Sorry for the lack of updates. I was sick for a week or so… Will be back with more Zeitgeist and Swords and Sorcery cinema very shortly.
Archive for March, 2012
Welcome back, traveler, to the Pit of Swords and Sorcery, wherein we analyze, dissect and deconstruct the finest, the grandest, the most popular fantasy cinema.
No, that’s a lie. Mostly it’s just me and I make fun of bad barbarian movies. I had some trepidation about today’s entry, since it really isn’t a fantasy movie, at least not in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, it spins a tale of adventures that could never happen in reality, and that exist only in the fevered mind of its creator. I’m talking of course, about that classic nugget of made-for-TV excrement, Rona Jaffee’s Mazes and Monsters.
While it’s true that it bears no resemblance to a true “Swords and Sorcery” movie, the crawling abomination that was Rona Jaffee’s Mazes and Monsters made an impression on the national psyche some 30 years ago, an impression revealed as bullshit only recently. In the original incarnation of the Pit of Swords and Sorcery, I wanted to do a review of the movie, but only had access to a VHS copy, so I couldn’t pull photos and add “hilarious” captions like I do on my other movies.
So a few weeks ago I finally bit the bullet and ordered the DVD of the movie. It’s a pretty remarkable package, with a cover that shows a very adult Tom Hanks superimposed over an ominous maze with dragons flying in the sky overhead, and the grim warning that Danger lurks between fantasy and reality. It looks freakin’ awesome, and if it had any connection whatsoever to the movie inside it might have been worth watching. Unfortunately the moment you plug the movie into your player, looking forward to a dark world of labyrinths and dragons, you’re going to be deeply disappointed and probably scarred for life.
This is one of those cheapo DVDs, too… You know the kind that think “Interactive Menus” and “English 2.0 (Dolby)” count as “Special Features”? And the quality of the print is awful – dark and muddy, obviously several generations removed from the original master. It’s not surprising, as I’m probably the only person in the country with the slightest interest in watching this horror. By now it’s been largely forgotten by everyone else, widely ridiculed and an embarrassment to all involved parties, especially its future Oscar-winning star.
First the title informs us that this film is not just Mazes and Monsters but it is indeed RONA JAFFEE’s Mazes and Monsters, possibly to distinguish it from all those OTHER Mazes and Monsters such as Mitt Romney’s Mazes and Monsters (also known as Mitt Romney’s Liches and Liberals) or Courtney Love’s Mazes and Monsters (aka Courtney Love’s Cocaine and Chimeras), and I’m grateful because personally I get them confused constantly.
We open on a scene of urgency and mayhem, with ambulances and police cruisers going this way and that, lights flashing, helmeted firemen hurrying about, and so on. A reporter in a trench coat quizzes Lt. Martini, a tough no-nonsense cop played by veteran character actor Murray Hamilton, best known as the mayor who refused to close the beaches in Jaws.
The lieutenant explains that “a game of Mazes and Monsters got a little out of hand at the university,” leading to the present crisis. The reporter, ever ready to satisfy the public’s need to know, then sets up with his cameras and begins his hard-hitting on-the-scene report.
“This is Bud Hayden at Peaquod Caverns, reporting on the apparent disappearance of a Grant University student, the victim of a seemingly-innocent game, ‘Mazes and Monsters.’ Now ‘Mazes and Monsters’ is a fantasy roleplaying game in which the players create an imaginary character. These characters are then plunged into an invented fantasy world of invented terrors. The point of the game is to amass a fortune without being killed. It’s kind of a ‘psycho-drama’ you might say, where these people deal with problems in their lives by acting them out. But in this case there might be a loss of distinction between reality and fantasy and possibly the loss of life in the process.”
Whoa! This sounds serious. While watching I was surprised that Bud Hayden wasn’t making air quotes every few words, when he said things like “roleplaying” and “psycho-drama.” But to his credit, he retains his journalistic neutrality, calmly and factually telling viewers what a horrific threat “Mazes and Monsters” presents to them, their children and everything they hold dear. I have heard that that after the sensation caused by his “Mazes and Monsters” report, Bud Hayden was offered his own show on Fox News.
Now we flash back to six months previously, and follow a yellow taxi driving through New York, while our sappy, kind of Dione Warwick-y theme song plays:
Whatever may happen
Where the road may bend
We are all special friends
Whenever our lives may take us away
Our memories will stay
Remember the good times
Please remember me
Whatever may happen
You know that I’ll always be
A friend you can turn to
When hard winds blow
And then you’ll know
That now and forever
We’re friends in this wooooooorld
Presumably this means that we are NOT friends in Mazes and Monsters’ invented world of terrors, but we’ll get to that later. For now we introduce our first little M&M enthusiast, Jay Jay Brockway (not J.J., mind you — we don’t want anyone thinking that they’re watching The Jeffersons), played by Chris Makepeace, still basking in the notoriety from his appearance in 1980’s My Bodyguard.
Jay Jay is a sensitive lad who shows his creativity by playing Mazes and Monsters and wearing funny hats. And boy are his hats hilarious. As he clambers out of the cab for a fateful meeting with his domineering, controlling mother, he is wearing a German pickelhaube, that spikey thing that you see in World War I movies. It is just the first of Jay Jay’s many fashion errors.
Mom greets son with all the enthusiasm appropriate for a Park Avenue denizen who has no time for her kid — she tells him that she’s late for a party. She then hurriedly ushers Jay Jay upstairs to see his birthday present.
And what a present it is. Apparently mom is a famous interior decorator, for she has completely redone Jay Jay’s room in pure white, with a black grid pattern all over everything. She must have read about how to design Mazes and Monsters dungeons and wanted to make his room look like an enormous pad of graph paper.
Jay Jay is suitably underwhelmed, protesting that his room is his sanctuary, his “nest” and that every time she redecorates she is destroying his soul and everything that makes him human. Besides, his pet Mynah bird Merlin hates it too.
Mind you, the seriousness of the discussion is undercut somewhat by the fact that the kid is wearing a stupid-looking helmet, and mom doesn’t quite see what he’s talking about anyway. She toddles off to her swanky party, leaving Jay Jay with only Merlin to gripe at.
Next we pop over to the opposite coast where our heroine Kate Finch is at the San Francisco waterfront, also complaining to her mother. She doesn’t like her stepmom, the guys at college are all “such chauvinists”, she has to pretend to be stupid to get along, she’s got writer’s block “because I haven’t really lived yet” and so on, and so on.
Having introduced our two first characters as a couple of ineffectual whiners, we hold out some hope for the third leg of the Mazes and Monsters stool, handsome Daniel, who is having dinner with his overbearing and controlling parents (are you sensing a pattern here?) on the family estate in Massachusetts. The world is going to hell, his mother says, and no one is going to save it. Don’t worry, dad replies. Daniel will.
Daniel, a fluff-headed blonde, only stares sullenly at his plate and says “I dunno. I guess.”
Mother persists, urging him to give up that crappy little college he’s at and go to a real he-man school like MIT. Dad pipes in that Daniel has a “special gift for computers” and should be in the forefront of the coming new world order.
“Yes, but what I really love is to make up games for computers,” Daniel says.
Dad is quick to put a stop to that kind of nonsense. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “You can do that as a hobby!”
“Who’s going to make up the games in the world?” Daniel demands, both pathetic and petulant at the same time.
“Other people!” Dad replies, as if it’s the most logical answer in the world, since of course no one successful has ever designed computer games. “You’ve got more important work!”
Mom piles on as Daniel’s lips tremble. “This is a very competitive world and you’re going to have to live in it! Now! Not later but now. Later you’re not going to be able to find a job! Later they’re going to want the computer expert from MIT. Not a game-player from that GRANT UNIVERSITY!”
Unfortunately Daniel is unmoved by his parents’ very logical and reasonable assertion that he’ll never get a job or make any money designing those stupid, frivolous computer games, and persists with his dream of becoming a coder for Blizzard or Bungee or Microsoft or something else stupid and pointless. After all, the point of this movie appears to be that gaming is childish and destructive, and what could be more childish and destructive than games for computers? It’s the first time that this movie shoves its head up its ass, but it won’t be the last.
Now having established what a bunch of losers our characters are we move on to the fictional Grant University, where the students are arriving for fall semester, delighted to be free of their parents. Kate is here, as are Jay Jay (wearing a white Stetson, one of his few hats that approaches normalcy) and Daniel (though he’s not actually there and Jay Jay notes that he’s probably locked up “in some room with his latest woman of the week” — as it’s the first day of the semester, Daniel must be a pretty smooth operator, despite all appearances to the contrary). There are stormclouds on the horizon however, as Kate asks Daniel if he’s found a “fourth player.”
Apparently you can’t play Mazes and Monsters with only three people, so the most important thing to our little group is not their return to an institution of higher learning, but the finding of the vital “fourth player” — and not, as Jay Jay asserts, one who will “flunk out or freak out” like that one from last year (this apparently happens with some regularity). Already we’re seeing how devastating games like Mazes and Monsters can be on the delicate psyche of sensitive college students.
While Jay Jay and Kate rush off to post their flyer for new players we see a silver Mercedes approaching, bearing our last participant inevitably to his destiny.
“Robbie, you’re starting new at Grant,” intones the overbearing, controlling father as the brooding, resentful alcoholic mother sits in the passenger seat like a block of ice. “And that means no more games. You know what it did to your marks at Tufts. This time you’re going to concentrate on your schoolwork, do you hear?”
The camera cuts to the bored, slightly vacant face of our last victim… I mean character… Robbie Wheeling, played by none other than the great Tom Hanks, a mere 26 years old and fresh off his triumphal appearance in the classic cross-dressing comedy Bosom Buddies. And by classic, I mean “dumb as a box of rocks,” but we won’t go into that here.
If you think the other characters are a mite, well, oversensitive, you haven’t seen anything yet.
“If I see another ‘D’,” his loveable and ever-so-cuddly father continues, “you don’t see another check.”
“Oh, Hal, leave him alone!” barks his mother sloppily.
“And you’ve had too much to drink,” snarls Hal.
Mom and dad then turn to bickering and sniping like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf while Robbie sulks in the back seat. If this is what he has to put up with on a daily basis, it’s not surprising that he’s the type who likes to retreat into fantasy.
The Mercedes pulls up to Grant University and Robbie finally makes his escape, but not before dad apologizes for “sounding cold” (now THERE is an understatement… That bastard was so cold you could store sides of beef in him) and Robbie promises his mother that he won’t play “that awful game” anymore.
Despite the happy music that’s played through the scene, it’s still laden with portent and heavy with doom. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
We now return to Jay Jay, sitting in the cafeteria wearing a leather flying helmet and goggles, hovering like a vulture over the bulletin board where his solicitation for that vital “fourth player” hangs like the Sword of Damocles. No one seems to be paying any attention. He looks disappointed and returns to his chile and beans.
In horrifying (and entirely predictable) twist of fate however, Robbie just happens to walk past the bulletin board and spies the fateful missive. “WANTED” it says. “A Mazes and Monsters enthusiast who can play at the ninth level and promises neither to flunk out or fink out!”
Yes, I believe it says “Fink out,” though my copy of the movie is so crappy it’s hard to tell. Anyway Jay Jay catches sight of Robbie reading the note and leaps into action, sweeping down on poor Robbie like a duck on a junebug. He immediately launches into his life story, telling Robbie that he once had a red convertible that his father (whom he calls “the boy wonder”) bought him, but he sold it and bought a motorcycle and his Mynah bird. By the way, he asks, all innocent concern, do you play Mazes and Monsters?
Too his credit, Robbie manages to escape Jay Jay’s clutches, but makes the mistake of accepting Robbie’s invitation to a party in his dorm room.
The very next scene proves conclusively that Mazes and Monsters is a movie of complete and utter fantasy, the fever dream of a diseased mind, and an unbelievable sham, since Robbie shows up at Jay Jay’s room and finds it packed with guests, including attractive girls. In reality of course, Robbie would be lucky to get two guys from the local comic book convention, but in this universe, dorks like Jay Jay (dressed in a tuxedo and yellow hard hat) are unbelievably popular.
Robbie catches sight of Kate and is instantly smitten. As they small talk Robbie opens a bottle of wine (which Jay Jay identifies as being of 1987 vintage, which makes no sense given the movie’s release date… I have no idea what THAT’s all about).
Poor Robbie invites his own destruction when he admits to Kate that he bombed out at Tufts by playing “a game called Mazes and Monsters” a little too much. This of course rivets Kate’s attention and she immediately demands “What level?”
Modestly, Robbie admits that he played at “ninth level,” and Kate is again bowled over. Why that’s just the level SHE plays at!
“Isn’t it wonderful to be finally creating your own scenarios?” she demands happily, while Robbie just nods and starts looking for a way out of the room.
“We have been looking DESPERATELY for a fourth player,” Kate says. “This is wonderful! Hey, Daniel!”
Robbie’s fate is sealed as Daniel closes in for the kill.
Perhaps Kate sees the terror reflected in Robbie’s eyes, for she hastens to tell him that “We’re not fanatics,” and Daniel assures Robbie that they “only” play a couple of times a week. After all, Robbie IS Level Nine, and we all know what THAT means. Or do we? Is his character ninth level, or is he? There’s some confusion here, but the movie never really bothers to resolve it, because it was made for worried parents who are afraid their kid is worshipping Satan every time he plays D&D, and not for the rest of us. Distinctions about the rules are really not part of this movie at all.
Like a bloody swimmer far from land and surrounded by hungry sharks Robbie tries gamely to save himself, but when Jay Jay arrives to close the deal we know that Robbie’s soul is lost and his feet are firmly set on the road to perdition.
“Please, Robbie, just try one campaign with us,” Kate asks. “And if it’s too much, you can always quit.”
Of course you can quit aaaaaanytime you want to, Robbie. Heh, heh, heh.
(And what’s this “one campaign” business? Does she mean one session? Or a whole campaign? That seems like a lot to ask, but hey, what do I know? I don’t play at the ninth level.)
Seduced by Kate’s raw sexual energy, Robbie has no choice but to succumb. It looks like he is now at last…
There follows what must rank as one of the silliest scenes in made-for-TV movie history, as our group (now at its optimal size of four, thanks to Robbie) sits in a cramped, candle-lit room to play the eerie, mysterious and possibly deadly game, Mazes and Monsters.
Clearly this scene was created by someone who has an intimate knowledge of roleplaying and its various trappings, as its accuracy is breathtaking down to the last detail. The players (all four of them) sit around a table in a room lit entirely by candlelight with nary a bag of chips or a can of Mountain Dew in sight. They all look deeply somber and serious about the whole thing as Daniel intones the following:
“I am the maze controller. The god of this universe I have created. The absolute authority. Only I know the perilous course that you are about to take. Your fate,” and here he holds out his hands, revealing two 12-sided dice, “is in my hands.”
Well personally I am delighted to see that someone has finally created a game system that utilizes the lowly 12-sided die, giving it something to do other than generate barbarian hit points. However I do dispute the need for so gods-damned many candles, since pretty much everything about this game, including the miniatures, is made of paper.
Each of the players now introduces their character with a little speech while placing their two-dimensional, painted paper figure on the board. You can tell this is a low-budget movie. Hell, even future superstar Tom Hanks probably worked for free milk and cookies. And given the budget, they of course couldn’t possibly have sprung for a few real three-dimensional miniatures. No, we’re stuck with paper figures which are about as flat as the entire movie itself.
Kate’s character is Glacia the fighter, with “great strength and courage, strong armor, many weapons” and of course “the mighty talking sword of Lothia.” Jay Jay’s choice of character is enlightening — “Freelik the frenetic of Glosamir, the cleverest of all sprites; not so strong, with enough tricks and powers to take me far and keep me safe.” Finally, the vital fourth player, the doomed Robbie, declares in the same dulcet tones that would later tell us that life was a box of chocolates, that he is “Pardieu, a holy man. In reaching the ninth level I have acquired many magic spells and charms, the greatest of which is the graven Eye of Timur, but I also have a sword, which I only use should my magic fail me.” Remember this, it’s going to be important later on.
Role players in the audience should by this time saying, “Wow! That’s just like my campaign at home! Rona Jaffe must be reading my mind!” Either that, or they’re already unconscious from pounding their head into a coffee table while screaming, “YOU STUPID WOMAN! YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW ACTUAL ROLEPLAYING GAMES WORK, DO YOU? YOU JUST MADE ALL THIS SHIT UP!”
So with all the preliminaries out of the way (including brief flashes of hand-written character sheets with all sorts of cryptic and in my copy of the movie, unreadable notes scrawled all over them), we move on to Daniel’s introductory flavor text which he reads while an eerie panflute plays in the background.
“There is a wasteland of gnarled hills covered with withered trees and dry grass. Beneath these hills is the entrance to the Forbidden Mazes of the Jidur. It is rumored that within these mazes lives (sic) mutated people. Once human, they are now unspeakably vicious. It is also known that there are wondrous treasures within these mazes for those brave and clever enough to find them.” Dramatic pause. “Thus warned, shall ye enter??”
And, just like your D&D group, the other players reply, enthusiastically and in unison: “Aye!”
Daniel says, “Then let the journey begin,” and that’s about it. We don’t actually see anyone playing the fucking game, nor do we witness anything else that’s familiar to experienced roleplayers, such as Jay Jay rules lawyering or Daniel berating Robbie for min-maxing his character, or the players arguing for a half hour over an ambiguously-worded rule.
No, none of that crap for this ultra-realistic, torn-from-the-headlines drama. We dissolve to a montage that make it damned obvious that Kate and Robbie are falling for each other like a ton of 20-siders. They study together, walk in the rain and jog around the commons while the title song plays again, this time sung by a male-female duet.
Enjoy yourself, Kate. The evil, corrupting power of the roleplaying game that you’re forcing Robbie to play will soon destroy your happiness, as it destroys all those who dare enter its dark and eerie realm.
And speaking of dark and eerie, the montage also includes more pictures of the happy kids playing M&M, with Kate and Robbie exchanging meaningful glances across the table while Daniel and Jay Jay play on obliviously.
The saccharine title song finally grinds to an end and we’re in Robbie’s dorm room, where he’s confessing to Kate that his older brother, Hall (seriously? Hall??) ran away from home three years ago in the middle of a Halloween party thrown by his bitter, alcoholic mother. Hall apparently borrowed all of Robbie’s money and told him he was going to New York, but we all know how that sort of thing works out. He probably ran afoul of a vicious band of orcs or kobolds and ended up a pleasure slave or something. Needless to say, Robbie blames himself for the loss, and tells Kate that he dreams about Hall all the time.
Sure enough that night Robbie has a dream in which he is running desperately, calling out for Hall to stop, please stop! (Remember the reporter claiming M&M was a “psychodrama” in which players “deal with problems in their lives by acting them out”? Well, guess where this is going…)
We then return to the insufferable Jay Jay, who is busily painting one of those godawful paper miniatures with the aid of a magnifying glass while wearing a Frank Sinatra type porkpie hat. He tells Daniel that what he really wants to do is be an actor or a comedian — he isn’t the type to be a leading man. Unfortunately the subsequent downward spiral of Chris Makepeace’s cinematic career pretty much confirmed this assertion.
Daniel, working with little enthusiasm on his own godawful paper miniature, complains that his social life sucks.
“No, really!” he exclaims. “Everybody kids me about being the great makeout champion or something. Do you know what that does for any girl who’s sensitive or caring? She’s decided I’m bad news before I have a chance to prove I’m not. So I spend my time with strangers, one after the other.”
So the poor handsome blonde guy can’t get a “sensitive or caring” girlfriend and has to content himself with bimbos, sluts who want nothing from him but wild, meaningless sex? For once I sympathize with Jay Jay who tells him, “Oh, poor Daniel” and probably thinks “Hey, you could at least steer some of those freaks my way once you’re done with them.”
Again, the secret fantasy subtext of this movie is revealed, for it exists in a mythical realm where a guy like Daniel plays Mazes and Monsters AND scores with hot chicks. And who the hell says stuff like “makeout champion” anyway? Yeah, I know this was made in the 80s, but come on. This was the era of Motley Crue and cocaine-fuelled glitter rock excess and he says stuff like “makeout champion?” No wonder Kate picks the crazy one over him.
Jay Jay asks if they’re playing M&M tonight, and Daniel tells him no, that he has to study for a physics exam, prompting a whiney “But we haven’t played for three days.”
Now look — when I was a whiney, gawky teenaged kid with ugly glasses and a nose too big for my face, I didn’t have a girlfriend (and unlike Daniel the Love God, I didn’t go through legions of panting trashy co-eds either) and my only social activity was playing D&D with other, equally-nerdy guys. We were typical 1980s D&D players, and even we only played once a week. Jay Jay implies that a gap of three whole days in their busy M&M schedule is just way too much. Give me a break, movie.
Desperate for his fix of the evil game that is draining his very soul, Jay Jay goes over to Kate’s room to ask if they’re playing tomorrow, and is surprised when Robbie comes to the door. Nope, Robbie says, we can’t play tomorrow, since we’re working on a normal relationship and are evolving beyond the need for your stupid game, and are working out our problems in the real world, like normal people!
No, he doesn’t say that, but the movie certainly implies it as Robbie reluctantly agrees to play on the impossibly distant date of Wednesday night. Jay Jay sadly nods and slinks back to go whine about the unfairness of life to his mynah bird.
Kate tells Robbie that Jay Jay is lonely. “Can you imagine what it must be like to be 16 and a sophomore?”
A quick aside here — when I was 15 my parents pretty much browbeat me into taking my GED and quitting high school so I could go to community college, so I actually was a sophomore at 16. I felt a bit isolated, true, but I was free of the horrors of high school — the jocks, the bullies, the incompetent teachers, the cruel girls and obnoxious seniors, and frankly it was worth a little loneliness. Interestingly enough that’s also about when I discovered D&D and, unlike Jay Jay and his stupid bird I never contemplated committing suicide.
And yes, that’s what he’s doing. No Grant U student has ever committed suicide, he says, and he wants to be remembered. But how? What can he do that’s spectacular and bizarre enough that people will remember that he, Jay Jay Brockway, offed himself.
“I know!” he declares. “The caverns! The mysterious, forbidden Peaquod Caverns! ‘Boy Genius Suicides in Caverns!’ They’d talk about it forever! I’d be immortal!”
So as you can see, the movie’s crazy meter is beginning to climb. And you thought Robbie would be the first to crack. Silly people…
And so, clad in a WWI flying ace outfit, Jay Jay heads off for the caverns, intending to end his life because his friends delayed his Mazes and Monsters game until Wednesday. Yeah, he’s 16 all right. Mind you, he could have been one of those 16 year olds that thought the best way to end his life was to take as many fellow students with him and perish in a hail of police bullets, so his intention to commit suicide alone and isolated in a cold, comfortless cavern probably saved many lives.
While Jay Jay is off carrying out a master plan that only a teenaged emo kid could have conceived, Robbie “surprises” Kate with a double bed, right there in his tiny dorm room. It’s awesome, he tells her. Now they can live together!
Kate responds with a quick bucket of ice water on Robbie’s loins, telling him that it’s too soon. He’s the best thing that ever happened to her, she loves him, etc., etc., but living together will simply cramp her style. Robbie looks disappointed, but accepts it manfully. Or at least as manfully as Robbie can manage, which frankly isn’t much.
Okay, that’s out of the way, now we return to Jay Jay exploring the mysterious and highly fake-looking interior of the infamous Peaquod Caverns. His flickering torch illuminates a set that looks more like a set from original Star Trek than anything else, and as Robbie gazes about him, a plan begins to stir in the depths of his adolescence-clogged brain.
In the next scene we’re back at the gaming table. Daniel tells the group that they see a pit with the faint glimmer of gems at the bottom. It could be the legendary treasure of the Jidur, but he says, “it could also be a trap.”
Well, thanks for spoiling the surprise, Mister Maze Master! Now all Robbie has to do is check for traps and see if…
No wait. This is Mazes and Monsters, the made-up rpg that was created by people without a clue about how actual games are played. Robbie, wearing what appears to be a pith helmet (I can’t tell for sure… the picture is too damned dark), declares that Freelik has jumped into the pit to gather the treasure. How much does Freelik get, he asks?
I’ll tell you how much you get, kid. You get somewhere between jack and shit, since Daniel stares at him in disbelief and says with a stunned tone, “It’s a trap. The pit is filled with sharp, gem-encrusted spikes. Freelik the Frenetic of Glosamir is impaled, and dies.”
Horrified by this turn of events, Kate demands that Pardeux raise the dead, but Robbie declares that he doesn’t have enough points. Damn! Not enough points! I guess we’ll have to pack up Freelik’s still-warm corpse, carry him back to town and have the local cleric do it, in exchange for a quest or a huge pile of loot, just like we always…
Oh, crap. I keep forgetting.
Kate is upset. She berates Jay Jay for “jumping into the pit without using your sonar first.” So Mazes and Monsters sprites can be used to detect enemy submarines too? They’re pretty goddamned versatile if you ask me. WotC should consider adding sonar as a racial ability in D&D 5th edition.
Daniel tries to cheer up poor Robbie, telling him he can start a new character, which Kate shoots down immediately saying it will take forever for him to “gather enough power.”
So I guess the idea of starting a NEW ninth-level character never occurs to any of them. But then again, the movie still never makes it clear whether the CHARACTERS are ninth level or the PLAYERS, and I really don’t know how their experience mechanic works, so I won’t gripe about it any further.
In one of the few moments of real realism in this farcical production, Robbie gets pissed, accusing Daniel of killing Freelik even though the character perished due to his own idiotic decisions. So Freelik is dead. What are they going to do now?
It’s the moment that Jay Jay has been waiting for. “I propose a new game,” he says. “A kind of evolution of Mazes and Monsters. But we’d be playing at a much more sophisticated level.”
Daniel, seeing the young punk trying to hijack his campaign, complains, but Jay Jay persists.
“In all modesty,” he says, “it’s the most intriguing concept of the game that I’ve ever heard of. Something that no one else has tried. I propose we play Mazes and Monsters in a real setting. Peaquod Caverns.”
When Kate tries to be the voice of reason, suggesting that the caves might be, like, dangerous or something, Jay Jay ripostes, saying that he’s been all around them and they’re totally safe.
“Naturally, I’ll be the maze master,” he continues, and Daniel’s handsome face falls with disappointment. “It’s a new frontier. It won’t be a fantasy. It really will be Mazes and Monsters!”
The others agree — Daniel reluctantly — and the little group sets its feet firmly on the razor-sharp d4-strewn path to disaster, which comes on with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
So let’s see… Jay Jay was suicidally depressed, but after a few hours wandering in a cave decided that he’d rather sabotage Daniel’s game, then hijack it and take over as GM. He would then introduce the others to a new set of rules that he has written, essentially inventing the whole genre of Live Action Roleplaying, beating White Wolf to the punch by a decade or so. Jay Jay’s really starting to come across as an annoying little git, you know that?
Jay Jay puts his plan into action, “borrowing” a skeleton from the anatomy department (as if no one would notice), and costumes from theater arts, apparently from a production of Titus Andronicus. Thus equipped, our heroic party heads off for Peaquod Caverns and their appointment with destiny.
As they stand outside the caverns, lanterns held high, Jay Jay intones that they are “entering the secret mazes of the evil Voratians. Somewhere within dwells the wicked Ak-Oga, the most fiendish monster of them all. His fiendishness is matched only by the greatness of his treasure. Shall ye enter?”
If you guessed that the other three shout “Aye!” and stumble on to their doom, you’d be all too correct.
Honestly our little LARP session in the caves is about as lame as you’d expect from a self-involved emo kid like Jay Jay. This isn’t helped by the aforementioned Star Trekiness of the set, a very unrealistic looking cave complex with sprayed-on walls and near-square passages.
The first scare that our heroes have in store for them is a squeaking, flapping bat. Whether this is supposed to be real or one of Jay Jay’s pathetic special effects really doesn’t matter – it still looks more like it belongs in Abbot and Costello Meet Dracula than a serious psychodrama like this.
Our bold adventurers wander around for a bit while Jay Jay slips away to solemnly intone, “Your maze controller is with you – unseen by your eyes. Now let the journey begin.”
“We’ll let Glacia lead,” declares Daniel, as always letting someone else take all the risks. “She’ll protect us.”
And on they plunge into the fiberglass depths, only to encounter the full, sheer and unadulterated terror that Jay Jay has in store for them – the anatomy department’s skeleton, with a flashlight jammed in its mouth. Well, it scares Kate anyway.
“Be careful,” Daniel warns, once more taking on the Snails role. “Some skeletons have mystical powers!”
Well, no duh. You’ve been playing rpgs for how long and you still think you need to warn your fellows? Daniel’s parents may be right – he doesn’t have the imagination to be a game designer, and should instead look forward to a long and tedious career doing QA testing for dead-end software developers.
Jay Jay is a helpful maze master, assuring them that the skeleton is not evil and that well, it might have some value. One hopes it does, because otherwise Jay Jay is risking suspension or expulsion just to provide some window dressing.
Kate moves to investigate the skeleton, but Robbie has already set his feet firmly on the road to madness and warns, with a little too much seriousness, “Beware the sacrilege!”
Well, sacrilege be damned, Mister Healing Spell Dispenser… The skeleton does indeed reveal a clue, right where the magical flashlight was shining. It’s writing, but only Daniel can read it – “They are the ancient words of my people.”
Huh? What does that mean? Jay Jay wrote it in Swedish or something, and only Daniel can read it because of his old Swedish aunt or something? Anyway, they gloss over this, and Daniel tells us that the inscriptions says, “Eat of the bitter herb.”
So they go seeking the herb, and no, they aren’t seeking the kind that college kids are usually seeking. Seriously, if this movie was made with any of the guys I went to college with, the inscription would probably say, “Toke of the awesome herb, dude” and our adventurers would end up sitting in a circle, handing a bong around and griping about what an asshole Professor Farnsby is. Forbidden Peaquod Caverns seems like just the perfect place to do that kind of thing – I’m surprised that the party didn’t accidentally stumble upon a bunch of stoners and run away, thinking they were orcs or something.
Jay Jay has left a trail of rice around the caverns, and Daniel – once more making Snails look like a godamned genius – suggests, “Why don’t we split up and each of us look for the herb?”
Oh my god – and Daniel is being portrayed as an experienced roleplayer? Do you have any idea how many noob parties have been slaughtered after doing just exactly that? Sadistic GMs just love parties who split up… inevitably they’re cut to pieces individually, or one of the party members goes crazy and starts hallucinating…
Actually, that’s just what happens to Robbie. While he blunders around alone in the darkness, the hidden Jay Jay rolls his dice and announces, “A monster!”, his words echoing portentously. “A gorvil!”
“A gorvil… a gorvil… a gorvil… a gorvil!” replies the echo
Okay, I guess that a gorvil shows up. Now, rather than pretend to fight the invisible monster, Robbie’s already fragile hold on reality snaps like a worn bra strap and, yup, he thinks he’s really Pardieu and sees the monster.
The fearsome gorvil is a guy in a bad Gorn costume with glowing red eyes, and is about as scary as a gummy bear, but then the movie has already essentially told us that total fuckups who can’t handle reality are the only people who play Mazes and Monsters, and Robbie is the most unstable of our little off-balance group (well, except Jay Jay maybe, but at least Jay Jay isn’t seeing gorvils popping out of the woodwork).
Robbie screams desperately for help, bringing the other three running. When they arrive, Robbie speaks unsteadily in Pardeiux voice, “It’s all right. I have s…s… slain the g…g… gorvil.”
Well, that’s great. No one seems to think this is weird or anything, and everyone heads back to the dorm, laughing and congratulating Jay Jay. Robbie on the other hand is troubled.
“I am a holy man,” he says. “I never kill unless I can overcome the monster with reason or spells. I’ve got these to compensate for my lack of warlike skills.”
Once more, no one seems to think that this behavior is out of the ordinary. “Knock it off Robbie,” says Daniel, and goes on to chortle about Kate screaming when she saw the skeleton.
Jay Jay accepts the accolades modestly even as Robbie/Pardieu stares in perplexity. He was, he tells them, going to make monsters out of papier mache, but Daniel says that would have ruined it.
“The most frightening monsters,” Kate says, in a line that has a flashing neon AUTHOR’S MESSAGE sign hanging over it, surrounded by a cloud of little glowing faeries, a small fireworks display and a brass band, “are the ones in our minds.”
Wow. Profound. Can the movie be over now?
Nope. Although, to paraphrase Joel on MST3k, this movie has definitely broken the goofy meter, there’s still more to come. Robbie bids his friends goodnight, saying “Bless you all,” then sleeps fitfully in his dorm as a fierce lightning storm rages.
Robbie has another weird dream, and again the special effects budget lets us all down. It consists of him seeing a mysterious cloaked figure at the end of what appears to be a drainage culvert — kind of like the one Moamar Qadafi hid in – that speaks to him in Tom Hanks’ voice, calling him by his character’s name and saying he is “The Great Hall.”
Hall? Oh my god – that the name of Robbie’s brother!
“Once you gloried in killing,” says the deep Tom Hanks voice, “but now you are of a higher level.”
You’re damned right I’m higher level – I’m level fucking nine, bitches, and don’t you forget it!
“To obtain the highest level, you must be holy in all your life. You must be pious, humble… CELIBATE!”
“But I walk with Glacia the fighter,” Robbie protests, sensing that there might be a down side to this whole “holy man” business.
No can do, says the Great Hall. “The holy man must walk alone.”
Robbie’s not too happy now, but the voice assures him, “When you are worthy you will come to the Two Towers, where you will become one with the Great Hall.”
Now we’re throwing in Tolkien references? Jesus, this movie is sinking faster than the Titanic.
In the very next scene Robbie gives Kate one of the most neurotic breakup speeches in screen history. He loves her, he says, but he can’t touch her. It’s not you, he says, it’s me.
Okay, show of hands… How many out there have gotten that line? Yeah, I thought so…
Interestingly enough Robbie does this as Robbie, referring to Kate by her real name and not playing Pardieu. We really have no idea what’s going on in Robbie’s madness-tinged brain by this time, but he’s certainly not firing on all cylinders.
Some time apparently passes and then Daniel and Kate bond at the local pizza joint (hey, you knew those kids were going to get together eventually, especially given that Robbie’s crazy as a bedbug). Kate asks a very sensible question of Daniel – given how Robbie is blessing everyone, giving away his possessions and “acting holy all the time,” does Daniel think that Robbie’s acting “a little weird”?
Oh, no says Mister Oblivious. “He’s just staying in character… I don’t think Robbie’s turning into Pardieu. We work out our problems in the caverns, then we leave them there.”
This seems to satisfy Kate, who moves on to other topics, leaving the growing, and possibly dangerous, insanity of her friend behind. What problems, she asks, does Daniel work out?
Why being himself, he says, “and not just a carbon copy of my father.” He pauses. “You know, you really are a lot different away from the game.”
“So are you,” she replies.
Yup, they’re growing as human beings, those two, leaving behind the childishness of roleplaying games, which as we all know are nothing but a crutch used by weak people who can’t face the real world. Why I’ll bet that by the end of this movie, they’ll both have outgrown the need for “games” and “fantasy” and will be well on the way to happy, healthy adult dronehood.
Meanwhile, Robbie’s dreaming again. He’s fallen asleep with his face on an elaborate map marked “The Great Hall” and “The Two Towers,” and in his slumbers hears The Great Hall calling to him once more.
“Next you must find the secret city under the earth… When you have purified your mind as you have purified your body.”
Robbie’s doing just fine now, fully convinced that the Great Hall is actually his lost brother.
“I love you,” he cries, “and I want you to forgive me.” He tells the spirit that he’s making a map so he can find him.
“When you are ready, you will need no map.”
So it seems that the spirit of his lost brother is just as obnoxious and controlling as the rest of his family.
In the next scene Kate catches a glimpse of Daniel, riding his bicycle toward Peaquod Caverns. Inside, after first getting herself lost and calling for help, she confronts Daniel and he admits that he’s scouting the caves trying to figure out how Jay Jay can work the amazing, unbelievably wondrous maze master tricks that he’s been doing (I’ll give you a hint – he put rice of the floor and jammed a flashlight in a skeleton’s mouth, then told you to pretend there were monsters).
“You wanted to win that badly?” Kate asks, revealing again how clueless this story’s creators were about how real roleplaying works.
All this discussion of gaming is apparently too much for Kate and Daniel, and they immediately fall into each other’s arms in the front seat of her VW. Now that they’re in the process of leaving that awful and destructive roleplaying hobby behind, they have a lot to learn about good make-out spots.
“I was always like Mister Spock from Star Trek,” Daniel confesses. “I thought I had no feelings like a Vulcan. I never thought I could fall in love.”
At last we have at least one moment of realistic geek love, with the hero comparing himself to a Trek character. Now if only he’d manage to work in a reference to Han Solo we’d be getting somewhere.
No, Kate tells him, you’re more like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. “Who thought he had no heart, and all along he had the biggest heart of all.”
At last, real love has bloomed and Mazes and Monsters doesn’t stand a chance.
So now it’s Halloween (remember now – that was when Robbie’s brother ran away to New York), and Jay Jay is throwing another one of those unrealistic parties… You know, the kind that people actually show up to?
Daniel’s in a naval commander’s uniform, a strangely hatless Jay Jay is dressing to type as Noel Coward, and an uncomfortable-looking Robbie is, you guessed it, Pardieu the Holy Man. Moving through the crowd like the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi he slips away from the party, crashes in his dorm and is awakened by the voice of the Great Hall, telling him that now he’s ready.
Yeah, you can pretty much cut the crazy with a knife by this time as Robbie wanders out of the dorm and into the night. The next morning Daniel finds him missing and is shocked… Shocked, I tell you! I mean, after all Robbie was acting so normal and not-crazy lately. His disappearance comes as a complete surprise.
Kate calls Robbie’s mother and catches her in a rare sober moment (though she is nursing a nice glass of pinot). No Robbie’s not there, and a further search of his room reveals the elaborate “Two Towers” map with all its crazy inscriptions.
Aha! Now Jay Jay knows exactly what happened to Robbie!
“Do you think he’s playing with another game?” he asks.
No, Kate tells him, if Robbie was cheating on them they’d know it. The signs would have been there, for sure – the guilty glances, the strange dice falling out of his pocket, the unfamiliar character sheets, the Fourth Edition rulebooks… No, Robbie might be hopelessly insane, but he’s not being unfaithful.
Now of course, Jay Jay hits on a totally logical hypothesis for Robbie’s disappearance.
“Maybe he was hitchhiking and got picked up by some maniac – you know, like that freeway killer in California?”
Before Jay Jay can come up with yet another sensible theory, like maybe Robbie was kidnapped by time-traveling badgers from the Lesser Magellanic Cloud who want to transform him into a cyborg warrior to fight the chaos-slugs of Andromeda, Kate realizes that it’s all that damned Mazes and Monsters’ fault, and that he’s slipped into the game.
Dragged back down to earth Jay Jay now suggests that Robbie went to Peaquod Caverns, to set up his own game, “so HE can be the maze controller.”
Gods, the horror. Robbie might actually want to run his own game once in a while. It’s people like him that cause unrest, let me tell you.
So off to the caverns we go, in Kate’s little red VW Rabbit. Jay Jay is busy beating himself up, saying that if Robbie’s in the caves it’s all his fault. That, I think is taking it a little too far, since it was Robbie who managed to crack up all on his own. Jay Jay can be forgiven for thinking that yelling “A gorvil!” at someone isn’t necessarily going to drive them over the precipice of madness.
Nope. No luck in the caverns. Robbie is definitely missing and our characters are left wondering what the hell they’re going to do now. Once more presenting the sensible and sane option, Jay Jay admits that they need to go to the police, but they will have lie about it and conceal all the evidence that they were ever in the caves.
You know it wouldn’t surprise me if, after the events in this movie, Jay Jay went on to lose his entire family fortune investing in magical teleportation devices or something. He has just the right combination of ambition and stupidity.
At first the cops aren’t too concerned. Maybe, the sergeant says, he met a young lady.
Oh no, no chance of that. He’s a celibate holy man, right?
Well gee whiz, officer, I just had a wild and nutty notion, Daniel says. Robbie was fascinated with those caves… What were they called again? Oh yeah… Peaquod Caverns? Yeah, maybe if you went there you’d find his broken corpse lying at the bottom of a fissure or buried under a collapsed tunnel. Yeah, officer. You really should check those caves out.
This apparently doesn’t go down well, since in the next scene Lieutenant Martini (remember him – “No, dammit! We’re not closing the beaches on the biggest weekend of the year because of some stupid shark!”) is in Jay Jay’s room, grilling him and gazing skeptically at his Blade Runner poster. Was Robbie moody, he asks? Depressed?
Oh no, Jay Jay says. “He was a peaceful guy. Into spiritual things.”
“Spiritual things, huh?” Martini asks, then cunningly springs his trap. “Like MAZES AND MONSTERS?”
Jay Jay responds just the way you’d expect him to – he lies through his teeth, saying that he doesn’t play anymore since it “takes up a lot of time.”
No luck. You can’t slip anything past Martini’s razor-sharp intellect. He’s heard that some students were playing that M&M in the caverns. Does Jay Jay happen to know anything about that? Was Robbie playing? If he was such a good friend, why don’t you know whether he was playing? Why would he go to the caverns alone? Huh? HUH?
Now it’s Kate’s turn, telling Martini that Robbie shunned her for his precious, stupid roleplaying game and that they broke up. She too denies any knowledge of who Robbie played with, even though she was his girlfriend.
“I don’t think he realized how dangerous the game was,” she says. Well, it’s too late now, young lady – you played with fire in the form of a destructive, evil game like Mazes and Monsters, and now it’s time to pay the piper.
Lieutenant Martini now homes in on the truth like a heat seeking missile, his stunning analytical sense uncovering the truth with pinpoint accuracy.
“Was Robbie a doper?” he asks.
Now that he’s dispatched with Robbie’s “doper” status, Martini tells Daniel his theory about the case.
“One of the players Robbie played with got carried away and killed him.”
“That’s kind of far out,” Daniel says in a sentence that is staggering in its understatement.
“Mazes and Monsters is a far out game,” Martini replies. “Swords. Poisons. Spells. Battles, maiming, killing…”
“Hey, it’s all imagination,” Daniel protests.
Martini gives a dramatic pause here, and says ominously, “Is it?”
Well yes, Inspector Clousseau, it is, but then I’m not in this movie so you won’t listen to me.
Lieutenant Martini’s bold and ruthless investigation has rattled the characters so much that they realize they need to do something. Now at last we’re back to the beginning of the movie, with the police and rescue vehicles, the news reporter and all that crap. Jay Jay cleverly leaves his map to the caverns under Martini’s windshield wiper, but to no avail. Martini admits that his investigation is an utter failure, and they have no clue where Robbie might be.
So, free of police suspicion (at least for the moment), our heroes must find poor Robbie on their own. Sitting in Jay Jay’s dorm room, Kate finally remembers the “Great Hall” connection and that Robbie’s brother Hall disappeared many moons ago. They search Robbie’s books and theorize. Jay Jay’s wearing his deerstalker hat, so he must be in detective mode.
Well, it might be too late for poor Robbie, for in the next scene he’s wandering past the fleshpots of Times Square (and if you saw what Times Square looked like in the 80s, you’d know that it’s pretty scary). The standard wild sax music plays on the soundtrack as he stumbles aimlessly around until he encounters two of Times Square’s more unseemly inhabitants, a pair of leather-jacket wearing punks who know a lost out-of-towner when they see one.
As Robbie wanders past, the little punk says to the tall one, “Get him.”
(So that was your plan? “Get him”? God, I love telling that joke.)
The two punks must be Mazes and Monsters players, because they demand that Robbie hand over his precious spell component pouch. He’s Pardieu the Holy Man of course, so he refuses and flees to the wild accompaniment of a mad sax solo, but is finally cornered in an alley.
Robbie’s thoroughly gone bye-bye, so he sees the tall punk as yet another gorvil (they could only afford one monster suit so I guess they wanted to get as much use out of it as possible), and calmly casts a spell. Unfortunately he fails his Concentration check, as it has no effect and the tall punk comes after him. Of course no holy man is without his weapon, in case his spells or prayers fail, so Robbie pulls a knife and guts the creep. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, the little punk flees.
Apparently the sight of blood snaps poor Robbie back to reality, so he calls not the police or his parents, but Kate, whom he tearfully tells he is in New York, can’t remember anything and thinks he killed someone. Kate takes this all very well and tells him to go to Jay Jay’s mom’s apartment, where he can feel right at home in Jay Jay’s bedroom, surrounded by graph paper.
Robbie of course doesn’t listen to a word she says and, back in full Pardieu mode, wanders down into the subway (sax and strings still wailing), where he mistakes the subway train for a dragon and befriends a bleary-eyed wino.
“Please, there is no reason to fear me,” he says. “I am Pardieu. I am a holy man.”
This makes sense to the wino, who replies, “I’m the king of France.”
Robbie kneels and bows his head. “Your majesty.”
Now the wino likes this. Normally when he tells people that he’s the king of France he gets beaten up, but finally he’s met someone who treats him with the respect normally due royalty, so when Robbie asks him how to get to the Two Towers, he is only too happy to help.
Two towers? New York?
Uh oh. I think I know where this is going…
Kate, Daniel and Jay Jay arrive in New York and in another implausible note of utter fantasy, have no trouble finding a parking space. The doorman at Jay Jay’s building says that Robbie’s a no-show, so they head up to the family suite, only to find that Jay Jay’s mom has been on another redecoratin binge. Fortunately this time his mom has chosen to change his room to a Casa Blanca motif, far better than stark graph paper, but a bit busy.
While the others pore over a map of New York Robbie keeps wandering, just as vacant-looking as ever. Back at Jay Jay’s they finally realize what “Two Towers” actually means… Not that dumb Tolkien book, but… Yes…
The World Trade Center. Not only does this move ruthlessly slander the entire roleplaying hobby but now it even has the whiff of real horror about it, owing to a tragedy that took place 20 years after it was made.
I’ll wrap this one up quickly, since not much happens other than more shots of Robbie wandering, Kate’s red VW dodging NYC taxicabs and our characters riding elevators and escalators. Robbie finds the WTC and makes his way to the roof, with our heroes in hot pursuit. Fortunately they pick the same tower as Robbie, or else this movie might have ended differently.
At last, atop Tower Two, with the concrete canyons of Manhattan spread out beneath them, we reach the final confrontation between good, sensible, mature reality and destructive, childish, madness-inducing fantasy.
After Robbie doesn’t respond when they call his name, Jay Jay calls “Pardieu,” getting his attention. He is about to jump, he says, to go join the Great Hall.
“You can’t,” Daniel says. “It’s a trap!”
Now, Daniel, we know you’re a geek, but this is serious. It’s no time to show off your Admiral Akbar impersonation.
Robbie is unfazed. “I have spells. I’m going to fly.”
Jay Jay counters, “You don’t have enough points. I am the maze controller and I have absolute authority in this game!”
And at last, it sinks into Robbie’s thick skull that he really doesn’t have enough points to fly. He breaks down, sobbing, “Jay Jay, what am I doing here?”
As Robbie cries, everyone has a nice big group hug as the theme song plays. Daniel seems a little reluctant to join the puppy pile, however.
Ah, all is well. Robbie is saved and he’s finally realized that Pardieu was just a character in a stupid fantasy roleplaying game and order is restored. Three months later, Kate is still driving her red VW P.O.S. and they’re off to visit Robbie at the family estate. It’s such a relief, Kate says, to be finally writing her NOVEL!
And guess what? It’s about the four of them playing the game and solving their problems, until one of them goes off his rocker and thinks he’s his character. And no, she’s not exploiting someone else’s tragedy for her own gain. Not at all.
“I’ll tell you, the theater arts program is in for a real shock when you enter its director’s program,” Daniel tells Jay Jay. “Well I’m the quiet type. I’m going to be perfectly happy as a future captain of industry and computer software.”
Yup, Daniel has given in and surrendered to the inevitable, leaving gaming behind to find his true future, pursuing the sterile, joyless life that his parents envisioned for him. Truly an upbeat outcome.
Well, at least Robbie’s going to be okay, after intense psychotherapy and in the pleasant surroundings of his home, right?
The three go to see Robbie’s mom, who for once greets them without a drink in her hand. She doesn’t blame any of them for what happened, but he was fragile and it didn’t have anything to do with them, even though they pressured him into playing, and created the situation that caused his mind to snap, then failed to see the warning signs, covered up evidence of his disappearance, lied to the police…
Well, actually she does blame them, but by now what’s the point?
They rush out to see Robbie, who is sitting beside the family lake (yeah, his family is loaded… It makes being crazy much easier). He looks at them vaguely and speaks in his stilted Pardieu accent.
“It is you, Freelik! You have been restored to the living. Whoever did that is a great holy man. A greater holy man even than I. Oh, Glacia! Nimble, too! Perhaps you are preparing for another quest… I’ve had many strange encounters since last we met. A great dragon, a gorvil… This is a good place to stay. Warm. Very clean. The food is good and very plentiful. Oh, Freelik… I have an eternally renewing coin…”
And so on. Everyone looks uncomfortable and even Tom Hanks looks goofy spouting rpg-speak while wearing an Izod shirt and tennis shorts.
Yeah, you knew it all along… Robbie’s gone and now all that’s left is Pardieu. That damned game destroyed a perfectly good young man. Damn that game. Damn that stupid roleplaying hobby…
“Shall we not begin the quest?” he asks as that stupid Peruvian pan flute music plays. “This lake is enchanted, and beyond it there you see the great forest. Now the innkeeper and his wife fear the forest and warn me to stay away. I feel there must be some evil force dwelling within it. If we could vanquish that evil, the innkeeper and his wife would live happily and in peace. Do you know of this forest?”
“Uh, yes,” Daniel says, tearfully. “I… uh, I am the… uh… maze controller. There is, uh…” He falls silent. He was a crappy maze controller anyway.
Jay Jay takes up the story. “…A kingdom of the evil Voratians ruled by the evil Ak Oga.” Gods, can’t this kid at least come up with a new idea for his campaign instead of just recycling the old one? “Within this forest lies terrible danger but also a wondrous treasure. Shall ye enter?”
Robbie declares “Aye,” followed with great reluctance by the others, and the friends wander into the forest, accompanied by Kate’s voiceover.
And so we played the game again for one last time. It didn’t matter that there were no maps or dice or monsters. Pardieu saw the monsters. We did not. We saw nothing but the death of hope and the loss of our friend. And so we played the game until the sun began to set and all the monsters were dead.
Yup. A grim, depressing ending — that’ll teach you young people to play those stupid games!
At last we roll credits and hear the fucking title song one more time, thankfully sans lyrics. Congratulations. You’ve survived Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters.
Oh, my god, what a nightmare this movie was. I remember watching it when it was first on in those pre-DVR days when I had to flip between two channels and only see half of what I wanted to watch on each. I wasn’t as appalled by it as I am now, probably because I didn’t see the whole thing, but I do remember thinking that the ending was stupid, lame and offensive. That’s mild for what I feel about it now.
Mazes and Monsters was a symptom, rather than an illness in itself. It was a symptom of a hysterical, illogical, paranoid era when the idea of playing a game that involved magic and fighting was somehow terrifying. It was a fear fed by religious leaders, a sensationalist media and those “mature” types who felt that fantasy and games were exclusively the domain of children, with no place in the adult world. The only thing that roleplaying accomplished, was providing escapist fantasies.
In his essay On Fairy Stories, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien said the following about those who dismissed fantasy tales as “escapism”:
Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
And in Mazes and Monsters, and the entire anti-roleplaying movement that rose, fell and vanished in the 1980s and ‘90s, we find just such confusion. Fantasy and roleplaying are fit only for those who cannot face reality, to be left behind with the toys of their childhood as soon as they have “grown up.”
Consider our characters. Robbie is the mentally fragile son of a cold, unfeeling father and an alcoholic mother, blaming himself for his brother’s disappearance. Daniel’s parents are overly controlling and he refuses to give up his “unrealistic” dream of being a game designer. Jay Jay is saddled with a neglectful socialite mother who loves him but doesn’t know how to show it. Even Kate, the most “normal” of the group, was raised by a single mother and finds herself unable to relate to others, write or express herself until she quits playing Mazes and Monsters.
Despite the premise stated at the beginning of the movie, that Mazes and Monsters is a “psychodrama” that allows players to “deal with problems in their lives by acting them out,” the characters’ attempts to do so are nothing short of disastrous. Their friend Robbie’s fragile hold on sanity is irreparably shattered, he commits acts of violence, almost takes his own life, and in the end is hopelessly lost in his fantasy world.
Only by giving up their destructive hobby can the other characters advance and become adults. Even then, their success comes at the cost of their friend’s sanity. If only they had faced reality, and not wasted their time on pointless pursuits like “Mazes and Monsters,” Robbie might have gone on to live a normal, healthy life!
I probably don’t need to say that pretty much everything this movie and the book upon which it was based says about gaming is sheer, utter bullshit. In many ways it’s more than bullshit, it’s downright libelous, creating an imaginary problem where none existed and presenting it as something that might happen. The entire story was inspired by an incident that didn’t even happen, but received widespread attention, the disappearance in 1980 of James Dallas Egbert III.
Mazes and Monsters, both book and movie, were created by people to whom roleplaying was a scary, alien activity. The dialog and actions of the characters suggest a complete misunderstanding of rpgs and the people who play them. The people involved had no interest in roleplaying’s positive aspects. Their perceived reality was all that mattered, and they only saw what they wanted to see.
The true reality which by now has hopefully become clear, is that roleplaying is a hobby, no different from collecting stamps or building model trains. It encourages social interaction, keeps young people at home, promotes reading and math, stimulates the imagination and generally does no harm.
Roleplaying isn’t a “psychodrama” and is not intended to aid in the solving of real life problems. And while its benefits are many, like most pursuits, it has a dark side and certainly can become far too prominent in one’s life, interfering with other important things such as studying for the big physics test. Being a good gamer also requires being a well-balanced human being. It’s just fun, and in the end it’s all make-believe.
We all know that. But in the ‘80s most people apparently did not. Witness the toxic abomination that was Rona Jaffee’s Mazes and Monsters.
Don’t worry. Next time I’ll get back to blood and naked people. Here are my ratings, such as they are:
Sword and Sorcery Rating:
In all honesty, it really isn’t fair to even CALL this flick “Swords and Sorcery.” It’s really a fucked-up love story about fucked-up people who play a fucked-up game and fuck up their lives. But I created this ratings system and I’m stuck with it.
Here’s a surprise… Mazes and Monsters is hilarious, but only if you’re a gamer. The ludicrous portrayal of gamers and roleplaying will leave you laughing. Then it will leave you crying if you think about it too much.
Are you fucking kidding?
Special Bonus Rating:
4 Broadswords for propaganda value
The funniest thing about Mazes and Monsters is that anyone took it seriously. As such it was a valuable addition to the arsenal of those who defend roleplaying games. I mean hell — all you had to do was show critics this stupid movie and they’d slink away into the darkness, realizing how silly they were being. In the end, in addition to helping to launch the storied career of Tom Hanks (and end the careers of several others), Mazes and Monsters stands as one of the cornerstones of roleplaying’s success, and for that I must give thanks.