Director – Gerry Lively, Screenplay – Brian Rudnick, Story – Robert Kimmel & Brian Rudnick, Based on the Book by Monte Cook & Robert J. Schwalb, Producers – Steve Richards & Brian Rudnick, Photography – Emil Topuzov, Music – The Newton Brothers, Visual Effects/Animation – Cinemotion Ltd, Special Effects Supervisor – Svetozar Karatanchev, Production Design – Pier Luigi Basile. Production Company – After Dark Films/Zinc Entertainment
Jack Derges (Grayson), Eleanor Gecks (Akordia), Barry Aird (Bezz), Lex Daniel (Seith), Habib Nasir Nader (Vimak), Anthony Howell (Ranfin), Charlotte Hunter (Carlotta), Dominic Mafham (Mayor of Little Silver Keep), Glenn Aucon (Merchant), Tsvetan Hristov (Shathrax)
Centuries ago in the kingdom of Karshoth, the black sorcerer Nagul created a tome of magic spells, The Book of Vile Darkness that was so evil that it corrupted all who touched it. The god Pelor created the Knights of the New Sun, an order sworn to uphold virtue. To counter this, the book was torn into three pieces and hidden around the world. Eight hundred years later, the Knights of the New Sun are regarded as all but obsolete. Young Grayson is the latest to be sworn into the order but feels disappointed that he feels nothing after ritually touching his sword to Pelor’s pillar. Immediately after, barbarians attack and kill most of the knights and abducting Grayson’s father Ranfin. Grayson swears he will get him back. With the aid of a helpful whore in the nearest town, he outfits himself and is directed to join the party of blackguards led by the sorcerer thief Akordia. She leads them to steal a dragon’s treasure during which Grayson proves himself to the party by killing the dragon. He becomes accepted into the group, even when doing so means murdering thus violating the oath of virtue he is sworn to uphold. Together they venture into the lair of the sorcerer Shathrax who is seeking to reunite the Book of Vile Darkness.
Dungeons and Dragons is the most famous of all role-playing games. It was originally published in 1974, although what most people are familiar with is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1979), the expanded version that creates much more detailed character tables and rules for combat. It has gone through various iterations and numerous expansions since then. The game was first adapted to the screen with the animated tv series Dungeons & Dragons (1983-5) and then the poorly received film Dungeons & Dragons (2000), which was released to theatres. This was followed by two sequels Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2005) and Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness here, both of which were released direct to dvd and cable. The film series was later rebooted with the more successful Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023).
I sat down to watch Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness with zero expectations. The two previous Dungeons & Dragons films had been eminently forgettable. The surprise is that The Book of Vile Darkness ends up being the most watchable and halfway decent of all three films. The other films felt like they were circling around generic fantasy/sword and sorcery cliches; by contrast, this film feels like it is made with grit and texture, and especially the determination to give some depth to the generic templates that the Dungeons and Dragons character types draw on.
Particularly striking is how the film upends the expectation you would have of a typical D&D party, which is usually comprised of assorted fighters, Magic Users, clerics and thieves. The game has a system of what it calls Alignment where character morality is organised along an axis of being Good, Evil or Neutral on one side and whether they are Chaotic, Lawful or Neutral on the other. A Chaotic is someone who does things when they feel like it; a Lawful is someone who operates according to a strict moral code.
The film strikingly gives us a Lawful Good hero (Jack Derges) and throws him in amid a party of vile and murderous blackguards (Lawful and Chaotic Evils in D&D speak), creating a series of character interplays that are fascinating and unpredictable. Even aside from the fact that almost everybody in the party is outfitted in black leather, this gives the film a surprisingly dark tone compared to most other sword and sorcery adventures.
The script and actors have a good deal of fun outfitting the scurvy bunch, not to mention coming up with some nifty fantasy equivalents of James Bond gadgets – remote controlled magic hands, a shrinking bag that is handy for disposing of corpses and the like. There is a striking character arc wherein Jack Derges’ hero must engage in vile acts in order to infiltrate the party and get to his destination whereupon he must then undergo a redemption in order to regain his honour.
The cast is generally reasonable, while handsome Jack Derges does not too badly as the hero. The film is even quite good when it comes to the effects department, producing some decent dragon effects in particular. The film’s most imaginative creation is that of the undead mutant child that acts as a guardian and they can only pass by letting it feed on the evil in their hearts. The film is also clearly made for an adult audience (as opposed to the first Dungeons & Dragons) and features some brief nudity.
Gerry Lively was a former cinemtographer with credits on many other films. He hs directed a half-dozen other films in the action and thriller fields. His one other genre work was the horror film All Saints Eve (2015).