People are scared of things that are new. A reluctance to experience the unknown leads to people retreating and becoming defensive. It leads to people complaining about the new Facebook format when they had already complained about the old format they now love back when it was new. It leads to people with bulldog tattoos who like fish and chips going to foreign lands only to hang around other people with bulldog tattoos and only eat fish and chips. And it leads to every new fad and trend being accused of being the work of the devil. When the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons came into public prominence, it was accused by anti-occult groups such as B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, and I can’t decide which is funnier, the acronym or what it stands for) of encouraging suicide OR WORSE, Satanism. Because if there’s one group the ultimate evil wants to control more than any other, it’s socially-awkward teenagers. As you might expect, this ill-informed crowd sparked a litany of tracts, books and badly-spelt picket signs. Slightly more surprising though, is the fact that it sparked the career of Tom Hanks, as this edition of Inside the Skeleton's Closet explores.
Monsters and Mazes is a tv movie from 1982 that is completely ridiculous and derivative of a real-life tragedy, much like every tv movie ever made. The origins of this reactionary trash can be traced to the story of James Dallas Egbert III, a teenager who it was widely reported went insane while playing Dungeons & Dragons in the utility tunnels of his college and became lost. Egbert did have problems with D&D, but unfortunately that means depression and drug addiction. Egbert’s problems led to a failed suicide attempt in the tunnels after which he went into hiding. He was later found (though unfortunately he did eventually commit suicide) but the associations stuck and urban legends sprung up about D&D players getting lost in tunnels. Egbert’s sad story was
cynically exploited loosely adapted into a novel called Monsters and Mazes, which was later
turned into the movie. All of which is saddening, but at least it leads to the
hilarity of Tom Hanks imagining being attacked by monsters.
After a flash-forward of police looking for Hanks in a cave, we are introduced to the four friends whose lives will be ruined forever by a game with dice and cardboard cut-outs. First there is Jay Jay, a 16 year old college student like Egbert, but not the main character. For reasons that are never explained he was a wide collection of hats that he wears throughout the film, each one making him look like a bigger idiot than the last. Jay Jay’s wealthy mother doesn’t spend enough time with him, presumably put off by his terrible taste in hats. He gets into an argument with her after she changes his room without telling him. “I can tell you don’t like it” she says to him after he’s yelled at her about how terrible this is, showing that she is easily the film’s most perceptive character. Next is Kate, whose parents are divorced. Kate boldly declares that she’s never going to get married, she’s going to be a famous writer, the two apparently being mutually exclusive. Then there’s Daniel, the handsome one, whose overbearing parents (I’m beginning to sense a pattern here) want him to stop playing games so he can design computers instead. Finally, Tom Hanks is the new kid in town. His parents drive him to college, admonish him for getting kicked out of his last school for playing too much Mazes and Monsters and argue about being drunk/bad parents like they’re the Bluths. It’s possible that things might not end too well for Tom Hanks.
Initially reluctant, Hanks is drawn in to the Mazes and Monsters group both through his attraction to Kate and through their helpful reassurance that they aren’t fanatics. Through that great 80’s staple, the montage, Hanks (I think his name in the film is Robbie) falls for Kate, who has forgotten her earlier belief that she didn’t need a man since they’re all too shallow now that she has someone who can tell her such meaningful things as “you look beautiful”. Everyone is having a great time playing Mazes & Monsters, which is absolutely not the same thing as Dungeons & Dragons how could you ask that they checked very carefully with their lawyers, and everything looks like it’ll be perfect forever, meaning that everything is now surely going to be ruined. Forever.
Tom Hanks and Kate are now close enough that he can open up to her about his past. As subtle as a biplane towing a banner with THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER flying straight into your face, the next scene has Tom tell Kate about how his brother ran away when he was younger. At Halloween, also his brother’s birthday, he just up and left for New York, never to be heard from again. Tom gave him the money to go and feels guilty. And so he should.
Upset that they haven’t played a game in as many as three days, Jay Jay goes off the rails completely without warning (unless you interpret the hat collection as a cry for help, like I did.) Talking to himself, he says he wants to commit suicide. Riding his motorcycle into a wall wouldn’t be spectacular enough and his death should be the stuff legends are made of. He decides to commit suicide in the “Mysterious Forbidden Peakwood Caverns!!”
Jay Jay kills off his character in the middle of a game by jumping into a spikey pit. I guess he wanted to tie up even the loosest ends. He convinces the others to start a new game in the mysterious forbidden caverns because it would be more advanced and a higher level and a lot of other things that I don’t think would convince me to go running around a dark cave. Hanks and the gang on the other hand are all for it and so they set off for a game in the caverns, which Jay Jay has kitted out to look as scary as possible with…one fake skeleton and some candles. Everyone has a whale of time playing the game in the caverns, except Tom Hanks, who inexplicably goes insane.
Apropos of nothing he just starts seeing monsters, and nobody notices anything is wrong with him even though he’s now talking as if he’s really the priest character he role plays as. They just keep saying that most infuriating of phrases used by dipshits in movies; “Quit screwing around!” It should have been obvious straight away that poor Tom is not in his right mind but no, these idiots are in a movie so they think he’s screwing around. And another thing, just what has happened to him? As for Jay Jay, his confidence must have really gotten a boost from everyone enjoying his game because his desire for a spectacular suicide that would be remembered forever is never brought up again. He’s totally fine. Maybe mental illness is contagious and he passed it on to Hanks when he sneezed. It can get cold in mysterious forbidden caverns you know.
Tom sees visions of the ‘Great Hall’ a shadowy figure that tells him that as a priest, he’s not allowed to have sex. And so he breaks up with Kate. Kate then gets together with Daniel, the other, more boring member of the group. After Daniel kisses Kate for the first time, he remarks “For a long time I thought I was like Mr. Spock, that I had no emotions like a Vulcan”, which is exactly the kind of suave line you should bust out with a potential paramour.
Tom goes missing after the Great Hall tells him a bunch of stuff about going to find the ‘Two Towers’. Now, the second this was brought up I knew this meant the Twin Towers, linking back to the scene about Tom’s missing brother from before but since everyone in this movie is idiotic we have to go through a long, boring stretch where people realise Tom is missing, his friends hide the evidence of what they were doing in the mysterious, forbidden caverns like the terrible people they are, the caverns are searched, they look for Tom, blah, blah. None of it is very compelling, especially since meanwhile crazy ol’ Tom is stabbing muggers he thinks are monsters.
This whole film should have just been Tom imagining things, but they dole that out in tiny portions in favour of hundreds of scenes of people slowly walking around dark caverns (that are mysterious and for that matter forbidden). After what feels like an eternity, Kate, Daniel and Jay Jay figure out that Tom is in New York. Mostly because he calls and says he’s in New York. But at least they figure out he’s headed for the Twin Towers by themselves. They only needed Jay Jay’s bird to give them a clue. Yes, okay, Tom is doomed with these clods looking out for him.
We get another good Crazy Tom scene as he talks to a homeless man that he thinks is the King of France, about the subway he thinks is a dragon. The King of France, a benevolent monarch, gives Crazy Tom directions to the World Trade Centre. What follows is a chase scene as slow as the ice skates chase scene in Blades of Glory, except played straight. Girl, Boring and Apparently Cured of All Suicidal Thoughts walk after Tom in the tower. They slowly walk up an escalator. They slowly get into an elevator, waiting patiently for other people to get in. This is the thrilling climax? He should’ve mistaken them all for monsters and attacked them! (Or maybe mistake them for mazes and…navigated them?) He could’ve killed Boring! Eventually they catch up to him, not that it was very hard, as he’s about to jump off the building to be reunited with the ‘Great Hall’, his brother. He doesn’t jump because he gets confused when they tell him his character doesn’t have enough experience points to make the jump. And then, almost making up for all the boredom so far, Tom Hanks makes this face:
The ending is bittersweet stuff. It cuts to a few months later as the gang goes to visit Tom at his parents’ house. Everyone has moved on from Monsters and Mazes. Kate is nearly ready to publish her first book, which is basically the story we’ve just seen. She is cashing in on her ex-lovers mental illness. Our hero. They say maybe Tom is in counselling and hope he’ll be back in college next semester. They see his mother who says he is doing well. Then, they see Tom, and he’s no better at all. He thinks his friends are their characters. He thinks his parents are inn-keepers. He tells them that he has a magic coin which he gives to the inn-keeper’s wife every night to pay for his room, and every morning it has reappeared in his pouch to pay her again. That is fucking heartbreaking. But instead of collapsing into tears for the shell their friend has been reduced to, they agree to go on a quest with him, for old time’s sake. What is wrong with these people?
Extra Notes and Quotes and Such
- Somehow this is neither the worst movie about D&D or the worst Tom Hanks movie with the Twin Towers in it. Those dubious honours go to Dungeons & Dragons and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close respectively.
- The DVD release for this movie cashed in on Hanks' fame by putting a modern picture of him on the box instead of how he actually appears. The box also has a dragon, when this movie has no dragons. Unless subway cars count.
- Jay Jay's collection of idiotic hats include a strange helmet, a cowboy hat, an aviator's hat, a hard helmet, which is apt, a checkered trilby, a motorcycle helmet, another trilby, one of those hats old-timey explorers wear, a deerstalker and another trilby. He is a buffoon and I hate him.
- The soundtrack for Mazes and Monsters features inappropriate saxophone music. The 80's!
- "Mazes and Monsters is a far out game!" -An adult human being.