Mazes and Monsters (1982) Review

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Mazes and Monsters (1982)

~Review by Grawlix (January 2019)

Those familiar with my reviews have probably noticed that I’ve mentioned the Satanic Panic before, and I won’t lie, it’s always been a fascinating topic to me. For the uninitiated, it’s basically a period in the US that had its roots in the 70’s, but really took hold in the 80’s, where a few real crimes and incidents ended up getting linked together and embellished by a potent mixture of well-intentioned misinformation, old-fashioned religious hysteria, and no small about of straight up opportunistic chicanery. Lives were ruined, reputations were tarnished, and, in a few cases, people died. It’s the kind of thing that you’d swear could only happen during a perfect storm of ignorance and duplicity that only the 80’s could produce, but then it took nearly twenty goddamn years to get the West Memphis Three exonerated, so who knows?

<ahem> Anyway, of all the media that the Panic produced, Mazes and Monsters is a comparatively benign bit of pap, but it still has value as a fascinating window into the period. Presented as a dramatization of the potential dangers of playing Dungeons & Dragons, Mazes and Monsters is based on the novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe. The novel itself was purported to be based on a true story, though it would be more accurate to say that it was actually based on a well repeated urban legend that contained a few nuggets of truth regarding a troubled kid, the steam tunnels beneath his college, and a suicide attempt. Apparently the kid may (or may not) have played D&D once or twice, but that incidental detail was enough to spawn endless stories of Dungeon Masters wielding near divine power over their comparatively weak minded players, dispatching them into caves and sewers and whatnot in apparently full-contact LARPing sessions in order to gain more experience points and reach the next level. Paul is Dead had nothing on the Satanic Panic, believe me. I had actually read the Mazes and Monsters novel (well, half of it, I never did finish it) years before, and what I remember most about it is that it was far more concerned with the dynamics of budding young-adult relationships than it was with accurately portraying role playing sessions. Kind of like D&D as presented by Aaron Spelling. It irked me, probably in much the same way that The Big Bang Theory irks some people, and probably for the same reasons. I wondered if the movie version would have the same effect.  

But even if you have no real interest in the cultural context, Mazes and Monsters is still interesting for being an early role for Tom Hanks who, at this point in his career, was best known (really, only known) for the TV series Bosom Buddies. Hanks definitely has a charisma that suggests the potential to go on to far bigger and better things, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is more of an ensemble movie. Hanks is a main character, but it’s a bit of a stretch to say he’s the main character. He’s still a long way off from winning a Golden Globe for talking to a volleyball for an hour, and whoever designed the DVD cover to make it look like this thing is going to be Da Vinci Code Jr. is on the border of committing fraud.  

On the first day of the new school year at Grant University, classmates Daniel, a young Lothario (David Wallace), Kate, the, uh, token girl (Wendy Crewson), and Jay Jay, a young academic prodigy, and odd-headwear enthusiast (Chris Makepeace), reconnect over the common bond of their love for the role playing game Mazes and Monsters. In search of a fourth player, Jay Jay posts a notice on a bulletin board which is seen by transfer student Robbie (Tom Hanks). Though Robbie is a good fit for the group both personally and in gaming credentials, he is reluctant to commit since a previous obsession with the game had academic consequences that prompted the transfer from his prior school. Ultimately, however, the siren call of the game, Jay Jay’s insistence, and Kate’s pretty face prove to be an irresistible combination. Robbie integrates into the group quickly and easily, becoming a dedicated player and beginning a relationship with Kate (told at breakneck speed via a classic 80’s montage).

At length, in a fit of loneliness, Jay Jay impulsively decides that suicide in the caves near the school would bring his life to a suitably theatrical end (yes, it really is that abrupt). Upon reaching the caves, however, Jay Jay decides that they would be the perfect venue for a live-action session of their game, instead. With this newfound sense of purpose he convinces the others to restart their game with costumes, props, and a genuine dungeon crawl through the tunnels. The first session goes well, but afterwards something seems to change in Robbie. He sees visions and hears voices that convince him that his role playing character (a cleric named Pardieu) is his true identity, which he must embrace body and soul before going on a final, ultimate, personal quest. He ends up pushing Kate away, driving her into the arms of Daniel (I had to laugh at this part because, though I’m positive it wasn’t intentional, this sort of interpersonal drama is aggravatingly common in some role playing groups, making this one of the more accurate portrayals of gaming in the movie) before disappearing completely, prompting an increasingly desperate search to find him before Pardieu initiates a one way trip to investigate the Outer Planes.   

I have to admit that, in terms of story, Mazes and Monsters ended up being a pleasant surprise. While I was expecting more of a shrill indictment of role playing games as a kind of long-form assisted suicide, what I got instead was a surprisingly nuanced depiction of the ravages of mental illness with the game merely providing a (admittedly unorthodox) frame of reference. Robbie, of course, has it the worst, displaying classic symptoms of schizophrenia along with a textbook psychogenic fugue, all of which are well established to be rooted in events and issues that were present long before he ever took up role playing. But, the rest of the characters have their own sets of issues, including family dysfunction, alienation, and depression (which prompted Jay Jay’s abortive suicide attempt), and academic stresses, that have nothing to do with their game playing. In fact, their gaming may well be the best source of balance and stability to which they have access. It’s even established that the problem solving skills they’ve developed from playing play a pivotal role in tracking Robbie down.

When the police get involved in Robbie’s disappearance (an oddly perfunctory involvement, considering the movie literally opens with a blaring siren) the assigned detective (a surprise appearance by Murray Hamilton, aka the mayor from Jaws) wastes no time in jumping to the conclusion that the game is the sole cause and the worst outcome is the most likely. I can’t tell if he’s meant to sound like the brusque voice of sober reason and responsibility, but to me he just came off like every other credulous moron whose ignorance enabled the Panic to metastasize into the national disaster that it became.

I suspect that, at some point, someone must have noticed that the intended moral of the story was in danger of being subverted by its own would-be straw men, a common occurrence in blunt, message-fiction such as this. Supposedly, Rona Jaffe herself was all-in on the idea that role playing games were dangerous toys. Her being listed as executive producer on this film might then explain the presence of its frustrating, ham-handed coda that assiduously betrays most of the buildup that came before it and feels very much like it was tacked on by a zealous moral guardian who feared the intended propagandist message might be overshadowed by unexpected subtlety.

This aside, though, the movie was vastly more watchable than I expected it to be. Its depiction of role playing was certainly played up for theatrical effect. I can’t say anything it portrayed was flat out wrong, though actual scenes of tabletop game playing were surprisingly sparse.

On a more technical note, the movie is about what you might expect from a TV production in the 80s. There’s definitely some ambition shown in its attempts to render the fantasy-themed hallucinations and while most of the effects were clearly done with frugality in mind, there is a pretty nice looking lizard man type suit that might’ve seemed even more impressive if it didn’t bear a striking resemblance to the Gorn suit from the original Star Trek TV series.

The writing is satisfactory, though the dialog is mostly dry and functional. The acting is largely competent, but that’s about it. Hanks, as Robbie, naturally has the most intense scenes (though it is, again, worth noting that he’s off screen for extended stretches) and while he acquits himself well enough with some, others were clearly beyond his ability. That said, given the general absurdity of the subject matter, and the fact that the overall media portrayal of mental illness in the 80’s was often less than charitable, he arguably did about as well as anyone could under the circumstances. A wiser, more experienced Hanks would’ve likely just turned the role down.

At the end of the day, Mazes and Monsters is still fluff, but it’s surprisingly good fluff. Not that I expected much, but I was engaged throughout, and while I did chuckle a few times at the inaccuracies and creative license taken, I never felt insulted. One thing’s for sure, I kind of wish I finished the book now.

Final Grade: C+

Mazes and Monsters has aged surprisingly well, though clearly not for the reasons it intended to. There’s some pretty solid statements made in here regarding mental illness and the importance of recognizing early symptoms, the anxiety that young adults face, and the pressures of college life, all of them likely unwitting, but hey, half-decent by accident is still half-decent. There’s also a lot of callowness, inaccuracy, and general crap, both by design, and inherent to the time period, but dump it all through a filter, and I think the end result is still a net positive experience. Go figure, huh?

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