The same Maryland woods that yielded “The Blair Witch Project” now bring forth “Darkon,” a clear-eyed and oddly touching docu about a gaggle of Baltimoreans who dress up in home-made medieval garb and chase each other around soccer fields and meadows. Pic won’t come within galaxies of “Witch,” coin, but this is a well-made and revealing look at an off-the-beaten-path American pastime that has fest and tube appeal.
Though never mentioned by name, “Darkon” falls under a phenom called LARP, or “live-action role-playing.” It’s a tradition known to outsiders primarily through Dungeons and Dragons, the inspiration for a number of Darkon players.
From among the many average types who blow off steam in this fantasy world, two leaders emerge. Skip Lipman is a stay-at-home dad whose supremely tolerant wife and children don’t seem to mind that he moonlights as proud warrior Bannor of Laconia. As the pic progresses, Skip … err, Bannor, schemes to defeat the forces of Keldar of Mordom (real world office drone Kenyon Wells, whose parents explain that in his youth their son “wasn’t a people person”).
Keldar’s awfully good at rallying the troops, however, and the balance of “Darkon” features Bannor’s increasingly disillusioned rabble-rousing — inspired, per co-helmer Andrew Neel, by the filmmakers’ presence — against Keldar’s land-grabbing ways to explore the interface between the dreary workaday world and the appeal of the game.
Subjects were apparently fearful the pic would cast them in an unflattering light, but that hasn’t happened. Helmers’ approach is respectful — a shrewd decision that coaxes both humanity and humor from the proceedings.
Climactic confrontation takes place in and around the highly anticipated Citadel of Peace, which turns out to be a gray-painted plywood facade that the victors end up burning to the ground. It’s never explained if they need permits for any of this.
Ultimately, their dedication, while unfathomable to most, is admirable. And Darkon clearly fulfills a need in the their lives. “Little world,” Bannor tells one foe. “Just as real as big world.”
Made over three years and distilled from 300-plus hours of footage shot in large part with a camera bought by Neel’s mother, “Darkon” was by accounts a seat-of-the-pants operation that emerges a lucid and streamlined saga by virtue of good coverage and disciplined editing. Shrewd use of aerial footage and an overworked crane add to the pic’s proudly threadbare sweep. Violinist Jonah Rapino, who also scores silent classics, has created an evocative score on par with any Hollywood fantasy.