“As five eager gamers begin playing a medieval-themed board game that pits contestants against one another in the ultimate battle for supernatural supremacy, an unstoppable force of darkness is suddenly unleashed. Now possessed by an evil powerful enough to dictate his every move, one of the gamers - a fantasy-prone costume clerk - suddenly sets out on a blood-soaked killing spree.” – Rovi’s AllMovie Guide
You know how it goes. There are bad movies, and then there are movies which are so bad that they somehow become enjoyable, and then there’s movies that are so, so bad that they end up almost transcending mere categorizations of good or bad, their mere existence becoming an object of fascination. We’ve all seen those kinds of movies before (some of us even on purpose). But, every now and then, a movie comes along that is so unbelievably bad, so unbearably awful, so undeniably atrocious, that it has the potential to crush the human spirit. Skullduggery is not that film.
Skullduggery is much, much worse.
And the thing is, it shouldn’t be. After all, Skullduggery was released in 1983, a time when Dungeons & Dragons, slasher movies, and fear of satanic cults were all sitting atop the peaks of the public zeitgeist. So the whole setup of a hapless geek who is driven to become a masked killer after he falls victim to a devilish curse released by playing an RPG should have been an instant win. But right from the opening strains of the theme song (Can you read what's in my mind? Skull-dug-ger-y! Skull-dug-ger-y! Tearing up my mind! Heavy breath, passion in your eyes. Skull-dug-ger-y! Skull-dug-ger-y! I just found a clue, it's all gone! Yeah! I can see what's in your head. Skull-dug-ger-y! Skull-dug-ger-y!), you know you’re in for that very special kind of hurt only the worst of the worst can bring. Following that inauspicious beginning, writer/director Ota Richter (whose only other film credit appears to be the lost-to-history thriller Oklahoma Smugglers) goes on to deliver a merciless gauntlet of poor lighting, nonsensical editing, and a script that sidesteps any and all attempts at logic or cohesion. I defy anyone, even the men who wrote it, to explain to me what is happening in Skullduggery after the first half hour.
And I’m not kidding about that. While the the biggest question posed by Skullduggery is obviously how could someone screw up such a simple premise, it’s hardly the only thing that leaves you scratching your head by the time the end credits mercifully roll (assuming you had the fortitude to make it that far). For instance, why is there some guy who looks like Liberace playing the organ at the local church? Why spend twenty minutes of the movie forcing the audience to watch a wretched talent show that the most dedicated of parents wouldn’t sit through even if their own children were in it? Why does blasting steam into a person’s face evaporate the skin, leaving behind nothing but a plastic skull just like the kind you can get from the Party Store? Why repeatedly show some old guy putting a puzzle together yet never explain who he is or why it takes him the whole movie to complete a puzzle that only has six, maybe eight pieces at best? Why does the janitor (played by the director) have a tic tac toe board on his back that slowly gets filled in with X's and O's as the movie progresses? Where did that SWAT team come from? Why is that doctor at the hospital wearing a gorilla suit? And why, oh why, have a movie chock full of supposed symbolism if there’s absolutely no chance in hell anyone can figure out what it all means? WHY!?!
I could go on and on (I didn’t even mention stuff like the guy wearing a bunny suit and brandishing a switchblade), but you get the point. While some mystery is okay and it’s not necessary nor desirable to have a movie spell everything out for you, Skullduggery lapses into utter confusion early and often. Seriously, this is a movie that leaves you with more questions than a message board full of atheists. In fact, I much prefer the questions posed by atheists because, unlike the sticklers found in Skullduggery, they can for the most part be answered. Not always to the atheists satisfaction of course, but still, they can be answered. And to prove it, over the month of June, most of the posts on this blog will be dealing with responding to various questions from atheists I’ve run across on the Internet over the past few years.
You know, I really don’t mind having my beliefs challenged by atheists. After all, if they really believe, as atheist Austin Cline writes at About.com, that theism and religion are “harmful to people and society”, then why shouldn’t atheists have a vested interest in trying “to get people to give up beliefs or a belief system which an atheist considers false at the very least and likely harmful or even dangerous”? Of course Cline, looking to avoid any comparison to the proselytizers he believes populates religion, suggests that the more reasonable nonbeliever not try and “convert” people to atheism. “The important thing” he writes, “is not to focus simply on their erroneous belief, but instead upon what has ultimately brought them to that belief, and then working on getting them to adopt a methodology which relies more upon skepticism, reason, and logic. This suggests a more modest program than simply trying to convert people: planting a seed of doubt. Rather than attempting to foster a radical change in a person, it would be more realistic to get a person to begin questioning some facet of their religion which they had not seriously questioned before. Most theists whom I encounter are absolutely convinced of their beliefs and take on the attitude that they could not possibly be mistaken — and yet still hold on to the idea that they are open minded.”
It’s a fair enough approach, I suppose (despite the silly supposition that atheism has cornered the market on skepticism, reason, and logic) but it does have one fatal false assumption. Cline’s experience with Christians appears to be limited to “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” crowd and its (fair or not) implication of anti-intellectualism. And I’ll admit, having lived in the southern United States all of my life, I’ve run into more than my fair share of those folks myself. But they don’t represent the bulk of Christianity anymore than the unthinking vitriolic asshats who constitute too much of new atheism represent the totality of nonbelievers in the world. And because of that, Cline ends up failing to appreciate the simple fact that Christians are already quite familiar with his supposedly secret weapon. Back in 1967 while still a cardinal, it was Pope Benedict XVI himself who wrote in his Introduction To Christianity that “First of all, the believer is always threatened with an uncertainty that in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him… it is a question of all or nothing. That is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall.” At any given moment, however involuntarily, the Christian can be struck with the simple thought that “perhaps none of it is true.” So you see, Mr. Cline, we Christians aren’t in any need to have doubt introduced to us because it’s already something we live with intimately. It’s not that we’re closed minded to your reasoning, it’s just that we’ve been there and done that.
Regardless, though, I do hope Mr. Cline and his pals keep those questions coming at us non-skeptical, unreasoning, illogical believers. Because you never know, one day, the atheists’ secret weapon could just backfire on them. As Cardinal Ratzinger noted, “Just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that the nonbeliever does not lead a sealed-off self-sufficient life, either. However vigorously he may assert that he is a pure positivist, who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses and now accepts only what is immediately certain, he will never be free of the secret uncertainty about whether positivism really has the last word. Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole. He can never be absolutely certain of the autonomy of what he has seen and interpreted as a whole; he remains threatened by the question of whether belief is not after all the reality it claims to be.”
So come on atheists, let’s play questions and answers. I’ll keep my mind open if you do. After all, what have you got to lose? It’s not like you can be certain about anything, right?
Well, except that Skullduggery sucks big time. That’s simply undeniable.