13 July 2015

RPG's at the movies III: Mazes and Monsters- the Tom Hanks Classic

The 1980s were an amazing time to be a role player. The whole hobby was new, and when a new game came out it was like manna from heaven. It was also an amazing time to be a religious nut with a whole new moral panic to unleash on your followers. I watched some of the programs on our local religious station, as shows like The Eagles Nest devoted whole shows to the dangers D&D held for kid's souls. It also fill our newspapers, with this being typical:

Click to read- and be amazed at the stupidity.

There was even some former witchcraft devotee turned born again Christian named William Schnoebelen who claimed that during his dark times he was paid by TSR to make sure the rituals contained in the rules were realistic. He also went from show to show claiming that D&D was "a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft."

Jack Chick, famous for his cartoon books that people hand out to others to teach them about God and being saved, made a tract called Dark Dungeons which showed a D&D like game being used to indoctrinate young people into the occult. When one of the characters died in game, the player is ostracized an commits suicide, while her friend continues to play and in then shown how to cast real magic.
This never happened to me. Sadly.
Interestingly, this strip has been made into a pretty good (and funny) short film with permission of Crazy Jack Chick himself.

Yes, the moral panic was in high gear, and it accomplished what all moral panics do: it made more people aware of D&D and sales of the games multiplied.

This was just one in a ling line of moral panics about the latest abomination that is ruining our kids which has included comic books, rock and roll music (and Elvis Presley's hips), long hair, video games, TV shows, and so on. The list can go on forever. Basically, one of these nutto's kids is into something that did not exist when they were young is must be bad because they don't understand it.

Click to read.
One of the big panics at the time was caused by an actual tragedy that was exploited by the moral police. A student at Michigan State, James Dallas Egbert III, disappeared from the campus in 1979. He was known for wandering the steam tunnels of the school. A private eye named William Dear discovered Egbert played D&D, and when Dear discovered this  (plus the steam tunnels) and, it being something Dear did not understand, led the private "dick" to tell every news outlet that he felt the game was the cause for Egbert's disappearance, and that he may have been playing a live version of the game in the tunnels and something went wrong. 

It did not take long for the moral police to pick it up and spread the danger to their flock: Dungeons and Dragons caused a kid to disappear.  Well, it turned out that Egbert did run away, but D&D was not the cause. He was a sixteen year old in a university with kids two or more years his senior and had trouble making friends. His parents were overbearing, and he was depressed (probably clinically) and lonely. Not only did he play D&D, he was also using drugs. The night he disappeared he tried to commit suicide, then ran away to New Orleans where he tried again. He ended up calling Dear to bring him back home, but finally managed to end his own life the next year.

Of course, the problem with the moral panic here was that the moral police get cause and effect backwards. Playing a game does not make you depressed and suicidal because the person gets lost in it like an addiction. The game becomes the addiction because the mentally disturbed person want to lose himself in it to escape his life. The same with the drugs Egbert took. People have escaped into such diversions before and will again. Many depressed people have turned to the bible and religion to lose themselves in, though none of the moral police admit that, in fact they encourage it.

The media loves a controversy though, and the disproved D&D connection was a common topic on religious and mainstream media. Rona Jaffe was a popular author back then mainly noted for having books with strong working women during a time when women were fighting for liberation. When she read the stories about the Egbert disappearance she wrote a fiction book based loosely on the story called Mazes and Monsters. It even incorporated four college students and players of Dungeons and Dragons Mazes and Monsters having live action versions of the game in steam tunnels. It was published in 1981, and capitalizing on the panic, CBS bought it and made a movie of the week based on it.


Who is that young lad?
The film is the story of four young college students. It starred a popular actor at the time, Chris Makepeace, who was well known from his role in Bill Murray's Meatballs and the excellent film My Bodyguard (with Firefly's Adam Baldwin, Matt Dillion and Jennifer Beals). You might not remember him because by the late 80s he had pretty much disappeared. However, another young actor in his second big role (after a part in a b-grade slasher movie) named Tom Hanks. He has had one or two films since then. Maybe you have heard of him?

Robbie (Tom Hanks) was kicked out of a high school for becoming to obsessed with the Mazes and Monsters game and he gave it up. At college he becomes friends with Kate, JayJay (Makepeace) and Daniel. They all have personal problems (but hey, don't we all?). JayJay has the overbearing mother and is the youngest of the group because he was pushed so hard by her to get to college young. Kate has had a series of failed relationships. Daniel's parents rejected his plan to become a video game designer. And Robbie (Hanks) has slightly worse problems. His mother is an alcoholic, he fights with his father, and his brother Hall disappeared. 

So the gang convinces Robbie to join the game. The sessions become intense and they devoted too much time to it (whatever they were playing because was obvious no one on the production had played D&D. It was more of a board game in this film. It looked like a crappy game and a laugh to anyone who had played real RPGs before. Then again, this film was not aimed at actual role players but instead to scare the common folk). 

So Kate and Robbie become a thing. Seeing them all touchy feely,  JayJay feels realizes his budding sexuality is not budding enough and driven by loneliness and blue balls, decides to commit suicide in the steam tunnels but ends up not doing it when he realizes how cool it would be to play a live version of the game in them (in a way the game saved his life! The game is a hero!). 

Forrest Gump, aka Pardieu, in the steam tunnels.
When they play in the tunnels they are thrilled, but then found it too real and scary after a plastic medical school skeleton with a flashlight taped in its mouth drops in front of them. Everyone make a sanity roll! Well, Robbie misses his and hallucinates he is fighting a "gorvil." At this point Robbie ceases to exist and he instead becomes his character, a cleric called Pardieu. He breaks up with Kate because of his character's celibacy. Then, in a dream, Robbie's brother, now called the Grand Hall, comes to him and tells Robbie to go to the Two Towers.

Later Robbie disappears and the gang needs to save him as they realize he is completely flipped out. They track Robbie to New York where he lives in an all woman apartment building by dressing as a woman travels to the Two Towers (the World Trade Center, aka Twin Towers) where he will cast a spell, jump off the building and join his brother Hall in eternity. The gang shows up and stops him. 

Fighting the Gorvil
It has an epilogue where the gang visit Robbie at his parents house. He is undergoing counseling but it has been little help as they discover he is not Robbie, but still Pardieu. They join him on a last imaginary quest together.


This film is not as anti-gaming as some think (the book is far worse in this regard). I watched it recently and found that the game was not the big villain and cause of the problems; the characters were all troubled and lose themselves in fantasy as an escape. It does make a point that in order to grow up games such as Mazes and Monsters need to be rejected, like how Susan Pevensie could no longer go to Narnia when she matured. Of course this is bull; I am in my 40s and like many of my peers love to play games. It is a hobby, like golf, but no one ever tells a golfer to grow up. Another negative light is that all the players have emotional problems, and "normal" people are never shown playing, implying you need to be a little off kilter to play. 


It is a typical movie of the week from the 80s: not good. The acting is fine, though pace of directing is slow, and the writing shows a complete misunderstanding of the role playing community. As a gamer you will see the humor in the film, so you might as well see it once. Actually, do not waste your time. Watch the far superior My Bodyguard instead.

Interestingly, Tom Hanks remembers the film well and talked about it on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me radio show. In fact the host, Peter Segal, introduced Tom Hanks as the star of Mazes and Monsters and other films! What a hoot.

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