My thought process when I saw this movie in the TV guide went something like this.
Oh no. They made another D&D movie? OH CHRIST. It’s a Syfy Channel original?! Oh wait. It’s actually named after an artefact from the game. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
For whatever reason, they keep churning out cheap, straight-to-DVD Dungeons & Dragons films, and this is the most recent effort. On the plus side, this one is quite a bit better than the first one, so if the upward trajectory keeps going as it currently is the next one might actually be a good film.
The prologue informs us that an ancient sorcerer who wanted to live forever was turned into the titular Book shortly before his death. His bones became the cover, his skin the pages, and his blood the ink: his forces then used the evil power of the Book to wreak destruction on the land, until the Knights of the New Sun defeated them and hid the pieces of the Book. In the present, our hero Grayson (Jack Derges) wants to become one of the Knights, but his father is kidnapped by the forces of the evil lord Shathrax, who wants to put the Book back together. Consequently, Grayson must join them if he wants to rescue his father.
What’s quite entertaining about the plot is that it’s basically an extended version of what happens when the DM decides to be a massive jerk to the party’s paladin. Oh, if you commit an evil act you lose all your powers? Well, let’s put you into positions where you have no choice but to do evil and see how you cope! Haha! While it basically plays out as an undercover cop movie, it’s still quite a bit more interesting than the plot of the first D&D film, and Grayson is presented with some tricky moral dilemmas over the course of the story, so it definitely gets points for that.
But this is still a Syfy Channel Dungeons & Dragons film, so it wouldn’t be complete without the inevitable pathetic special effects and dodgy continuity. Granted, you can’t expect much from a fantasy epic with a budget of $12 million, but it’s still deeply disappointing that the obligatory dragon battle is so rushed and cheap-looking. The otherwise quite good introductory prologue is rendered through barely-animated still images, the battles are astonishingly bloodless, especially considering the 15 rating, and the overall villain is just some dude with his mouth stapled shut. Damn it, Wikipedia, you promised me a Mind Flayer for the bad guy!
It looks thoroughly generic and uninspired for the most part, which isn’t helped by the first two acts basically amounting to the group of mercenaries Grayson joins wandering about and being evil. It’s quite entertaining in a sadistic DM sort of way to see how our noble paladin copes with his trials, but it’s not a very exciting adventure. It must be said, though, that things start to get a lot better for the final act: there’s a very cool and genuinely creepy monster in the form of an undead child, followed by a surprisingly fun battle with a walking suit of armour for the Book’s cover. The moral dilemmas start paying off, and there’s a genuine feeling of dread and menace when Grayson manages to infiltrate the enemy stronghold. It’s a shame, then, that the final battle is even more rushed and anticlimactic than the dragon battle, with Shathrax being defeated almost without a fight. You can practically hear the director yelling, Cut! We’ve run out of money. That’s a wrap, people!
It is nice, however, to see that Book of Vile Darkness actually knows it’s a Dungeons & Dragons movie, something which couldn’t be said for the first film in the series. It’s not much, but the occasional little reference to the game goes some way to giving it a personality beyond generic fantasy. The party thief disarms a trap on a treasure chest, the story starts with Grayson going to Adventurers R Us and buying a Bag of Holding (which he later uses, in a very nice joke, to hide a dead body), and there’s a scene where the party divides up the loot after a successful raid. Although why you’d give the hero a Vorpal sword and not let him use it to decapitate anyone is beyond me, and it is weird that the mage is so good in a fight. I guess she must’ve taken a few levels in Fighter.
This is not, it must be said, a good movie. But it’s far from the catastrophe that its legendary predecessor was, and a lot better than you’d expect given its pedigree. I still miss Jeremy Irons, because watching him humiliate himself for a quick buck was one of the funniest things you’ll ever see in a fantasy movie, but Book of Vile Darkness makes up for it with a reasonably interesting story and a feeling that you’re actually watching a Dungeons & Dragons film. It’s not great, but for a cheap, cheesy fantasy flick, you could do a lot worse.