Tune in Tonight: "Mazes and Monsters"
When compared to the panic over chatspeak and sending nudes via text messenger, a similar fear over teenagers pretending to fight dragons and cast protection spells only a few decades ago seems almost quaint. Nevertheless, it’s true–back in the early 80s parents fretted over Dungeons and Dragons, buying into a media hyped belief that players could get so deep into the game that they became delusional, with occasionally tragic consequences.
The alarm was triggered by the 1979 disappearance of 16 year-old James Dallas Egbert, who wandered into the steam tunnels near his college and disappeared. A private investigator hired to locate Egbert wove a gripping story about the teenager becoming so obsessed with an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign that he lost touch with reality, and was perhaps lost forever inside the tunnels. It was a great story, but it was also 100% bullshit. James Egbert was just an ordinary, depressed kid who probably played Dungeons and Dragons so he wouldn’t have to think about how depressed he was for a little while. He went to the tunnels to try to commit suicide, and when that didn’t work, he hid out at a friend’s house, then ran away to work at an oil field, finally ending his own life in 1980.
It didn’t stop the media from capitalizing on Dungeons and Dragons as the next big thing parents should worry about, however, and it didn’t stop author Rona Jaffe from cranking out a “fictionalized” version of Egbert’s story, calling it Mazes and Monsters. It was then almost immediately adapted into a TV movie, starring Tom Hanks in his first feature starring role.
The movie opens with three college friends, Jay Jay (Chris Makepeace), Kate (Wendy Crewson), and Daniel (David Wallace), who share an interest in role playing games. All three of them have parents who are either neglectful or overbearing, all of them are very smart, and all of them are super nerdy (Jay Jay wears a series of ridiculous hats as a "quirky" affectation), but it’s their passion for Mazes and Monsters that really brings them together. After some unexplained incident involving a former member of their group the previous semester, they hope to get a new game going, but need a fourth player.
Luckily, new student Robbie (Tom Hanks) shows up just in time. Robbie, who was kicked out of his last school for skipping class in order to play more Mazes and Monsters, is reluctant to join Jay Jay and the others, but eventually gives in, mostly because of his attraction to Kate. Their games are initially peaceful occasions, played in a candlelit room with a mystical pan flute playing on the soundtrack, and without a single bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in sight. Jay Jay soon becomes bored, however, and suggests they take their game to the next level, donning costumes and exploring the off-limits Pequod Caverns. This is actually LARPing, which isn’t always directly related to Dungeons and Dragons, but one can assume that, as far as Rona Jaffe was concerned, it was about as irrelevant as knowing the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek–it was all just stuff weirdo kids with no social skills liked.
While in Pequod Caverns, which looks like the interior of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Robbie has a terrifying encounter with what he believes to be a real monster. He experiences some sort of psychotic break and starts acting like his Mazes and Monsters character, a cleric named Pardieu, even when he’s not playing the game. He ends his blossoming romance with Kate, claiming that he’s taken a vow of chastity, and begins spending much of his time alone. Unimpressed with Robbie’s Daniel Day-Lewis like dedication to staying in character, Kate and the others become worried about his behavior.
Robbie is haunted by visions of “The Great Hall,” which is not a place but a person, a more powerful cleric. It’s probably important to point out that Hall is also the name of Robbie’s older brother, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, never to be seen again. The Great Hall tells Robbie that in order to become just as powerful, he must journey to a sacred place called “The Two Towers,” where he will jump from the top while casting a spell. Without telling his friends where he’s going, he leaves school to begin his perilous quest.
“We understand he played Mazes and Monsters,” the detective assigned to Robbie’s disappearance says, with the same tone of voice as “we understand he did heroin and slept with underage girls.” Evidently not a very good detective, he immediately assumes that Robbie is dead, and implies that murders connected to Mazes and Monsters are a common occurrence (in real life the number of deaths that could be directly attributed to roleplaying games is exactly zero). Robbie has actually gone to big, scary New York City (indicated by jazzy saxophone riffs), where he wanders around in the subway tunnels (somehow encountering only one homeless person) and discovers that the “Two Towers” he is to jump from are, of course, the World Trade Center.
Jay Jay and the others somehow figure this out in the nick of time too, and race down to the Trade Center to stop Robbie from jumping. Luckily, he snaps back into reality just long enough to be rescued. The movie epilogues with Jay Jay, Kate, and Daniel having renounced Mazes and Monsters, and Kate stating that she’s writing a book about the events we’ve just watched (in a hilariously self-aware moment, Jay Jay proclaims “I bet it’ll be a best seller!”). They believe Robbie to be recuperating at his parents’ home, but when they drop by for a visit, they’re disheartened to see that he not only still believes himself to be Pardieu, but is now speaking with a vague English accent, like someone selling turkey legs at a Renaissance Fair. Out of kindness, the group plays one more game, as Kate’s somber voiceover intones “It didn’t matter that we didn’t see monsters. Pardieu saw the monsters. We saw the death of hope, and the loss of our friend.”
I hadn’t seen Mazes and Monsters in years, certainly before it became something of a nerd culture joke, and here’s the thing–it is really boring. Far more time is spent talking about Mazes and Monsters, in hushed, foreboding tones, than anyone actually playing it. For every scene in which Robbie has visions of battling something that resembles The Creature From the Black Lagoon, there are five in which people aimlessly shamble around in dark tunnels with concerned looks on their faces. Even the climactic scene on top of the World Trade Center consists mostly of thrilling shots of the characters climbing stairs and riding in elevators. It’s disappointing that something with such potential for high camp ended up a muted attempt at serious psychodrama.
That being said, I find it impossible to say anything negative about Tom Hanks. His line readings in this waver between earnest and “I can’t believe I’m saying this shit,” with the latter reserved for when he has to recite lines like “I am Pardieu, I am a holy man. By reaching the ninth level I have acquired many magic spells and charms, the greatest of which is the Graven Eye of Timur.” Short of saying “Yes, I will star in The Circle,” he would never again say anything quite so absurd. Dungeons and Dragons panic would soon be forgotten in favor of Satanic panic, and Mazes and Monsters would soon be an odd little blip on Tom Hanks’ filmography, something for a talk show host to bring up whenever he appears to promote another Academy Award nominated performance.
Original airdate: December 28, 1982