The early to mid-1980’s was the last gasp of real b-movie filmmaking, a magical time when you could knock out a quick, cheap film to exploit a trend and promptly get it into theaters to compete with mainstream films. Charles Band was one of the last guys to make a career out of doing this, pumping up Empire Pictures before the theatrical bubble burst and then transitioning into the home video realm with Full Moon Pictures. He pulled this off by making lots of films at high speed that jumped on fads while they were hot for the genre audience – and The Dungeonmaster is an illustrative example of the Band film factory in action.
The Dungeonmaster has a Tron-like premise that involves computer-besotted technician Paul (Jeffrey Byron) and his luddite fiancé Gwen (Leslie Wing) getting pulled into a strange dream/fantasy realm by Mestema (Richard Moll), a wizard who longs for a suitable challenger to fight with. Mestema imprisons Gwen and challenges Paul to a series of challenges that force him to use his mind and his computer skills to combat the wizard’s black magic. Before the quest is over, Paul must combat everything from a heavy metal band to zombies to a giant stone statue to save his lady love.
The finished film hinges on the gimmick of its challenges, which are all helmed by different directors/FX people from the Empire Pictures stable: John Buechler, David Allen and even Band himself all try their hand at directing the film’s challenges. It’s really more an FX reel than a proper movie, with a slender storyline that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny (it’s never really explained exactly how the heroes end up in the fantasy world) and an “anything goes” approach to how it is plotted out. The results often feel like a random-shuffle assortment of sequences from various ’80s b-movies, with little in the way of suspense or emotional involvement to offer the audience.
That said, The Dungeonmaster can be fun if you take it as a barrage of budget-priced spectacle. The variety of challenges give the film a fun x-factor quality, with the viewer never being quite sure what is going to happen next. There’s also a certain camp quality with the way it fetishizes several then-“of the moment” trends like early personal computers, ’80s metal and sword-and-sorcery plots. There is a wide variety of effects – opticals, makeup effects, even a bit of David Allen stop-motion animation – and they’re all pretty good for a quickie production. Richard Moll, alias Bull from Night Court, hams it up in an agreeable way as the villain and children of the ’80s will enjoy seeing W.A.S.P. doing a bit of Alice Cooper-style shock rock in the heavy metal segment.
In short, The Dungeonmaster is a fun artifact instead of a genre classic – but artifacts can be as fun as classics in their own way.
Blu-Ray Notes: The Dungeonmaster was previously released on DVD by Scream Factory in one of its 4-pack film sets but has just made its blu-ray debut from the same company on a two-fer disc that pairs it with Eliminators. The Dungeonmaster is presented in a longer cut under the alternate title of Ragewar, with the new footage being a pre-titles sequence that involves a bit of R-rated nudity. Image quality is solid, with a nice uptick in color from standard-def incarnations. The 2.0 lossless soundtrack offers a quality vintage sound mix.
A few extras were included. The first is a theatrical trailer that shows off the film’s array of effects to good effect. The other is a new, 32-minute interview with Peter Manoogian, who helmed a segment in The Dungeonmaster and also directed Eliminators. He expresses admiration for Band and his clever methods of film financing, which often involved shooting a film before the full budget was secured. That’s how The Dungeonmaster came into being and Manoogian reveals how the film was reshaped as it was being made and why his segment is one of the shorter ones.
An equal amount of time is devoted to Eliminators. Manoogian reveals the complex path that led to him directing the film and also discusses how they ended up shooting in Spain, the challenges of working with an untested and not always accommodating Spanish crew and his fondness for the film’s cast. Overall, it’s a nice, detailed chat with a less often interviewed figure from Empire Pictures history and a great way for Empire fans to fill a gap in their knowledge of the studio’s history.