There was once a time in which Tom Hanks was a young starving actor like many others. As one of the producers would recall during the filming of the 1980 movie He Knows You’re Alone, Hanks appeared on set early while he was trying to have lunch and they both shared a sandwhich and chatted. Apparently, the filmmakers thought Hanks was such a nice guy he was saved a gruesome death scene in the forgettable 1980s slasher movie.
He later went on to appear in Bosom Buddies and probably got to eat a full sandwhich. After the series ended, he was hired to appear in Mazes and Monsters. Judging by the poster art above, it looks like it’s a pretty good damn movie. Except Hanks looks a little too old to be making this movie in 1982. Well, the above poster art is fake. There’s no mazes and there are no dragons. There’s a cavern and a cheap looking plastic creature.
A more accurate poster art is as below which still looks rather impressive for the early 1980s for an obscure TV movie.
But the TV movie actually doesn’t have much in the special effects department, hence the aforementioned plastic creature but more on that later. It’s actually supposed to be a warning about the dangers of role-playing games. Dungeons and Dragons was becoming popular and if you’ve seen the fourth season of Stranger Things, it touched on D&D as well as the Satanic Panic. To avoid any legal issuies, “Mazes and Monsters” is the name of an RPG based on D&D. It was based on a novel by Rona Jaffe, who wrote a novel based on the urban myths that RPG players were using steam tunnels at colleges and universities.
The myth was most likely created by the 1979 disappearance of Michigan State University student James Dallas Egbert III, who had played D&D and is rumored to have gone into the steam tunnels of a building to commit suicide. But he was unable to and then went hiding with friends as his parents hired famed private investigator William Dear to find him. He later made it all the way to New Orleans.
Mazes and Monsters pulls a lot from Egbert’s story. There’s a young child prodigy Jay-Jay Brockaway (Chris Makepeace) who at only 16 is a second year student at the unnamed university. He has a panache for wearing hats and head accesories, including a motorcycle helmet and a World War I Kaiser Wilhelm helmet. Robbie Wheeling (Hanks) is a new student at the college who quickly strikes up a friendship with Jay-Jay who asks him if he plays “Mazes and Monsters.”
Robbie joins Jay-Jay along with fellow students Kate Finch (Wendy Crewson) and Daniel (David Wysocki). Immediately Robbie and Kate start up a relationship and at one point, Robbie tries to put a double bed in his dorm room so he and Kate can live together or at least be a little more comfortable enjoying some good old college dormitory sex. This must be one of those liberal arts colleges conservatives hate so much.
For reasons that never really make sense, either Jay-Jay gets upset that Kate is dating Robbie or that Robbie is now going to be with Kate more, he gets depressed and decides to end it all. The movie opens with Jay-Jay returning to his posh apartment house in Manhattan where his interior decorator mother has turned his bedroom into a creepy hospital decor. Almost immediately this TV movie doesn’t know if it’s a parody or taking itself too seriously.
Robbie is having his own family crisis as he is strained from his parents. His older brother went missing three years earlier on around Halloween. And Robbie has gotten in trouble by his parents for playing M&M too much. But his father tells him he can call collect anytime he wants. What a guy! Daniel is also feeling the same pressure from his parents, yet for some reason, Daniel’s only function is to be the guy Kate eventually ends up with.
While thinking of killing himself, Jay-Jay finds some caverns near the college but becomes intrigued by the interior. So, rather than unaliving himself, he decides to kill himself in the M&M game so they can play a real game in the caverns. He talks the theater arts department into loaning some medieval costumes and props. He talks Robbie, Kate and Daniel into it and at first they like hanging out in the caverns.
But on the second attempt, Robbie hallucinates when he hears Jay-Jay mention a Gorvil is present and it’s a green reptillian creature that he thinks he slays. Hearing his screams, everyone runs to him but they notice Robbie is acting weird, thinking he’s really the holy man Pardue he plays in the game. He bids goodnight to his friends by blessing them all and then tells Kate that he has to remain celebate. He loves her but they can’t exchange in sex.
So, she hooks up with Daniel. Because why not? I mean, with Jay-Jay, it’s probably illegal. So, just like his brother, Robbie leaves the college on Halloween night after having a dream where he sees the Great Hall that tells him to go to the Two Towers. So, in the middle of the night, Robbie leaves the campus on foot. Later when his friends notice him missing, they contact the police and hint that Robbie could have gotten lost in the caverns.
But Robbie instead goes to New York City where he fights off some attempted muggers, hallucinating that one of them is the Gorvil and stabs him in the abdomen with a pocket knife. Drifting between fantasy and realty, he calls Kate to tell her he’s in NYC. She tells him to go to Jay-Jay’s apartment but he gets confused mistaken the sound of the elevated trains for dragons until he directed to go to World Trade Center where he will commit suicide by jumping off the observation deck.
Fortunately, Jay-Jay, Daniel and Kate discovered some drawings and maps Robbie made in his college dorm mentioning the Two Towers and are able to make the connection to the WTC. And they stop him in time and Robbie leaves school to go back to live with his family. Three months later, looking like late spring, even though it should be the middle of fucking winter, the three visit him only to discover that Robbie still thinks he’s Pardue and that his parents are the innkeeper and his wife and asks them to play the game with him, which they do as Kate says in the voice-over narration, “one last time.”
The movie is outrageous.Hanks reportedly refuses to talk about it. And anyone watching it can see why. It looks like it was filmed very quickly which is common with TV movies that the actors seem to show little to no emotion. There’s an impressive supporting cast of Murray Hamilton as the local police detective and Susan Strasberg and Vera Miles. Yet their characters aren’t given much to do except pop up in a handful of scenes just to show the generational gap between the adults and the college students.
It’s just so hastily put together with such a silly Chicken Little The Sky Is Falling tone about the dangers of RPG and the Satanic Panic, it sidesteps the most obvious presumption that Robbie has serious mental issues such as schizophrenia. And he’s probably had this problem for years but his parents ignored him. Even when his mother finally acknowledges at the end, the emphasis is still on the game being the problem. By the end of the 1980s, the Satanic Panic was mostly forgotten following the infamous McMartin Daycare Scandal which had false allegations of satanic rituals involving the sexual abuse of children. There was also Michelle Remembers which was later discredited as psychiatric patient Michelle Smith was believed to have made up false memories of sexual abuse during Satanic riturals when she was a young child in the 1950s.
The TV movie is good for a laugh and to see Hanks as he was young. Crewson, who would go on to appear in many box office hits like The Santa Clause and Air Force One, does what she can with the material, even though it’s laughable at time. Makepeace delivers the same old “Aw Shucks” behavior he brought to several roles in Meatballs, My Bodyguard and Vamp which probably explains why he no longer acts because he got older and it was harder to believe.
Wysocki who also goes by the name David Wallace would go on to appear in soap operas such as General Hospital and The Days of our Lives, which famously had a major character possessed by the devil. You know, maybe TV producers shouldn’t have made so many damn productions about possession and Satan in this era, then, we wouldn’t have had such a panic.
You can view it on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpcL-fQNPfQ
What do you think? Please comment.