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10/22/99: The World's Longest Film Review
by Pieter van Hiel

What do you think of when you hear the name Tom Hanks?

Perhaps you immediately envision that wrenching scene in Saving Private Ryan when he tells Matt Damon to "Earn this." Or maybe you think about his portrayal of a dying man in Philadelphia, or as the bold astronaut commander in Apollo 13.

If you’re a bit older, you might remember Hanks from his days as a light-weight comedic actor, playing alongside Dan Ackroyd in Dragnet or playing a kid in an adult’s body in Big. If you’re even older, you might remember his TV career on that awful sitcom Bosom Buddies.

Not me. I think of Hanks’ first dramatic film role in the controversial TV movie Mazes and Monsters. I’ll refer to it as M&M for short.

M&M hit the small screen on December 28th, 1982. The weeks leading up to its release saw an unusual media blitz of attention. I can remember being scared witless by a commercial for it. Hanks is standing in a dark alley, with an expression of stark terror on his face. The shot switches to his point of view and we see a humanoid lizard with talons and glittering eyes, advancing with clawed hands raised, hissing.  Spooky stuff for a kid with an overactive imagination, no matter how jaded I was by the many fearsome rubber monsters I saw each night on Dr. Who.

The commercial was obviously trying to cash in on the controversy surrounding Dungeons and Dragons. It may surprise some of you to know that the debate was so widespread. Sure, Vampire players get some flak nowadays, but 17 years ago the question  "Do RPGs make you crazy?" was getting international attention. The book that M&M was based on was on the bestseller lists. Concerned parents groups boycotted anything that smacked even slightly of sword and sorcery. Movies were being made on the topic – Skullduggery is another…ahem…gem of a film that deals with the issue.

I missed the original screening. It being the holiday season, I was up in Brockville visiting my cousins, and they didn’t have cable. Just a big antennae on the roof.  My mom probably wouldn’t have let me stay up to see it, anyway.

One fine summer day in 1998 I was in my local video store and spotted it. There, in the bargain bin, right beside the Barbie work-out video, was M&M!  On sale for $4.99! I picked up that yellowed tape box and the memories came FLOODING back.  I went home, watched it…and that brings us finally to the plot summary and review.

Ahem.

The film opens with an ominous scene. A reporter, played by one of the hosts of the comedy TV show Bizarre, which for me really reduces the impact of his report, stands in front of a dark cave entrance. Apparently, some college kids got too involved in a role-playing game, and one of them is missing…the the screen gets all wavy as the opening credits roll and we are transported three months backwards in time.

Tom Hanks plays Robby, a troubled college kid with stupid rich parents. Ditto the rest of the cast, though the romantic interest Kate Finch (played by Wendy Crewson –hubba, hubba!) only has a mother, and she’s not quite as stupid as the other parents.

Robby is on his way to a new college somewhere in upstate New York.  Most of the movie was actually filmed in Canada, so one day I may track down Robby’s school and conduct fan tours. * Robby has been kicked out of his old schools because he spent too much time playing Dungeons and…excuse me, Mazes and Monsters. He arrives at this new school determined to concentrate on his studies.

Unfortunately, he is not able to resist the lure of the game for long, and he soon links up with J.J. (Chris Makepeace from Meatballs and The Falcon and the Snowman), Kate (Wendy Crewson from AirForce One and The Santa Clause) and Daniel. (David Wallace from…er…General Hospital, I think. I’ll ask my wife.)

J.J. sees Robby reading the group’s recruiting poster on a bulletin board. Did I mention that J.J. is a 16 year old wonder kid? Apparently he’s a real eccentric genius, and to prove it he wears a number of wacky hats. He starts off wearing a WWI German battle helmet, and progresses to a worker’s hard hat, a WWI leather pilot’s helmet, and a fedora. He seems to forget this affectation about half-way through the film. Thank goodness.

Anyway, when he approaches Robby, J.J. is wearing the flying goggles, leather hat, and scarf. He soon determines that Robby is an M&M player, and not only that…he plays at the Seventh Level. We find out what that ominous phrase means later. Robby is leery of joining up…after all, he’s here to study. And does he really want to role-play with this jackass? Sensing Robby’s reluctance, J.J. invites him to meet the rest of the group at a party he’s hosting.

Robby does go to the party, which seems very attended when you consider J.J. is supposed to be an insecure loner, and so far as I can tell, the biggest loser on campus. Example – at this non-costume party, J.J. is wearing a costume. He’s dressed as Oscar Wilde. And he’s trying to make time with some older college girls. Either this kid has some serious issues, or he’s not the genius he’s said to be.

J.J. introduces Robby to the two other people in the group – Kate and Daniel. Kate is a pretty dark-haired writer. Daniel is a blond lummox who’d probably be happier on the cover of a romance novel or as ski instructor. We’re supposed to believe he writes video games. Did I mention their parents were stupid? Daniel’s dad spends all his time on-screen telling Daniel to stop wasting time with video games, because the REAL money is in accounting software.

What the clumsy approaches of J.J. could not achieve, true love brings about. Kate is intrigued by Robby, the moody and troubled stranger, and immediately identifies him as someone who…plays at the Seventh Level. I’ll tell you what that means in a bit. Robby falls for Kate, and is sucked back into the shadowy underground world of Mazes and Monsters.

This group of spoiled rich brats from dysfunctional homes are role-playing fanatics. While the movie is obviously pointing a finger at D&D, it’s not hard to see that the film-makers never actually sat in on a game. The group meets in a darkened room, lit by candles. They use weird, 2D cardboard miniatures that they’ve hand-painted. They place these miniatures on a flat paper maze and push them about as they advance. This seems a little pointless, since all the players can see the beginning and the end of the maze. Of course, I’ve played with some groups that did the same thing with lead miniatures and 3D models.

Daniel is the group’s usual game master, or "Maze Controller." They start each session with Daniel making the following invocation…

"I am the Maze Controller. I control your destiny…with these." Then he opens his hands to reveal a pair of ten-sided dice. Spooky stuff, eh? I tried to start a game session that way, but my friends threw things at me until I stopped.

The characters they play are pretty run of the mill for any fantasy gaming group. Robby plays "Pardu…a holy man" who worships a deity called "The Great Hall." Kate is a female warrior. J.J. plays a elf thief. Daniel, when he does play, is a generic paladin type. Everyone in the group plays at the Seventh Level, which turns out to mean that they’re qualified to design their own mazes, and act the part of Maze Controller on occasion. Whoopee.

Things proceed pretty normally for a while. Robby and Kate get closer, J.J. wears many stupid hats, and Daniel shows up occasionally to make profound remarks about relationships. All is well, but a storm is brewing under the surface.

As Kate and Robby grow closer, Robby reveals that his brother Hall ran away from home when he was a kid, and hasn’t been seen since. He feels guilty about it because he didn’t try to stop him. By the way, did you notice what god Robby’s holy man character worships? Yes, the Great Hall. Hmmm.

While this is happening, it seems J.J. is dealing with issues of his own. For some reason he wants to kill himself. He confides this to his pet bird, Merlin. Which is handy, because it lets the audience in on his little secret as well. J.J. is despondent because no one understands him. He’s right, you know. I didn’t. Maybe if he stopped dressing like Oscar Wilde at heterosexual singles parties…

J.J. decides to kill himself in a fashion so memorable and spectacular that people at the school will still be talking about it in 1985. He starts to formulate an attention-getting suicide plan so deviously cunning and elaborate you’d think it was designed by the Three Stooges.

That very night, at the regular session of M&M, tragedy strikes. The characters are in a particularly fiendish maze inhabited by undead. They’ve come to a chasm, across which an army of the no-longer dead monsters gibber and wail most horribly, beckoning our heroes to cross. The chasm itself is so deep the bottom is not clearly visible. Daniel, who is Maze Controller, describes it thus. "You see something glittering at the bottom. It could be gems, or it could be a trap!"

Now, I don’t know how they do things in this game, but it seems to me that any reasonably seasoned group of dungeoneers would be setting up some pretty heavy ranged weapons fire or ranged magic to unleash on the zombies. The zombies can’t reach you, so may as well "pound them from the shore" as my friend Dan always says. Blow the un-living snot out of them and worry about treasure and crossing the chasm later, right? Not in this group. J.J. announces that his thief "jumps into the chasm and grabs the gems."

The look of pained disbelief that crosses Daniel’s face is worth the price of the video. "There was no treasure! It was a trap! Your thief dies!" Shock, shock, horror, horror! Robby and Kate gasp, J.J. goes pale! His character is dead! "Robby, resurrect him," demands Kate. Robby desperately shuffles through a mountain of character sheets. "I...I...don’t have enough points, I can’t," he bleats.

Silence.

If this was a real group, the game master would be chortling merrily, and the other players would have been divvying up the thief’s gear before he hit bottom. But remember, this movie was made by non-gamers. The consternation the group experiences is meant to be indicative of their overly-strong attachment to their fictional alter-egos. It’s not that crazy, really. I have been present in game sessions where a guy was so upset over the death of his character in the old Marvel Superhero game he chased the game master into a sewing room with dire threats of bodily harm. I was that game master, by the way. I think the player, my good friend Bill, actually ran to the kitchen for a butcher knife as well. I’m not sure because I was too busy trying to climb out the window. Regardless, the other players were very amused by the demise of Bill’s character, and I was certainly pleased with myself, death threats or no.

With J.J.’s thief joining the ranks of the brain-eaters, the group decides that they need a fresh start. J.J., who is at least twice as clever as the thief he was running, tells them that he’s been experimenting with the idea of bringing the group to a new level. We’re talking live action, kiddies, a good 10 years before White Wolf started publishing books on the topic.

While we’re talking about live-action role-playing, my aforementioned buddy Bill used to play live action D&D in a park when he was in the 5th grade, round about 1984 or ’85.  They even used bean bags to represent missile attacks. But I digress.

J.J. suggests that the group play in a series of caves near the campus. He will be the Maze Controller for this experiment. The rest of the group is leery at first, but the silver-tongued (and whiny) J.J. soon convinces them to see things his way. He tells them it’ll be perfectly safe, since he spent the last week mapping the caves. Sinister laugh. With Halloween drawing near, they tool up in costumes appropriated from the school’s drama department and head off to the caves.

The caves are appropriately spooky and dungeon-like, but I really have to comment on the way they run the game. J.J. conceals himself in a cave with a map. Robby, Kate, and Daniel split up and blunder around the caves in costume. Every so often, J.J. hollers out "monster!" Er…excuse me. How can he see where they are? How do they know which one of them sees the monster? How do they determine whether or not the kill the creature, or get turned into meat snacks? How do they know when they’re "done?"

All this aside, Robby is getting pretty freaked out by the caves. When J.J. calls out monster, he panics, and envisions a scaly game world creature called a "Gorvil." He draws a knife and slashes out at the creature, slaying it. In doing so he screams out in terror. The others come running, and find a terrified Robby who reassures them that it was nothing, just a Gorvil that caught him by surprise. The group assumes Robby is in character, and later compliment him on his role-playing prowess.

This represents a bit of a twist in the film. All along, I assumed J.J. was hatching some fiendish plot to embroil everyone in a live-action game where reality and fiction start to merge, and somehow get himself killed in the process. But no, Tom Hanks goes loony and no other mention is made of J.J.’s suicide plan again in the movie.

Robby starts dressing like Pardu at odd times, and his dreams are troubled by visions of "The Great Hall," who appears to be a man in a cape at the end of a brightly lit sewer pipe. Hall tells Robby that as a holy man he should have used his spells to kill the Gorvil, and as penance he must become celibate. The next day, Robby tells Kate that they can’t…um…explore their private mazes together. She cries and breaks up with him, immediately fleeing to the waiting arms of Daniel the Aryan ski-instructor/programmer.

Robby’s dreams get weirder and weirder until one night the Great Hall tells him he must prove his faith at "The Two Towers." Robby gets up in the middle of the night and schleps his way to the Big Apple, which, coincidentally, is where his brother Hall ran away so long ago.

The next morning, the group discovers Robby is missing and immediately and correctly assume that he’s flipped out and moved to the Land of Make Believe. They worry that he may have ventured into the caves alone, and call the police. However, they worry about telling the police the whole story. They don’t want them to know they played in the caves, because they’re restricted to the students on the campus, you see. They don’t want to get expelled. What a touching display of friendship. So they tell the cops Robby went there with another group. Or alone, I can’t remember which. They anonymously give the police a copy of J.J.’s cave map.

Which brings us back to the opening scene, with the straight man from Bizarre giving a lurid report about the dangers of confusing reality and fiction while the cops poke around the cave in the background.

Okay, I don’t know where they got these policemen from, but for some reason they immediately assume Robby is dead. After all, he’s been in a cave for 24 hours. We know how deadly those stalactites are. The police feel they’ve been proved right when they can’t find a body. Probably eaten by the giant cave rats, or dragged off by kobolds.

As it turns out, Robby was never in the caves at all. He’s been wandering the streets of New York City in a daze…a place at least as legendary and dangerous as Waterdeep, I would think. No one stops to help this poor confused young man, assuming he’s just another street person. Robby is almost entirely in his Pardu role by now. He has an altercation with two crooks, who judging by their leather jackets and duck tails, were apparently fresh from the set of Grease 2. He sticks one with his holy knife after imaging him to be yet another Gorvil.  After this, he snaps back to reality long enough to call Kate and tell her where he is. In the middle of the conversation he drifts back to La-La Land and heads off for the dungeon that is the New York City subway system. Look for a cameo by that guy with the red-beard playing a drunk. He’s been in about 80 Canadian and British movies since the late 50s’…but I can never remember his name.

Kate waits until morning to tell everyone about Robby, for some reason, and they all bust into his room to go through his stuff. Which the cops have not done yet, even though they think he’s dead. Among the detritus, they find an elaborate maze with all sorts of enigmatic sayings on it, like "The Great Hall," and "Go to the Two Towers." The group puzzles over this for a while. Hmmm. He’s looking for two towers. Two towers. In New York City. Where in New York City can you find two towers? I wonder if there is such a thing.

Yeah, okay, so they finally realize they need to go to the World Trade Center. They pack into Kate’s VW Rabbit and go zooming off for the Bright Lights. They arrive just in time. Robby has finally found the "Two Towers" and is getting ready to jump off the top as a sign of his faith in the Great Hall. His friends convince him that this would not be a good thing to do, and Robby breaks down.

Roll ahead another few months. The school year is over, and the gang is on their way to visit Robby at his parent’s home in the country. He’s been in the nut-house for a while, but apparently he’s feeling much better. As they drive they talk about what’s been happening over the last year. Kate finally sold a book, based on the wacky misadventures of Robby. J.J. realized that he wanted to kill himself because his mom kept redecorating his room when he was out. Something like that, anyway. Daniel decided to go along with his dad’s wishes and stop wasting time on the fledgling video-game industry. Moron.

They arrive at Robby’s house and find him in the backyard, regarding the woods nearby. He turns to them, and it becomes clear that he still thinks he’s Pardu. He refers to his parents as friendly innkeepers, and suggests that they join forces to clear the monsters out of the forest. Rather than smacking him around and telling him to smarten up, or force feeding him psychiatric drugs they play along until sunset, then drive home. Melancholy music plays. Kate observes that…

"We played until sundown. Pardu saw the monsters. We did not."

Roll credits. End of summary.

I’m not going to pretend that this was a good movie. I’m not going to defend its inaccuracies. It was a preachy TV movie from the early 80s, a period when prime-time TV had hit its lowest ebb. Compared to yet another "very special" episode of Diff’rent Strokes (I like the one where Mr. Carlson from WKRP tries to touch Arnold in his special area) this was good…but then, so is Ishtar.  It’s about as good as those after-school specials where the popular girl tried marijuana, or some kid learned responsibility when his dog got run over.

In fact, I can’t effectively tell you why I like Mazes and Monsters. Perhaps it’s the feeling of fake 20-something nostalgia is evokes. And I must admit that Tom Hanks turns in an able performance, as does Wendy Crewson. You can almost see a spark of what led to Hank’s later dramatic successes. Even Chris Makepeace’s character isn’t all that far out. I have met people who’d commit suicide because their mom had bad decorating taste.

It’s the little details that make this film, that draw me in and make me feel some perverted sense of kinship with the characters.  The Blade Runner posters that J.J. has up on his wall. The J.R.R. Tolkien books they have on their shelves. The good natured sense of geek brotherhood that even these attractive and intelligent people are able to pull off. The fact that I’d probably be quite happy playing M&M. I imagine I, too, would be…playing at the Seventh Level. I once considered trying to write out the rules as they’re seen in the movie. Heh. Maybe someday I’ll market it.

Whether you, like me, find guilty pleasure in watching this movie, or find yourself, like Gline, wanting to burn the tape, I guarantee that this is a movie that no role-player should go without seeing.

For that reason alone, I hereby award it 6 out of 10.

Pieter van Hiel is currently lost in the steam tunnels under Jackson Square in Hamilton, Ontario.