scream Factory as part of a four-movie collection that included David Schmoeller’s Catacombs (1988), Buechler’s Cellar Dweller (1988), and Joe D’Amato/Fabrizio Laurenti’s Crawlers (aka: Contamination .7, 1993). That same SD anamorphic transfer also showed up on Netflix streaming (hence me watching it while in the hospital). This new 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is an almost shocking upgrade over the artifacty and fuzzy SD version, even if the image quality is inherently inconsistent between chapters. Still, a single cinematographer, Mac Ahlberg, is credited and lends the film a bit of visual cohesion. The biggest problems arise due to process shots and other effects, which can appear blotchy (beyond the usual diminished details), and the soft focus employed during some sequences, which creates diffusion and posterization. The darker sequences tend to be grainier as well. Details are sharp overall, especially in close-up, with strong black level separation and only minor signs of DNR enhancement. The colors are quite vivid and the palette is very eclectic.
The original mono sound is preserved in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and sounds great. There’s very little distortion in the dialogue or its simple sound design. The music is credited to Richard Band and Shirley Walker. Band, the brother of producer/co-writer/co-director Charles, is an Empire and Full Moon mainstay, so his presence is expected, but I wasn’t aware that Walker (the future collaborator of Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman, and the future Batman: The Animated Series musical mastermind) had worked with the Bands (it turns out that she is also credited on Ghoulies). The music is huge and rich on this otherwise unremarkable mix.
A mandroid – part man and part machine – seeks revenge on the evil scientist who created him. Enlisting the help of a beautiful woman and a mysterious ninja, he pursues the scientist in hopes of stopping him before he can be further harm to humanity.(From Scream’s official synopsis)
Peter Manoogian’s Eliminators is another Empire Pictures/Charles Band production, one that enjoys a much larger cult following than The Dungeonmaster. More recently, it served as the inspiration behind Steven Kostanski’s Astron-6-branded parody Manborg (2011). Eliminators, another typical pre-Full Moon Band flick, though perhaps a dash more ambition. It pays pleasant homage to bygone B-sci-fi and readily acknowledges its own silliness on a number of occasions (there’s a cute moment where the Mandroid and S.P.O.T., the little scout robot, fight over which TV station to watch), yet also does its best to maintain a straight face when it comes to its most fantastical elements. Like other Empire sci-fi actioners and their Italian-made counterparts (both of which tended to snag inspiration from the likes of Mad Max and Escape from New York), Eliminators sets out to entertain, rather than make fun of genre conventions. And it is the respectable failures, not the jokes at its own expense, that make it so entertaining. It’s too earnestly stated to dismiss. Manoogian keeps the film moving, where lesser B-silliness may have bided time with expositional filler. Writers Paul De Meo & Danny Bilson, who were better known for their comic book and pulp inspired output – stuff like The Rocketeer (1991) and the Viper TV series (1994) – do their part by steadily introducing enough concepts (they aren’t original concepts, but there are plenty of them) to facilitate Manoogian’s pacing. The performances are above par, including an early leading role from future Star Trek: The Next Generation favorite Denise Crosby, and Mac Ahlberg’s colourful photography is top notch. The optical and make-up effects are typically wonky Empire junk (Manoogian reuses a lot of explosion footage in an effort to save money), but the Mandroid costume and functions are genuinely impressive, even comparable to Rob Bottin’s far more budget-endowed work on RoboCop the next year (his off-road legs at the beginning of the movie are spectacular).
Once again, the only official North American DVD release of this film came in the form of a Scream Factory quadruple-feature DVD collection. Eliminators was grouped with David Engelbach’s America 3000 (1986), Brian Hannant’s The Time Guardian (1987), and Peter Manoogian’s Arena (probably the best of the four, 1989), and was presented in cropped 1.33:1. The box art for this new Blu-ray debut announces an “all-new transfer,” which seems like an accurate statement to me. Even without having seen the previous DVD versions, I can’t imagine they had a stitch on this surprisingly clean and sharp 1080p, 1.78:1 image (side note: I did find a widescreen TV rip, but it was not HD). The darkest sequences suffer from a minor case of the mushies, but daylight scenes and close-ups are swimming in fine detail. Grain is relatively consistent, gradations are mostly even, and shapes are neatly separated without obvious edge enhancement. There are some minor signs of DNR in the wide angle shots, but this was really only something I noticed while looking at still frames – it wasn’t obvious in motion. Some of the colors appear a tad washed-out to my eye, though this usually occurs during process or optical effects shots (which is also when print damage and grain tends to kick-up).
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is fine. Sound is clean with very little crackle or pop, but it’s also a generally under-mixed track that includes only the most basic sound design. The natural, set-recorded noises work well, but, given the outrageous physique of the central character, you’d think that there’d be more wacky and zippy sci-fi noises. All we really get is the occasional burst from Mandroid’s lasers. Once again, a Band production stands out from its competition due to a fabulous soundtrack. Bob Summers’ electronically-based underscore is underwhelming, but the symphonic action cues are big and rich.
An interview with director Peter Monoogian (32:30, HD) – The man behind Eliminators and the Cave Beasts sequence in The Dungeonmaster discusses his career working for Charles Band and the production of these two wacky B-movies.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.