This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Adam (Thom Haverstock) is a mild-mannered assistant in a costume shop, good friends with Barbara the nurse (Wendy Crewson), who he is in the same RPG playing group with. However, unbeknownst to him Adam’s ancestor, a medieval king, was put under a Satanic curse by an evil wizard. Now, Adam is falling under the sway of the curse, as a Mr Punch puppet seems to follow him around and a mystery puppetmaster assembles the allegorical pieces of the puzzle of Adam’s life in the shadows. Adam has mysterious moments where his behaviour is not under his own control – and they often have some sort of metaphorical connection to the action in the RPG campaign he and Barbara are playing in. Over the course of three long setpieces – a local college’s variety show, a visit to the hospital where Barbara works, and a wild costume party thrown by a suave and mysterious aristocrat unironically referred to as Doctor Evil (David Caldiersi) – Adam will kill and kill again both through occult means and through a more direct approach. How many will die before he is stopped, and will he survive the ancestral curse?
That’s all fun enough, but I’m making this film sound way more coherent and well-structured than it actually is. It has many, many similarities to Mazes & Monsters (Wendy Crewson even appears as the token woman at the gaming table in both movies), and one of those is that it’s only available on DVD in a dubious release that seems to have been taken directly from a VHS source. As a result, the picture quality is so bad that some plot details aren’t immediately obvious except on repeated viewing – for instance, I didn’t get at first that at the conclusion of the movie it turns out somebody was a different character in disguise all along, or the painting that Doctor Evil is assembling like a jigsaw over the course of the movie appears in the medieval backstory sequence in the background.
Picture quality isn’t the only thing obfuscating and confusing the plot, mind. The structure I outlined above (with much of the action split between the talent contest, hospital and party sequences) only became apparent after multiple viewings, and the first time I saw the movie it just seemed like a long cavalcade of completely ridiculous scenes with only the recurring characters and a few strange in-jokes connecting them. (For instance, there’s a janitor who keeps appearing in different contexts with a noughts and crosses game slowly playing out on his back.)
Director and scriptwriter Ota Richter isn’t trying to produce a cautionary tale like Mazes & Monsters here so much as he wants to tell a spooky slasher movie-influenced story with a big dose of comedy. The problem is, Richter has no idea how to balance the proportions of all those ingredients, and so much of the film is padded out by contextless comedy parts (like the acts in the talent show, or irrelevant conversations during the party scene) which go on for sufficiently long that you end up losing sight of the main plot. (“I don’t understand myself anymore” says Adam at one point, and that’s fair enough – nobody could possibly understand what he’s wittering about either.)
In addition to not really having much of a grip on how to structure a slasher flick or a supernatural horror story, Ota Richter seems to have a bizarre view of just about all human interactions; whilst mass media depictions of everyday interactions are often faintly unrealistic, this goes further, to the point where it seems like obvious bullshit even if you only exposure to these things were through media depictions in their own right – like Richter gets all his information on how humans talk to each other or make decisions or exist through children’s comic books written and illustrated by actual children. He doesn’t seem to have the slightest grip on how everyday situations like costume shops, talent shows, hospitals, funerals, fortune tellers and parties actually function beyond the broadest possible cartoon thereof, and his struggles with depicting all this means that you get all sorts of bizarre thrashing about and meaningless comedy schtick flopping its way across the screen in lieu of actual structured plot.
There’s points where this goes beyond the amusing and into the outright disturbing. There’s a bit where Adam falls over in the hospital and makes a mess of his trousers, and a random nurse passing him by cajoles him into coming home with her and then starts in on this creepy angle talking about how fate brought them together and trying to force him into some sort of adult baby/mother sexual roleplay deal that he doesn’t want anything to do with. “I’m not gay,” says Adam when asked by her, “I just feel uncomfortable, that’s all.” You and me both, Adam. Then there’s the woman who comes into the shop to buy a costume and illustrates how to kill someone with a hairpin on a tailor’s dummy, and then Adam steps away and comes back in a bunny costume with a switchblade in a blatantly “I am going to stab you up” sort of way, and she seems positively ecstatic that this is going to happen.
This latter sequence is immortalised in the French VHS cover, which I want to highlight here for a moment:
That’s way more awesome (and needlessly titillating) than the actual execution in the movie, but I just wanted to stop for a moment and applaud the effort the French distributors must have gone to in order to get an illustration that good for a movie this shitty.
Like I was saying before I was distracted by bunny suits, Skullduggery’s main plot is sufficiently overshadowed for much of its running time by weird sideshow nonsense that it’s only the main plot by virtue of nothing else really constituting a plot being involved. At the same time, although Mazes & Monsters is more well-known, I actually have a weird soft spot for Skullduggery. It’s much more amusing to watch, on both an intentional and unintentional level, for three major reasons. The first reason is that it isn’t even remotely trying to be any sort of serious issue-of-the-week movie, but instead just wants to have silly fun with ancient curses and wacky murders, which makes it much less po-faced than Mazes & Monsters ever was.
The second reason is that whilst the game Adam and his pals are playing structurally is even less like Dungeons & Dragons than Mazes & Monsters is depicted as being in its own movie, somehow the interactions within the gaming group seem more realistic – the only genuinely realistic part of the movie, in fact. You have the dudes who are always cracking off-colour, misogynistic jokes that make the only woman participating in the group deeply uncomfortable; you have the beaten-down, world-weary Dungeon Master who is just tired of everyone’s shit; you have the fact that Barbara and Adam seem to have this unspoken tension between them which is causing inappropriate additional tension within the group. It’s a convincing depiction of gaming subculture toxicity as anyone’s ever managed; I can only assume that this uncanny outbreak of competence is one of those “stopped clock right twice a day” deals.
The third reason is that whilst Ota Richter’s comedic ideas are not conventionally funny, Richter does have this knack of taking one step deeper into the weird than most comedy writers would take with any particular joke. For instance, having horny doctors and nurses getting off in private rooms at hospitals is a joke worn almost to death by old timey sex comedies; having the horny doctor involved in all the trysts thus shown be dressed in a gorilla suit for the purpose of the trysts is silly. Having him be apparently dressed as a gorilla all the friggin’ time is downright bizarre, and it’s bizarre in a way I like.
The weird recurring motifs like the noughts-and-crosses janitor and Doctor Evil slowly assembling a jigsaw puzzle in the darkness are obvious attempts to inject a little surrealism into proceedings, and they’re great examples of this film’s weird ability to miss the mark, but also miss the zone where missing the mark makes you look too amateurish or look like you are trying too hard, and ending up hitting a completely different mark that’s just as interesting anyway. Skullduggery is not a good movie by any conventional measure, but it would be a profound mistake to assess it by conventional measures; it’s one of those bad movies like Troll 2 or The Room or Manos: the Hands of Fate or the works of Coleman Francis goes way beyond simply being a bad movie and ends up becoming something resembling outsider art, and is much more action-packed and unintentional-laugh-a-minute than many of those.
Lastly, a mystery. I keep seeing sources claiming that this thing was made in 1979, but I am 99% convinced that this is utter bullcrap – its finger just isn’t sufficiently on the pulse to have jumped the gun on Mazes & Monsters to that extent, and for that matter the James Dallas Egbert incident that prompted the whole “Satanic game” panic wouldn’t happen until August of 1979 anyway. My strong suspicion is that, if there’s even a shred of truth to the idea that some of the movie was filmed in 1979, that at that point the game didn’t feature at all – it is, after all, barely mentioned in most of the scenes outside of the actual game sessions – until 1982 rolled around, Mazes & Monsters got released, and Richter saw the opportunity to finish the movie off by reuniting the cast, shooting the game table scenes and some material and overdubs surrounding them, and then lashing it all together with the game table sequences adding desperately-needed structure to the affair.
So far as I am aware, none of the parties responsible for this cinematic fever dream have ever spoken about the production process and I dearly hope that changes some day, because gosh there must be a story to tell here.