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Mazes & Monsters (1982)

If you’ve never heard of "M&M", you’re probably a new blood gamer, not one of us old crustaceans with our butts rooted to a chair as firmly as to our old school ways. You see, there was a time, a few centuries ago, during the Carter Administration, that role-playing as E-VIL. All RPGs were evil because D&D was evil and there were no other RPGs. Uh-huh. Star Frontiers must be evil too. So must Boot Hill, Marvel Super Heroes and World War II. Personally, I never thought that beating up Nazis was considered an evil act. Then again, how vanquishing demons was considered evil, I don’t know either. But they’re there in the game, right? Well, demons are in the Bible too, aren’t they? Does that make the Bible an introduction to the occult or Satanism? Well, ignoring annoying things like the facts, many preached about how D&D had magic, witches, devils, etc. and they are E-VIL! Magic is evil! Because priests who couldn’t get laid in the 16th and 17th centuries took advantage of the ability to rewrite the Bible’s passage of "Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live" to "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live", now all magic is evil. I guess that makes Mickey Mouse, "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" evil too. For that matter, the entire "Enchanted Kingdom" of Disneyland should be wiped off the planet by crusaders. And Tolkien, a devout Catholic, will burn in Hell for Gandalf’s use of magic to heal an ailing king or defeat the Dark Lord. Ooops, I almost forgot about Merlin helping Arthur establish a Christian Kingdom. Well, ya know how this rhetoric goes. Anyway, since it snuck in from the shadows of subculture in the mid 1970s, D&D inevitably gained popularity, and with it, all the usual detractors, pessimists, and never-see-the-good-in-anything people. Yessir, I’m talking about the mainstream media and the church!

Truth goes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third and finally, it is accepted as self-evident. Roundabouts 1979 / 1980, D&D went somewhere from Stage Zero to Stage Two, warping right through Stage One. It became the media’s favorite whipping boy and the church’s latest desperate ploy to get people to dump money in the collection plate so Father Jingles could go pick up a few more cute choir boys in his new sports car—hey, am I being prejudice without checking the facts? What, all priests aren’t that way? Really? But one did that, so they all must, right? I mean, if one D&D player gets bad grades, they all must get bad grades, right? You mean you can’t judge a mass of millions from the actions of one? Jeez. Golly.

You see, throughout human history, anything that is new or different is sought to be destroyed. We are pack animals. Things alien or foreign, things new and exciting tend to scare the noisy-negative-minority (as in, those still making animalistic as opposed to, say, informed and enlightened, civilized decisions). What man fears he seeks to destroy. I say, man who seeks to destroy rather than overcome and understand so he fears it no more is not a man. But enough of the preamble. Onto eating lots of M&M!

There were some wildly overblown accounts of D&D causing kids to kill each other. Not that anyone has ever been shot over playing cards or sports fans injured over soccer games or anything, but one 16 year-old "genius", advanced into college, disappeared, and D&D, one of his many hobbies along with drugs and alcohol, became the scapegoat. People saw what they wanted to see. And what they really wanted to see was the inevitable movie-of-the-week based on this "Satanic game". The early ‘80s was the time of the "Satanic Panic", taking over where McCarthyism (today’s PTC) and the "Red Scare" left off. D&D was evil, damnit! People just needed the proof. Ahh, thank you TV! Everything that appears on the boob-tube is true, so once D&D was vilified with a made-for-TV movie, concerned "intelligent" parents everywhere had all the "proof" they needed to have their kids stop playing that evil game.

Um, evil game, where everyone works as a team to vanquish evil, where everyone can win, where history, mathematics, teamwork and problem-solving skills are par for the course. No, they’d rather their kids play "Monopoly", a game that is, by definition, illegal, and where you win by forcing your friends into bankruptcy. But Monopoly is traditional. D&D is new. Scary. Forget intelligent decisions or facts. Remember the rallying cry: Don’t bother me with the facts!

"Mazes & Monsters" was written as a novel by Rona Jaffe in about 1980. Now, the book itself doesn’t really go into all the propaganda. In fact, only about half the book has anything to do with gaming at all—the other half is the players trying to manage their somewhat fucked up lives. The book seems to have a heart, offering a lot of defense for gaming, and never really vilifying it in the end. But when it was adapted for TV, the only thing it vilified was quality fantasy moviemaking.

Airing in 1982 and staring a very young Tom Hanks, this movie is a recipe for amazing fits of laughter and surreal moments in time. I actually like this movie for the sake of nostalgia, but as a movie and as a testament to fantasy gaming, it’s one of the worst.

First, the music. Good god. The theme song which blares throughout the movie is enough to make people believe that opera is evil (or whatever the hell that song is supposed to be). We are quickly introduced to the said fucked-up characters from the novel, and, entering last but not least, Robbie, a.k.a. Pardieu (the name of the M&M character played by Robbie / Hanks, though Pardieu becomes the name of both character and character before long, if you follow me). Gaming’s basics are briefly but effectively covered, with emphasis on how much time it takes up, i.e. diverting one’s attention from more serious-minded things like studying in school. Point made, but not driven home. So far, so cheesy, but not bad.

Soon enough, we’re introduced to the psychodrama of low budget, as Pardieu has dreams of his brother, "Hall", at one end of a drain pipe. So, early on, the movie shoots itself in the foot by showing us very clearly that Pardieu will not go insane because of any game, but because of his already insane brother. Perhaps Hall played too much M&M, but we’ll never know, because of a spotty script.

The movie teases us, in that any of the four gamers could be the one who goes nuts, kind of like a preactive who-dun-it? It seems obvious that Hanks will be the crazy guy, but this being his debut role (which to this day he seems to refuse to acknowledge having made—that’s gratitude for ya), all the characters seem plausible. They’re all relatively equal in terms of lack-of-star-power, and each have qualifications for lunacy. The first to do something dumb is Jay Jay, who actually goes to commit suicide—again, not because of any game, but because he’s underage and lonely—by getting lost in the local steam tunnels. But once there, he realizes how cool live gaming would be, and (explained much better in the book) he exits the caves having found a better reason to live than ever before! Now, if this movie is trying to condemn D&D as evil, it’s scored three points against itself already.

Suiciding his M&M character to encourage the game to move to the caverns, Jay Jay takes over as GM, and Pardieu, after the first night in the very scary (because they’re so low-budget) caverns, takes over as the definite psycho. Because playing in the creepy caverns was too much for his psyche (already half consumed by that brain-eating-alien disguised as his ‘70s afro) he now believes he is Pardieu the Holy Man. The game is taking over his life! Cue ominous music here. And now, the movie gets really, um, funny!

Some senseless scenes fill up commercial time, like teasing us with who is going to get lost in the caverns and die, even though we already know it’s not the girl—it’s Pardieu, damnit! You just spent an entire burger joint scene talking about him going crazy. Great opportunities for a comedy movie are missed, like at the Halloween dorm party, where Pardieu should have tried to turn the Frankenstein’s monster coming to the door—instead, it’s just a wasted scene. Pardieu wanders off because the true Dungeon Master (remember, the Great Hall in the sewer) tells him he is ready.

Eventually, Pardieu’s mundane world doper friends realize he’s missing, try to be dramatic, and finally we get to the good stuff! That being, Pardieu Hanks wandering New York, seeing everything in fantasy terms. Some muggers jump him, he tries to "hold" them, sees one as a "gorvil" (actually, Kevin Peter "Predator" Hall in a big green monster suit), and sees his pocket knife as a sword. He freaks out more and more, ending up in the "mazes", actually old electrical access tunnels. Again, it’s a lot of missed opportunity. Seeing the mundane world from a guy-who-thinks-he’s-a-fantasy-character could fill a whole frickin’ movie! "The Fisher King" came close, but this could be more like "Falling Down" done in a fantasy vein. Well, anyway, Pardieu gets to the funniest scene in the movie, "The King of France" (a hobo’s reactionary line to Pardieu’s assurance not to fear him because he’s a holy man). Having read Tolkien earlier in the movie, Pardieu asks about "the two towers", and the bum directs him there, so a young Tom Hanks is off to find the World Trade Center, armed with spells and sword! This is the surreal part. For in the end he’s on the roof, caught by his concerned friends, while attempting to jump off the Trade Center and "fly to heaven".

Now, in the end, Pardieu never goes back to being "Robbie". It tries to make you feel sad because "the game messed him up forever". Personally, I think Robbie got the better deal—ignorance is bliss! He gets to live in his happy world and never get up at 6:00am to go to work. But the movie fails to deliver any point other than "Hey, what was all that gaming about again? I thought it was supposed to be evil. Wasn’t it? How did he go insane?"

The movie was low budget, and it does okay for whatever it was trying to do, but there are a few funny bits to consider. The caverns are about 15’ of set, filmed from different angles to try and convey a larger scale. The lanterns glare on the camera lens. The film is grainy. The music tries to be spooky but Casper is better at causing dramatic tension.

And, worst of all, the players are woefully inept at their own game. This is where gamers count bullets, so-to-speak, with movies. Big mistakes: Never split up in a dungeon. Never jump into a pit full of spikes (although, admittedly, that was when Jay Jay wanted to die, but the movie didn't make that clear). Never waste your questions granted by the all-knowing dead with obvious shit—ask where the damn treasure is! Perhaps they should have asked the skeleton where they could find a richer backer or a better director.

Now, there is one genuine creepy thing coming from this movie—the reporter! The same guy wearing the same trenchcoat seems to appear in a lot of movies, doing basically the same character. You can see him in "The Park Is Mine" and "Strange Brew", amongst others. Maybe Pardieu wanted to live in a fantasy world so he could shut out that guy forever.

Personally, I thought this movie’s 20th anniversary in 2002 should have gotten a "Star Wars"-like Special Edition, with improved digital effects! Imagine the poster! Tom Hanks standing on top of the World Trade Center, waving around a sword, seeing an incoming plane as a dragon! Was that tasteless? Don’t tell me you didn’t find it funny! Besides, despite Hanks wishing this movie away, he seems to secretly return every few years to shoot a new poster for a new video jacket. The 1993 video release, for example, has a clearly aged Hanks posing for the new cover, with his receding hair-line badly airbrushed in.


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