Let me tell you about Skullduggery.
Fittingly, the place where we rented it has not merely gone out of business; it has vanished utterly, and only weeds grow where once it stood. That should give you an inkling of where I’m about to go with this little folktale, but just so we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet, Skullduggery is a blisteringly awful movie. It is worse than bad. It is drinking game material. However enthusiastic I may become in the course of this retelling, please bear that in mind.
You should also know that I loved it.
I was in awe of it. I had no idea what surrealism was back then. In the mid-80s, Salvador Dali wasn’t even a mustache to me. I had no frame of reference for what I was watching, so when the cigar-smoking ape showed up, when the guy in the grey overalls with the naughts-and-crosses game on his back became a recurring character, or when the harlequin doll gets killed by an imaginary bow and arrow, these things gave me food for thought.
Skullduggery is a 1983 Canadian film written and directed by Ota Richter, whose career was deservedly short. It stars Thom Haverstock as clueless dolt Adam, a gamer driven insane by his dungeon master, and Wendy Crewson as his platonic love interest, Barbara. This movie, along with Mazes and Monsters, was a stepping stone on the path that led to Crewson becoming a moderately famous Canadian. The rest of the cast sank almost without trace.
This was the era of Jack Chick and Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD). Roleplaying games were evil and roleplayers were one step away from Satanism. The 80s was a decade of moral panic and hysteria that went well beyond roleplaying games. Satanic Breeders: Babies for Sacrifice was a big TV hit for Geraldo, and therapists made their bones with recovered memories in ritual abuse cases. Owning the Dungeon Master’s Guide was probably enough to get you exorcised in certain parts of the States. While this all sounds hilarious in retrospect, it wasn’t funny at the time. Mazes at least pretended that the Tom Hanks character was deluded, and the worst thing he did was attempt suicide. In Skullduggery, Adam is controlled by the Devil himself, and sent forth on quests to murder as many nubile young women as possible.
Sex is a huge part of the film. A succession of women line up to corrupt Adam’s innocence, presumably because his wooden acting and -2 Charisma bonus are massive turn-ons. This probably ties in with a recurring theme of Adam, Eve and the forbidden fruit, but really it’s just an excuse for as many murders as possible in the time allotted. It’s not entirely clear whether the women are innocent victims or fellow members of the Satanic conspiracy, but then few things are clear in Skullduggery. You could call it misogynist, trashy, exploitative and dull. It’s all of those things, and also one of the oddest pieces of gaming cinema I have ever seen.
It doesn’t have what you’d call a plot. There’s a medieval tabletop RPG framing device, with Adam being sent off on missions to level his warlock. This usually involves killings, which the oblivious authorities pass off as a heart attack epidemic. That description almost sounds like a story, but the on-screen action is essentially one extended murder scene after another, with no narrative justification beyond Adam! Sexy! Stabby! On with the show! It’s unintentionally hilarious in places. I still get a laugh out of a scene in which a voluptuous, nameless nurse takes Adam back to her apartment; something gets spilled on his trousers and she washes it off, then strips to her undies and does the ironing while Adam hides behind his security blanket and stares at her like a demented Linus van Pelt. Frankly, Haverstock probably got cast as Adam thanks to that wacko stare. His acting certainly had nothing to do with it.
If Skullduggery was attempting to turn me away from gaming, it failed miserably. Not because its message was obscured by atrocious performances and a batshit crazy plot, but because it made gaming seem a lot cooler than it was. The game board they had at the beginning with the model figures and the castle at its heart was the kind of prop I could only dream of. The hallucinatory imagery, with naughts-and-crosses guy and the rest, only sealed the deal. To me, gaming meant gathering with my fellow nerds on the sports field each lunch hour at school. Nobody said cigar smoking apes and half naked nurses were involved, yet apparently they were. It was like playing tuba in the school band and suddenly discovering that all your fellow musicians were space aliens involved in some grand universe-shattering conspiracy, of which you were a part. Grand universe-shattering conspiracies? Since when do those need a tuba player?
But Skullduggery posed a bigger question: why make it at all? Stripped of its imagery it was just another roleplay rant with the gamer character once more taking center stage as an unwilling villain controlled by the forces of Evil. Adam gets no say; his every deed is ordered by the dungeon master, who in this instance is a stand-in for Old Nick himself. What purpose did Skullduggery serve?
To find that out, I went to the skeptics, Michael Shermer and Jeffrey Victor. The whole argument was weird to me and the skeptics were the ones talking about weird things. “Who needs Satanic cults?” Shermer asks. “Talk-show hosts, book publishers, anti-cult groups, fundamentalists, and certain religious groups, is the reply.” Skullduggery wasn’t made to present a coherent, logical argument. It existed to make money, and the best way to do that was to latch on to a popular trend. It didn’t have to be gaming as Satanic conspiracy, but Ota needed something acceptably Satanic to stand in as a hate figure so he could sell his movie. If ice cream had the same social stigma, Adam would have smothered his victims in Ben and Jerry’s. Gaming was a convenient target, nothing more.
The bigger question was, why focus on the Satanic connection to begin with? Victor looked into roleplaying as part of his work on Satanic panics. Policemen, conservative spokespersons, newspaper reporters and others were all on record saying that gaming led to occultism which led to ritual killings. Why do people listen to the argument at all?
Victor says, “a witch hunt is, in part, motivated by guilt and projection of ‘sins.’ There is plenty of guilt among parents today, and it is guilt related to those precise objects of their resentment… The ideological targets of Satanism witch hunters are things which are believed to shape the minds of children: child-care centers, schoolbooks, popular music, and even games.”
They’re not listening because they believe in the argument; they’re listening because they know there are lots of things they’re either powerless to do anything about or don’t understand. It’s partly an abdication of personal responsibility in refusing to take positive action (say, taking the trouble to learn more about things they don’t understand), but it’s also an unwilling acknowledgement that most of the time we all are helpless. With that feeling of helplessness comes guilt, resentment, anger, and a desire to do something.
Ota’s cinematic dunderpiece isn’t worth watching unless you happen to like laughing at bad movies. However, I still have a soft spot in my heart for it, not for what it is, but for what it led me to. Had Skullduggery not been made, had the hysterics not wailed about roleplaying throughout the 80s, I might not have been as inclined to consider the other side of the argument. There would have been no need; but I would have been the poorer without Shermer, Victor, and the skeptics. I might have become more accepting of the status quo, might not have wondered when an agenda was being pushed, who was doing the pushing, and why.
So thank you, Ota, for Skullduggery. You did me good, without meaning to.
Adam never watches bad movies. Well, hardly ever. Only when they’re hilariously awful.