Monday, August 16, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: MAZES AND MONSTERS, 1982, Starring Tom Hanks, written by Tom Lazarus from the novel by Rona Jaffe, Directed by Steven H. Stern

Mazes and Monsters is a fantasy role playing game enjoyed mostly by high school and college students. Players take on the roles of barbarian warriors, thieves, powerful wizards, and maybe even pirates. People gather in dorm rooms and living rooms to play, using game maps, handwritten character sheets, and embroidered velvet bags filled with dice.

But the most important element is the imagination of the players themselves. It's kind of like improvisational theatre, but with less movement. People sit around a table, pushing character markers around maps representing dungeons, castles, mazes, and there are other markers that represent goblins, orks, dragons, monsters, etc.

One of the players is assigned the role of "Maze Master." The Maze Master is the referee, and he also conceives of the overall scenario that the other players tune into, and the players do their level best to sort of perform or embody the characters they've created. This performance or embodiment usually consists of the players putting on funny voices, stilted, vaguely Britishy accents, and declaiming spells, oaths, curses, and other brave sounding things. The Maze Master obliges the players by doing the voices and noises of the various monsters and dastardly villains. This usually consists of fakey sounding roars and growls and stilted, vaguely Britishy accents.

But sometimes all these conventions about how to play, and what's appropriate, and where performance ends and real life begins--for some people it just ain't enough.

Sometimes, the real ketchup's gotta flow.
Sometimes, a dudeman has to take matters into his OWN chain-mailed hands.
Sometimes, the mazes and the monstes gotta come to life . . .

Something like that happens to Tom Hanks's character, Robbie, in this made-for-TV movie derived from a novel of the same title by Rona Jaffe. Robbie is a college student with a troubled past, transferring to a new school at the beginning of this sordid saga. At first glance, he seems normal. He seems about like the Tom Hanks characters in movies like Big or Bachelor Party. But something more twisted and complex lurks beneath the surface . . .

See, long ago, Robbie's brother Hall disappeared under inexplicable circumstances. Robbie's mom is a lush, his father is a pushy asshole, and Robbie just tries to go along to get along. He's seemingly taken on an unreasonable amount of guilt over his brother's disappearance, and his only real outlet to express himself is by playing Mazes and Monsters, and immersing himself in the role of a holy cleric, Pardeux. But, at his first college, Robbie got so wrapped up in his character that his grades suffered, and he was forced to drop out. After an unspecified stretch of time, Robbie has given up the game, gotten some therapy, and is ready to rejoin the academic rat race.

Or is he? Once a player, always a player?

Robbie falls in with a group of Mazes and Monsters enthusiasts. They want him to play. Robbie resists . . . but not too hard. Soon, the players are upping the ante: instead of just sitting around a table using hand drawn maps and fakey accents to excuse sedentary performances they will take the game live into a possibly dangerous network of tunnels not far off campus. Now, they will wear full, handmade costumes, and they will wield prop weapons cribbed from the theatre department to supplement their fakey, vaguely Britishy accents--evil ensues!!

Well, sort of . . .

Robbie goes into the tunnels and encounters something, a Gorvil, which is a kind of half-dragon, half-man, and Robbie loses his marbles. He kills the beast, but his sanity is mortally wounded in the process. Robbie, from this point onwards, goes from being similar to other Tom Hanks characters in other early Tom Hanks films, to being like a member of a cult . . . a cult of one!

He swears off sex, dumps his girlfriend, and begins to draw mysterious maps and diagrams. Robbie, now Pardeux, is tormented by nightmares where a godlike voice commands him to go on a journey, a journey that might lead him to his doom in the dangerous network of tunnels.

Robbie's friends are concerned. They set out to solve the mystery of Robbie's transformation . . .

. . . This movie grew out of the early 1980s hysteria over Dungeons and Dragons, and rumors that players were taking their characters waaaaay too seriously and sacrificing cats and dogs and babies to Satan and voting for Jimmy Carter--all things deeply offensive to the Moral Majority and others who saw D&D as a recruiting packet for the Armies of Lucifer and his Communist allies.

The tone of the film is a strange mixture of matter-of-fact and melodramatic. There's even a faint strain of satire. Some of the dialogue of the parental characters in the movie hint at a pervasive mood of stress, of a pervasive fear of change, of how the growing pressure to succeed at all costs in the New Reagan America is driving people to novelty and distraction--is Robbie's saga a parable of all Americans? Is his lost brother Hall symbolic of America's lost innocence?

Probably not. Let's just blame it on a game that engages the imagination and encourages collaboration and sharing amongst young Americans--no doubt the precursors to total Communist takeover!!

Actually, the movie sticks close to the story of Robbie and his trauma. It also makes good use of location shooting. It looks like they actually shot this movie at a real college campus, in actual dorm rooms, restaurants, and some other locations I will not reveal.

As ludicrous as the notion is that a pen-and-paper RPG could be a catalyst for insanity is, the movie tells a pretty good story, and Tom Hanks handles the material pretty well. His journey becomes an interesting journey, even a half-clever psychodrama. It's also laugh-out-loud funny.

Look for an early appearance by Kevin Peter Hall as the monstrous Gorvil. Hall would later go onto fame as the Predator in the first two Predator films.


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