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Movie Review: Mazes & Monsters

This is a 1980’s made-for-tv movie and fulfills all the expectations that come with that description, namely poor quality scripting, acting and special effects. It stars a young Tom Hanks and notably contains footage of the World Trade Center. Based on the novel by the same name Mazes & Monsters is interesting mainly because of it’s social context. During it’s heyday role-play gaming was a much maligned hobby purported to be a form of satanism and blaimed for criminal activities, mental illness and suicides. Players were persecuted, ostricised and anti-D&D groups established to try and ban the game. It’s hard to imagine nowadays that a harmless game of make-believe could provoke such a reaction, but these attitudes were widespread and some still persist to this day. I remember as late as the 1990’s being forbidden from buying a D&D book because it was ‘Devil-worship.’

mazes and monsters - Tom Hanks goes bat shit crazy!

The story in Mazes & Monsters is based on urban legends about Dungeons and Dragons, in particular the high-profile Steam Tunnel Incident, when 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III disappeared, supposedly lost in steam tunnels during a Live-Action Role-Play Game (LARP). In a huge media circus the newspapers reported the story as fact, when the truth was Egbert was hiding at at friends house after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He was suffering from depression caused by accademic pressures and drug addiction. It seems this badly distorted version of the Mazes & Monsters Novel was produced to capitalise on the hystria surrounding the event and many took it as proof of the evils of D&D. William Dear, a private investigator on the case, later wrote a novel called The Dungeon Master relating the true events after Egbert finally succeeded in commiting suicide.

Mazes and Monsters starts with a Police Squad style opening, the camera mounted on the Police car roof so we can see the flashing light and hear the sirens blaring. It’s the start of the ‘OMG did people really take this stuff seriously?’ feeling that grows throughout the progress of the film. A news announcer reports a student is missing in Pequod Caverns after a role-play-game-gone-bad. Then the Movie flashes back to the beginning of term so we get to see the events leading up to the incident and speculate on who will go missing and exactly how did the game went bad. A promising storytelling device, but it doesn’t quite work out.

Mazes and Monsters - Satan's Game!

We are introduced to the Gamer stereotypes and the first two seem right on the mark: There’s Kate, the wannabe author looking for inspiration and Daniel, the computing student and aspiring computer game designer who incidentally looks exactly like Fred from Scooby-Doo (I’ve met a few of these in my time. Computing students, I mean, not Fred look-alikes). The remaining pair are a little… odd. There’s JJ, the wearer of many hats, who can only be categorized as an eccentric (and judging by his Mother it’s hereditary), and Tom Hanks! Errrm, I mean Robbie. Robbie’s crack is RPGs. He’s been trying to quit but the others tempt him back (Oh man, I relate. I get withdrawal baaad if I don’t get my D&D fix)!

So they start playing Mazes and Monsters in a room lit only by candlelight where everybody can set fire to their character sheets and no one can read their dice. Go figure. Soon JJ sabotages the game, deliberately killing his character in a pit full of – holy cow! Gem encrusted spikes! Lets Gather those puppies up and buy ourselves a raise dead! But instead of doing this JJ proposes they play a Live Action Role-Play game (LARP) in the caverns (my God, does his evil know no bounds?) and they agree.

Mazes and monsters - D20sSeriously, can YOU read the numbers on those dice?

As events begin to unfold we’re slipped a few red herrings as to who gets lost in the caverns and how. Unfortunately they are just crammed in and don’t taste very nice. The characters actions seem unrealistic and irrational which isn’t helped by bad acting from everyone except Tom Hanks. The players search for JJ’s treasure and decide it would be faster if they split up. Don’t they know anything? NEVER SPLIT THE PARTY! Of course, as soon as they do so there’s “A Monster! A Gorvil!” and a man in a rubber monster costume turns up. Like much of this movie it is ridiculous and obviously fake. When Tom Hanks sees it he goes bat shit crazy and stabs it.

Mazes and Monsters - a Gorvil!A Monster! A Gorvil!

At this point I thought Robbie/Hanks had just killed a student in a monster mask, the gamers would panic, hide the body in the caves, then we’d be back to our police scene. But it’s all in his mind. The problem is the monster looks SO MUCH like a student in a monster mask it is hard to accept as a hallucination. Nobodys hallucinations look that shit. It’s a shame they didn’t employ the Hitchcock technique and not really show it. It turns out that was the technique JJ intended to employ as GM, admitting he hadn’t really thought beyond TELLING them there was a monster! Hmm, I guess he hasn’t quite transitioned from tabletop to LARP. I can’t help thinking this game would have become a wet duck before long.

From now on Hanks/Robbie is always in character which nobody takes very much amiss, nor the fact that he’s carrying a REAL KNIFE! This really ought to ring alarm bells. The second half of the story focuses on the ‘Gaming has driven him mad’ plotline and the anti-D&D sentiments are laid on with a trowel.

Overall this is a pretty poor film and if it had not been about D&D would have doubtless fallen by the wayside. But as a retrospective it is interesting and ridiculous enough to have unintentional spoof appeal. Tom Hank’s performance is enjoyable and the message ‘Role-play gaming is dangerous’ gives the hobby a risque, almost rock ‘n’ roll image. Yeah! Look at us rebels spending our Fridays nights at home rolling dice! You don’t want to mess with us! Sometimes we even play Cthulhu! Roll for insanity, Monkey Boy!

There is no trailer for Mazes and Monsters so this will have to do:

Associated Links:

Well I have to take this opportunity to promote the Indie Music Band ‘Mazes and Monsters’ and their album ‘Mazes and Monsters!’ & their Facebook Page
Mazes and Monsters at Wikipedia
Funny Mazes & Monsters Review by J.R. Antrim at Ironic Consumer (some spoilers)
Video Mazes & Monsters Review by The Spoony Experiment

5 replies on “Movie Review: Mazes & Monsters”

I actually read the book before I saw the movie and was disappointed in the movie.  Not just for the reasons you said, but also because the movie missed the whole point of the book.

The story is actually about a group of friends who played Monsters and Mazes together.  One of the players asked if her cousin, who just moved to town, could play with them.  They agreed, and he came to the next session.

The cousin knew nothing about RPGs and had a hard time understanding the rules (at this point you get some understanding of how Monsters and Mazes is played – it’s not D&D but there are some similarities).  Eventually he catches on, and at the next next gaming session he shows up in costume.  The others like the idea and start dressing up as well.

Things are going well until they start noticing the cousin wearing the costume everywhere.  He starts playing his character outside the game and causing the adults to take notice as well.  At this point there is some anti-RPG comments but things get much worse later on.

There is a similarity to the movie at this junction.  The cousin character dies, but not because he wanted to LARP.  It was just one of those things that happen in RPGs.  At this point he goes completely mental.  He identified with his character so much he couldn’t handle the loss. The others try to console him but it’s no good so they send him to his room to recuperate.

After some loud wailing it gets quite so they go to look in his room and find he’s gone.  They look all around and he’s no where to be found.  They finally have to tell his mother and learn the horrible truth.  The cousin has schizophrenia and it’s past the time for him to take his medicine.

Like the movie, the cousin starts imagining everything around him is part of the game.  The problem is not only finding him but trying to reason with him.  After all attempts at reasoning fail, there is only one thing left to try.

In the end, only the game could save him.  Now that they knew about his condition, they made sure his character would never die again and played the game more like an interactive story.

Far from an indictment against RPGs, it was about the closeness of a group of friends who play together.  There is a warning that not everyone can handle RPGs and you need to watch for the warning signs before it’s too late.  The book has some disturbing images and it’s easy to see how it can be misinterpeded as being anti-RPG but it’s more the story of a boy with a serious mental illness and his friends who struggle to understand him.

Derivative works that undermine the originals are pet hates of mine, and this appears to be one of those cases. It makes me cross that the producers decided to go for sensationalism with zero integrity. Mazes and Monsters could have educated people about schizophenia rather then scaremongering about RPGs. I mentioned prejudice against gamers, but that is mainly in the past now. What is not in the past is prejudice about mental illness.

Thanks for your comment; I don’t think the novel was published in the UK and I couldn’t find out much about it. Now you’ve enlightened me it seems like people were just assuming the Novel was as bad as the film, that one equated to the other. An all too common assumption I fear.

I will ammend my review as regards the Novel. It turns out Wikipedia isn’t always right after all!

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