Mazes and Monsters was directed in 1982 by Steven Hilliard Stern. It is based on a novel by Rona Jaffe, very loosely inspired by real life events as written about in The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, by investigator William Dear.
The film primarily takes the form of a charming little cautionary tale about the dangers of playing Dungeons and Dragons (without actually calling it that for risk of being sued). It’s the mid-eighties and hysteria about imaginative role-playing games are rife; fuelled by several high profile and totally unrepresentative incidents with very little to do with the actual games themselves. Such was the eighties cultural awareness of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) and their possible effects that they are referenced in many books and films of the time such as Neal Stephensen’s The Big U, published in 1984, where University students wage secret fantasy wars under the grounds of the campus.
In terms of the vast majority of the acting performances, the music and even the basic storytelling, Mazes and Monsters is pretty ropey, even I can tell that. However, the actors manage to take the film seriously enough to make the story engaging, and I find the reoccurring and heavy handed use of the song ‘Friends in This World’ strangely captivating.
At the start of the film, Robbie Wheeling (played by a startlingly young Tom Hanks) is being driven to a new university by his parents, for a fresh start. As she says her goodbyes, Robbie’s mother makes him promise that he won’t “play that awful game anymore”. Despite his best efforts, however, Robbie is badgered into playing Mazes and Monsters by his new found friends at a dorm room party. There’s Daniel, the jock with a soul, played by David Wallace; Kate, who Robbie becomes romantically involved with and who is the narrator of Rona Jaffe’s novel; and Jay Jay, played by Chris Makepeace, who wears a variety of strange hats and owns a mynah bird called Merlin.
When Jay-Jay decides to take the game from out of the dorm rooms and into the local caverns, the shift in table-top gaming into something which feels physically much more real, complete with costumes and props, clearly becomes too much for Robbie. To him, the imagined foes become real and he starts to believe that he is his Mazes and Monsters alter-ego, the robed Holy Man, Pardieu. Whoever thought LARPing could be so psychologically treacherous?
As it turns out, however, Robbie already has issues. He misses his brother, Hall, who ran away from home and is haunted by him in his dreams (in sequences with all of the quality you would expect from a 1982 made-for-TV movie). Gradually, as he becomes more and more Pardieu, and less Robbie, he breaks off his relationship with Kate in favour of the celibacy required of his role; then runs away himself on his own quest to find ‘The Great Hall’.
For me, the story is a Don Quixote parable, tragically sad in that, to his friends, Robbie has gone mad and his youth has been wasted. However, Robbie is also, arguably, inhabiting a reality far more fantastic and inviting than actual reality; you can hardly blame him for taking refuge where he is. The film, whether deliberately or not, raises those tantalising questions about whether it is better to be happier in insanity or miserable and sane.
There has been some cruel criticism about Hanks’ performance in this film, particularly his emotional breakdown in the penultimate scene when he momentarily comes to his senses. I would refute this; given that this is a very early performance from Tom Hanks (he is even more gawky and naïve in this film than in Big), and in a film he may have secretly felt was a little dodgy in its writing and content, I think he still gives the performance his all. Yes, Tom Hanks looks and sounds weird when he cries, but when you compare this scene to something like the truly tear-jerk ending of Captain Phillips, it becomes evident that what we are seeing is just Hank’s ‘crying acting’. Besides, everyone looks and sounds ridiculous when they cry. The more surreal aspect of this scene is the fact that it heavily features the Twin Towers (or ‘Two Towers’ as Robbie/Pardieu dubs them in homage to Tolkien.) What is even more chilling is the fact that Robbie wishes to leap from them; almost in retrospective bad taste when you take into account the role that Hanks would later play in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011).
It’s not clear from watching this movie if the film-makers are actually trying to change hearts and minds about the dangers of gaming; I suspect they’re indifferent. What is emphasised by the film’s ending, instead, is the importance of friendship in the face of adversity – and surely that’s always a nice thing. I will simply close by saying that if anyone is ever looking to make a sequel of this glorious masterpiece, I have a great idea – and the fan fiction to prove it. Thanks for reading.