Mazes & Monsters
So there I was, shopping for all those mundane housewares you need when you've just moved, and I decided to take a gander at the discount movie rack. And there it shone before me, like the Holy Grail priced down for a Blue Light sale: Mazes & Monsters.
To those of you out there who aren't old enough to remember the anti-RPG backlash of the early 1980s, this movie probably won't mean much to you. Me, I was old enough to have seen and appreciated this flick, but I missed it all the same. I have heard about it numerous times since then, especailly here on RPG.net. From what I ca gather, the movie has become a kind of odd collector's item among die-hard gamers, simply because it is a bit of history for our hobby, and because they only made about 12 copies of the thing, so it's hard to find. (Hell, my store-bought copy looks like it's a third or fourth generation dub. No joke.) Most recently, I came across more than a few references to it when, on a lark, I decided to abuse my research resources at my old job one day work one day and read up on the anti-RPG crusade of ysteryear. (I learned a few things, all right. Mike Stackpole is a very passionate man. Jack Chick is an idiot. And Pat Pulling, true to rumor, really did die of throat cancer in the early-mid 1990s.)
Anyway, Mazes & Monsters is to the RPG community what "Reefer Madness" is to the ganja crowd, I suppose. It plays off the fears certain parents about RPGs back when RPGs were really making it big for the first time. Like television, movies, comic books, and just about any other form of wildly popular youth entertainment, RPGs were initially denounced by some as a potentially harmful influence, just the sort of dangerous thing that could break the fragile minds of sweet, innocent youngsters across the country. Why, play these darn things long enough, and you might even *forget* that it's just a game! You might even think it's real and go out and kill somebody or something! And so on, and so forth. You get the idea.
The movie plays like the Cliff's Notes version of what supposedly happened to Eggbert Dallas - that famous (or infamous if you like RPGs) incident that spawned all those nasty rumors of people playing D&D in college steam tunnels and dying for it. (Eggbert, of course, never died playing RPGs. He just ran away from home and became a rouchneck on an oul derrick, I believe.) After a while, these "steam tunnel" stories kind of sounded like those "Mikey" rumors I kept hearing as a kid. You know, the ones about him eating Pop Rocks and chasing it with soda and having his guts explode? The steam tunnel rumors were the same way, except instead of my gullible little brothers telling them to me, I got to hear them from gullible adults every time they learned I played RPGs. ("Son, just don't get caught up in those things. Remember what happened to those kids at that collese in those tunnels.") Sheesh.
Getting back to the Eggbert thing, Mazes & Monsters basically takes that story for a ride to tout the dangers of role-playing. I won't bore you with the details, so here's the short version. Three college kids invite a fourth newcomer into their game and things get out of hand. They take their game to the local forbidden caves (they actually call them that in the movie, too -- "you mean the mysterious, forbidden caves?") and during the gameplay, one of the players suffers a break from reality. He thinks he *is* is character (a holy man named "Pardieux" -- who the hell runs French clerics, anyway?) and pretty soon is off to New York City to jump off the roof of the World Trade Center. His friends all intervene but by then it is too late. His broken mind is trapped forever in the game world. Poor lad. Roll credits.
Now, to seriously critique this film on any level is an exercise in futility. The script is awful. The production value terrible (lighting in particular), and it seems to be made for television (always a back mark) judging by the awkwardly placed fadeouts at moments where you could imagine a commercial jutting in.
As a professional RPG writer, I found the subject matter laughable but only because the hysteria that threatened our hobby (and now, my livelihood) has largely gone the way of the dodo bird. I mean, let's face it. If the Pat Pullings of the world had any teeth left, we'd be seeing Jack Chick's comic strips turned in animated series, not "Mazes & Monsters" left half-forgotten on the freaking $2.99 rack.
In the end, watching "Mazes & Monsters" was a fairly pleasureable thing for me for a bunch of reasons:
1) Mostly, because the movie just rang false on so many levels, and thankfully the public at large never fell for it. Nope, no big RPG-burning parties in my town, thankfully. It's the kind of thing where every time I think that the American public has collectively lost its marbles, I can take a small solace in thinking, "well, they were pretty freaked over the RPG thing and that blew over, at least." Sure, I'm being painfully optimistic, but chalk it up to being a defense mechanism I've developed ever since moving to New Jersey.
2) It was just god awful in every sense, and I've always loved watching movies that were so bad they became funny. Oh, come on, you know you do, too.
3) It starred Tom Hanks. Tom Freaking Hanks. From "Mazes & Monsters" to "Saving Private Ryan." If that's not proof positive that anything is possible, I don't know what is. To his credit, this had to have been one of his first gigs. The movie was copyrighted 1982, which I think is pre-"Bosom Buddies," and definitely pre-"Bachelor Party."
4) It's like a little time capsule showing exactly how weak and sad and silly all those people were when they lined up to denounce our past time. Perhaps it's a bit of schadenfreude on my part, seeing how irrelevant their crusade has become. Or, perhaps it's knowing that LARPing today does safely what "Mazes & Monsters" spelled out as certain doom. And in so defying the movie's premise, shows just how idiotic the whole crusade was in the first place.
5) Playing on #4, the movie also reminded me how unlikely it would be, I think, for those dark days of Pulling and Chick to cast their cloud over the RPG world again. I just don't think it will happen. The only reason why those people got as far as they did in demonizing our hobby was because the folks they were selling their crusade to knew nothing about RPGs. As a result, they took what the crusaders had to say without question. It's now nearly 20 years later. RPGs remain a bit of an underground thing, but not like the old days. We've had RPG cartoons, TV shows, computer games and card games. Society has moved on and would much rather try to pin Littleton Colorado on Doom than try to revive a dead cause against what really is a harmless hobby. An outgrowth of that is it's just impossible to get the media excited about it anymore. It's a dead beat to them, and so long as that remains the case, there is no point in writing exagerrated puff pieces about the horrors of the hobby and all that rot.
So, this was the kind of stuff I was thinking of when I watched "Mazes & Monsters" the other night. It served nicely as both trashy entertainment and as a great big I Told You So to all those folks who tried showing me how evil my hobby was back in the 80s (and now are proud as hell that I'm making a living at writing them). If you happen to see a copy of this movie, go ahead and buy it. You might not get all that I got out of it, but if nothing else, it'll make for a nice conversation piece the next time your G.M. sees it as a bookend on your game books shelf.
The opinions of this review are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Palladium Books, Inc. You know the drill.Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)