80’s Trash of the Week: Mazes and Monsters

In which Tom Hanks models for the cover of Led Zeppelin IV.

I’ve been trying to get a hold of this since Gary Gygax’s death, and finally found a decent copy. This is the infamous “Dungeons & Dragons melts your brain” movie starring Tom Hanks. Written by Rona Jaffe and based on the true story of a suicidal college kid who was thought to be lost in the steam tunnels beneath Michigan state while playing a “live version” of Dungeons & Dragons, when he was actually hiding at a friend’s place. Known as the “Steam Tunnel Incident,” private investigator William Dear concocted the D&D theory and wrote a book about it.

You know it’s a movie when he meets a girl through D&D who isn’t crazy.

The movie begins awkwardly with a flash-forward to a reporter asking the cops what’s going on. The cop tells him they heard someone went overboard while playing “Mazes and Monsters,” and asks him if he knows about it. Chillingly, the reporter says yes… my kids play it. Do yours???

Then we segue to the college, with a sappy song played over. The film’s greatest crime is this godawful theme song, “Friends in this World,” and if you find a copy of this movie I defy you to listen to it more than once. It’s likem “Gentle Ben,” the heartfelt song about a murderous rat, except it’s about remembering your batshit insane friends before they lost their minds.

We are then introduced to three kids with rich, annoying parents. Jay Jay walks into school wearing a Prussian helmet with a chin strap, which is an accurate portrayal of a D&D player in the 80’s I guess. His mother is a decorator and just gave him an institutional room covered in white tile, so this is a boy in need of some escapism.

This is where you end up if you play D&D.

Jay Jay (Chris Makepeace, Rudy from Meatballs) also has a myna bird named Merlin that spouts things like “birds can’t talk!” and is generally annoying. Robbie, played by Tom Hanks (from “Bosom Buddies“), is being driven to college by his hostile father and alcoholic mom, and has had trouble with “Mazes and Monsters” before. When he gets to school, he instantly sees a messily scrawled note looking for players of the game. Jay Jay put it there, and asks him if he plays, but he demurs and says he doesn’t anymore.

Then he meets Kate Finch (Wendy Crewson, Spies, Lies & Naked Thighs) at a party and lets slip that he used to play. She’s also a huge Mazes & Monsters nerd, and they bond instantly like Krazy-Glue because they both play 9th level characters. She lures him back into playing, and soon the group is playing obsessively, all night, in a room lit only by candles. Daniel is the “Maze Controller,” and begins the game this way, in this cultish fashion:

I am the maze controller. The god of this universe I have created. The absolute authority! Only I know the perilous course you are about to take. Your fate is in my hands!

Evil dice of fate!

There we are introduced to the players and their characters, which will be a special treat for anyone who’s played role-playing games.
Kate: “I am Glacia the Fighter. I have great strength and courage, strong armor and weapons, and I have won the mighty Talking Sword of Lothia.”
Jay Jay: “I am Frelik the Frenetic of Blossomere. The cleverest of all sprites. Not so strong, but with enough tricks and powers to take me far and keep me safe.”
Robbie: “I am Pardeux. A holy man. By reaching the 9th level I have acquired many magic spells and charms the greatest of which is the Graven Eye of Timur. But I also have a sword which I only use should my magic fail me.”

See, Robbie needs a sword so he can hurt someone in the name of his wacky game later. Though it would be much funnier if he tried using spells and got his ass kicked, it wouldn’t scare parents. Jay Jay seems the likelier candidate for going wacko, since he sits in his dorm room talking about suicide to his myna bird, so he’ll be remembered forever by his fellow students. The game is pretty innocuous until Jay Jay’s character gets killed in a pit trap “filled with gem encrusted spikes.” Apparently it’s a Tiffany pit trap.

Evil skeleton with the heart of a volleyball.

Jay Jay wants to bring the game to the next level, so he starts a new game in the local Pequod caverns, using props from the drama and science department. For those blissful enough to not know about it, this is called LARPing, short for Live Action Role Playing, and LARPers are made fun of by other nerds in the geek hierarchy. They all don spooky cloaks and carry lanterns and wander around the caves while Jay Jay dangles skeletons from the science department. But Robbie gets lost and hallucinates a demon, which he dispatches with his sword letter opener.

Robbie meets a demon in the cave and freaks the hell out.
See, Robbie’s brother Hall ran away from home (with those crazy parents who can blame him) and Robbie has always blamed himself for it. Now when he dreams, he sees a mystical figure named The Great Hall who tells him he must be a holy man and forgo Kate and her feminine wiles, if he is to meet the Great Hall at the Two Towers. Despite calling himself Pardeux from this point on, and blessing people in the hallways, his friends don’t notice anything wrong. Even when he breaks up with Kate and holes himself up in his room, they only notice a problem when he disappears one afternoon.

If I dreamt this shit I’d go poo-flinging insane too.

Eventually they get the police involved, and Murray Hamilton (The mayor of Amity in Jaws) already knows all about Mazes and Monsters. “Mazes and Monsters is a far out game. Swords, poison, spells, battles, maiming, killing.”

It’s only imagination!
Is it?

They search the caves, but Robbie has gone to seek the Two Towers in New York, of course. Befitting NYC in the early 80’s, upon arrival he is immediately set upon by muggers. Of course, he sees them as demons, or whatever this green costume is supposed to be:

Gimme yo wallet, motherfucker!

They chase him blocks and blocks through the city, to typical scary 80’s music, and have a West Side Story knife fight, but luckily Robbie is victorious:

The most memorable scene for me was when he calls them after stabbing the mugger, crying “There’s blood on my knife!” Who’d believe this man would go on to win multiple Oscars? For me, he’ll always be remembered in drag in “Bosom Buddies,” with Peter Scolari. Sort of like how George Clooney will always be remembered for Return of the Killer Tomatoes. This was the scene that we mocked when me and my high school pals would play D&D in the basement. When we weren’t spelunking in capes with battle-axes.

There’s blood on my knife!

Now they know where he is, so they head into the fearsome clutches of old New York, before Giuliani turned the Deuce into Disneyland and the Lower East Side became the trendy place to drink. Like The Dictators say in “Avenue A

When every memory is gone
and everything you know is wrong
Takin’ the edge off on a beautiful day
with a Frappuccino and a créme brulee
yeah, you know it’s all over
when you see a Range Rover

But enough nostalgic musing about New York in the 80’s, it’s much more fun to think about Tom Hanks talking to homeless people in the subway, asking about the Great Dragon above them. Yeah, Robbie, that’s the C train you goof. He finds his way to the World Trade Center, if you hadn’t guessed. Makes me wonder if Rona Jaffe found references to Tolkien in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, saw The Two Towers, and was inspired by the muses to make the connection to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Never Forget!

When they finally track him down on the observation deck, he looks like he’s about to jump. They stop him by saying the word “Game” which snaps him out of his fantasy world. He suddenly remembers it’s all just a game, and breaks down crying, since he can’t remember how he got up there.

Oscar gold.

The film, shamed by Hanks’ terrific performance, abruptly cuts to the future, where three of the kids are driving back to college. Robbie is conspicuously absent. We soon learn that they are going to visit him. Since his caper, Kate has become a writer, and plans to write a story about how Mazes and Monsters helped them, but turned tragic for their friend; Jay Jay of the skeletons with a flashlight has found a new outlet for his mania, the theater department. And Daniel is learning to be a computer programmer, which means he’s still playing Ultima Online somewhere.

When they find Robbie, his mother says he is under a doctor’s care, and he sits by a lake dressed all in white. Sort of like Gandalf after the Balrog, to up the nerd quotient of this post. Once again, Robbie is talking about being Pardeux the holy man. You might think like I did, that he is just messing with them and it will all be happy ever after. But no, he’s finally lost his mind, or as Elwood P. Dowd would put it, he wrestled with reality, and finally won out over it. Instead of telling him it’s just a game again, they decide to play along, and go for a walk in the forest, trying to remember when he was a nice boy and not a crazy dragon-slaying wackadoo.

fig. 1, Dragon-slaying wackadoo.

This film holds a special place in my heart in the nostalgia section, despite being so awful. For a TV movie in the early 80’s, it’s surprisingly well made. The director knows how to work with a shitty effects budget, and keeps things shrouded in fog and darkness. He also lucked out in getting some decent actors, and some memorable faces like the mayor from Jaws and the cop from Strange Brew (Tom Harvey, if you were wondering). It makes RPG playing look like a séance, and shows the players as maladjusted weirdos with troublesome emotional lives. So at least it got that right. Anyone might show up at someone’s house wearing a cape, or a Prussian war helmet for that matter. In the 80’s, it could happen.

fig.2, Fat, dragon-slaying wackadoo.

The funniest thing is that this was released on DVD with an older Tom Hanks on the cover in front of a huge maze and a castle. “Danger lurks between fantasy and reality.” Yeah, the fantasy that the cover of the DVD sells and the reality of the movie not having a maze in it. Imagine the poor bastard picking this up and thinking it was a modern horror film. Like Kate says, “the most frightening monsters are the ones that exist in our minds.” I’d still want a refund.

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