I'm going to name a game, and I want you to think for a moment about the person who plays it.

Dungeons & Dragons.

I guarantee, with 99% confidence, that you're thinking of a stereotypical nerd. There is literally one reason for you to be thinking of anyone else, which is because you're a D&D player yourself. I do not claim this is an accurate perception, or fair: that's just how it is. We live in an age where "geek chic" is a thing, where knowledge of comic book arcana has become the coin of the realm in discussing the biggest and most popular movies that come out every summer, and all that; but table-top gaming is still strictly thought to be the realm of the most impossible caricatures of socially inept white males. Think of a D&D player; you have thought of the most harmless human being on God's earth. Even LARPers are more intimidating; at least they're physically active.

Which is what makes it virtually incomprehensible to anybody born later than around 1976 or so (including myself) that there was a span of time in which D&D was accused of being literally evil. Sort of like how Harry Potter was accused by some fringey Christian groups of promoting witchcraft, if Harry Potter was a tiny, put-upon niche entertainment and not the biggest literary phenomenon of a generation. Like that moment, the assault on the game came from the usually paranoid religious crackpots, though the infamous Satanic Panic humming in the background was richer soil for such pants-wetting hysteria than anything J.K. Rowling had to face.

From that fucking weird cultural moment comes Skullduggery, a 1983 Canadian production in which a tabletop gamer is driven by his dungeon master to kill people. And boy, just saying that one sentence already does a massive amount of work unpacking the movie, because to be blunt: this is a fucking incoherent movie. The first hour is shitty and weird, but reasonably easy to follow; the last 30 minutes is among the most totally incomprehensible stretches of cinema I have ever seen. Plainly, the intent was to make a symbol-driven metaphor, and individual frames suggest David Lynch at his most exuberantly psychotic. But Skullduggery is about as far from Eraserhead in terms of conceptual focus, meaning, and plain old talent as it is possible to go. Whatever meaning writer-director Ota Richter thought he was instilling into the movie - and it's extremely clear that he had a very particular meaning in mind; the imagery is too consistent and interrelated for it to be an accident - he did not bother to encode in such a way that it's at all possible to tease it out, nor (more importantly) can I imagine why any viewer would remotely want to spend that much time with the film. A really great incoherent art film electrifies you enough that you want to, you must unpack its layers of meaning, but Skullduggery is such an intellectual and artistic sinkhole, such a meandering, dead-end slog that simply making it all the way to the end of its brutal 95 minutes feels like a real personal triumph; and going back to try to figure out what all of the metaphors and references mean? Life is far, far too short.

The magic starts right off the bat. As bland sans-serif credits play out over a blue field - exquisitely "video production in the '80s" it is, too, the film introduces us to its theme song. Some kindly soul uploaded it to YouTube, so you can simply listen to it without my feeble, grasping attempts to describe it, but if you are not able to do that, suffice it to say that it's some unholy marriage of disco, goth rock, and a Mega Man level soundtrack, and a sample of the lyrics include
Heavy breath,
Passion in your eye.
Skullduggery! Skullduggery!
And as the singers belts out "skullduggery", they emphasise the syllables, each as its own entirely discrete unit, as "skull-dah-guh-reee". It's fantastic.

The action opens in a sequence that insists on calling itself "Canterbury, 1382," though a more pathetically ratty 1382 - with an establishing shot of a manor home easily 300 years later than that - you would hardly dare imagine. Here we find an evil sorcerer (David Calderisi) and his assistant (Wendy Crewson) talking enthusiastically about being evil and how evilly they plan to evil it up, paying obeisance to the Spirit of Evil, a jester doll that looks like the filmmakers sneaked it out of a family-style pizzeria one night. Their particular evil plot involves killing King Adam (Thom Haverstock), a sullen-looking sort who's sitting on his rinky-dink throne doing fuck-all when the evil pair come and kill his guard. The woman then offers him a choice of apples, one of which will kill him; he chooses poorly, and dies in remarkably low-key agony as his queen (Pamela Boyd) swoons. Or dies. It's not clear, but it involves the sorcerer cursing all her descendants to suffer nonspecifically.

Just like that, we shimmy on up to 1982, in Trottelville, U.S.A. Here we meet another Adam, and even beyond the shared name, it's clear that he's the descendant being discussed earlier, since he is also played by Haverstock. He's employed at a costume shop owned by a Mr. Sluszarczuk (Jack Anthony), and... Dating? Lusting after? Not lusting after? Anyway, he's friends with Sluszarczuk's daughter Barbara, who just so happens to be a dead ringer for the evil assistant from the prologue. They're members of a role-playing clique, though the game they play doesn't resemble anything I'm familiar, including D&D jargon with a chintzy posterboard pop-up castle on a game board. We arrive as Adam is busy creating his character - a warlock, dun-dun-DUUUNNNNN! - and in a widely-mocked moment (not that Skullduggery is "widely" anything), Barbara practically goes into orgasm right at the table as she observes that he rolled a 7, in charisma. The highest score ever! And for all that this is a shockingly awful moment, shockingly awful moments are all over the damn film, and at least this one serves a purpose: as Adam starts to lose his identity and think of himself as "really" the warlock he's playing (a spoiler, perhaps, but really, you'd have to want the movie to outsmart you if you don't see that one coming), he proves to be quite the chick magnet, despite having dark enough circles under his eyes that he looks like Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dorothy Hamill hair. Having that many women throw themselves at him is absurd enough with the fig leaf of magical charisma; without that, the movie would actually manage to be more stupid, as hard as that is to imagine, considering the final results.

So anyway, Adam becoming a warlock somehow awakens his ancestral curse, and gives him actual low-level magical powers, which he mostly just uses to knock shit down. Like the jester puppet, I'm sorry, Spirit of Evil, that happens to be on the wall in the room where they're all playing.

If I were going to lay out the plot in every warp and weft, and pause for all the lines of dialogue that are monumentally awful and delivered terribly, this review would never end. So let's just gloss over the rest: Adam brings costumes to a talent show at Trottelville Junior College, which we see in exacting detail. The Adam & Eve sketch and the Medieval Lovers sketch that play here trigger Adam's genetic memories of 1382, and he tries to kill one girl but fails spectacularly. Later, he has a vision of a girl being strangled by a python, though to everyone else, she's just having a heart attack. Also, there's a magician being portrayed as some kind of cryptic figure, and we never learn anything about him or any of this, really. It's just a messy, 20-minute narrative dead end that furthers the film's symbolism and repeated imagery (Adam & Eve, bunnies, the mystery figure playing a puzzle), is not remotely interesting, and doesn't even begin to explain anything.

Having dealt with the boring part, the film switches over to the trashy part. The group's dungeon master, Chuck (David Main) lays out the rules for a new campaign, in which the adventurers have to capture a witch in white robes; apparently Adam immediately leaves, because we never see them play, and he's stalking a nurse at the hospital where Barbara works. How this is all meant to work is one of the film's greatest mysteries, but the vomitorium of symbolism waiting in the wings is enough to make all of the other confusing seem downright sedate.Anyway, Adam stalks and kills, stalks and kills, and brings back a sample of white cloth to the game to prove that he won. Everybody transparently thinks he's nuts, and this doesn't bother any of them.

Then comes the last campaign: infiltrating Villa Evel to kill all the Satan-Demons there, or some such. As it just so happens, Adam happened to kill a woman with an invitation to the real-life Villa Evel masquerade that very night, so once again, he skips out of the game immediately to sneak in using a stolen invite - unnecessarily so, since he's on the guest list, and host Dr. Evel (Calderisi, finally making his second appearance as you just knew he had to) happily greets him by name. At this point, the tedious non-thriller of the first act and the limp slasher film of the second turns into an outright clusterfuck of misaimed, incompetent Art Film, playing for all the world like the orgy scenes in Eyes Wide Shut as directed by somebody whose patience and awareness of basic filmmaking technique rivals Ed Wood's. The difference being that, unlike a Wood film, Skullduggery is not doing anything on accident. It is purposeful and deliberate as all hell, with every random shot of an Adam & Eve puzzle or the appearances of a janitor with a tic-tac-toe board on his back increasing with every new death (but not in any one-to-one way) clearly there because Richter had an extremely specific idea plotted out. What that idea might possibly be, Skullduggery does not indicate, any more than it bothers doing anything with its symbolism: my best guess is that it's about Original Sin, but more in the "Original Sin is a thing" sense, than in the "Here's my interesting dramatic use of Original Sin".

In and around the conceptual awfulness, the film is just horribly made. The acting is bad at every turn: in the talent show, it even ends up in the meta-badness of watching an actress do a bad job of playing a bad actress. The film keeps splitting its time between visually pungent scenes of low-stakes horror and broad comedy (fat people in bunny suits! a slutty nurse who takes Adam's psychosis as lust!), punctuated by Benny Hillish musical cues, and I genuinely cannot say which is the worse; both are improvements over the stillborn symbolism, but all of it is down around the very lowest level of achievement that you could scrounge up.

Is this an attempt to subjectively present the mind of a young man driven mad by ancient curse and too much role-playing (the twist ending clarifies that the whole game was just an excuse to manipulate Adam into evil. Or maybe it wasn't. But I think that's what we're meant to take away)? That's possible. It doesn't work, but it's possible. It's also just possible that a bunch of people had a bunch of ideas and crammed them all in one movie, not caring if there was any reasonable flow between moments, not minding if entire chunks of plot seem totally divorced from the whole, not bothering to go back and check that everything was answered by the time the movie ended. Silly, leadenly pretentious, scuzzily sexist and violent; it is a film that mangles tones together, and strings everything along with terrible writing and flat characters delivering unreadable dialogue with glassy looks of disinterest, one and all. I've seen many a bad movie in my day, but dear reader, this one very nearly broke me. It's not just bad cinema, it's hardly cinema at all, just a clusterfuck of notions made without a trace of skill and dragged out for one of the longest, most willfully confusing, and totally joyless 95 minutes you could ever spend.

Body Count: 15? 16? Not all of the deaths are entirely clarified by the editing, but I'm confident it's one of those two. Most of these are pretty bland, but there is a threefer when two men trying to gang-rape a woman are pinned along with her to the wall, by a spear. Take that, Friday the 13th gored-while-fucking scene!