- Will Salmon
GOING UNDERGROUND: MAZES & MONSTERS
Is 1982’s infamous anti-D&D movie Mazes and Monsters a hysterical anti-RPG screed or a curious forgotten gem? On the 40th anniversary of its original release you’ll get a chance to decide again for yourself as the film that launched Tom Hanks onto our screens gets its first Blu-ray edition. Will Salmon spoke to David Hughes from Plumeria Pictures to find out more…
It's a little surprising just how few movies there are about roleplaying. We're not talking about fantasy films based on RPGs or about games that magically come to life to threaten or thrill the players (Jumanji, obviously, but also give 2016’s little seen Beyond The Gates a go), but movies actually about the act of roleplaying.
One of the handful that does engage with the hobby is Steven Hilliard Stern's Mazes and Monsters - a low budget TV movie made at the height of the Satanic Panic and one that takes a somewhat negative approach to the subject.
Today, it’s probably best known for gifting the world with Tom Hanks’ first feature lead role. Here he plays Robbie Wheeling, a gifted student just starting life at a new university and who loves nothing more than an intense session of Dungeons & Dra-, sorry, Mazes and Monsters with his buds. But when one of his crew, Jay-Jay, suggests taking things to the next level and getting out of the dungeon and into the real world (So, LARPing then), Robbie begins to lose his grip on reality and becomes a danger to both himself and those around him.
Based on the book of the same name by Rona Jaffe - a typically misinformed screed from the era that blamed the tragic death of Michigan State University student James Dallas Egbert III, in part, on his interest in roleplaying games - Mazes and Monsters is undeniably goofy, horribly biased against its subject matter, but also still a lot of fun to watch. And while it's generally considered to be little more than b-movie fluff, certain aspects of the film have aged rather well.
The film turns 40 this year and is getting a brand new anniversary Blu-ray, released by UK label Plumeria Pictures. It's a good chance to reassess a feature that offers a fascinating, naive, but still often quite charming, look at the roleplaying hobby less than a decade on from Dungeons & Dragon’s first release.
We spoke to Plumeria Pictures' founder David Hughes to find out more...
How would you sum up the plot of Mazes and Monsters for those who haven’t seen the film yet?
It’s a 1982 made-for-TV relic of the pre-“satanic panic” period when D&D was starting to be looked at as harmful to kids, largely a result of American evangelicals needing a boogeyman to keep congregations in their thrall. If it wasn’t D&D it would be heavy metal music (in fact it was); anything demon-adjacent was considered dangerous.
Laughable now, of course, but a genuine problem for a lot of D&D players in the 1980s.
The film is about some players of the eponymous D&D-like (but not really) game that Tom Hanks’ character gets a little too deeply involved in, fracturing his sense of fantasy and reality and sending him into a psychogenic fugue. Of course, with a mental illness of that kind, anything could have set him off. It’s actually quite sensitively handled in the film, much to my surprise when I rewatched it for the first time in decades.
What appealed to you about the film and made you want to re-release it?
I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since shortly before it was popularised in the early ‘80s, so it was a natural fit for me.
But the truth is, I saw that the rights were available, for a price I could make work, and could immediately picture an amazing Blu-ray cover by Paul Shipper, an artist I’ve been dying to commission for a Plumeria cover since I launched the label in lockdown.
So you’re a long time gamer?
Oh my gosh, yes – I was a very early adopter! I started out playing wargames in the local church hall, and one day I was introduced to a radical new game that didn’t have miniatures (at the time, anyway) but was played with pencils and paper and dice. And I’m still part of a group now!
Although in between there was a gap of about 30 years when I didn’t play anything but Call of Cthulhu, which is my real passion. I’m also a big board-game fan, my current favourites being Nemesis, Living Forest and perennials like Settlers of Catan.
It’s quite surprising to see Tom Hanks in the film! What do you think of this early performance?
It gets a lot of stick but actually if you approach it fairly, it’s not bad. It’s more than an early-career curiosity; it’s actually a very Hanksian performance, if that makes sense. You can draw a direct line from there to some of his later, more celebrated roles: all the ingredients for what makes him him are there.
You mentioned this a moment ago - and I agree - it’s pretty rare to see a film like this from the period focus on mental health issues. Is Mazes and Monsters ahead of its time in some ways, do you think?
It does seem as though it handles mental illness more sensitively than some of its contemporaries, which were quite quick to turn people suffering from mental illness into monsters or freaks.
If, say, someone from Psychotherapy Today were to look at the film, I think they’d treat it quite kindly, because it doesn’t demonise the victim and even if it resolves in a way that may not be best from a therapeutic perspective – essentially, enabling the sufferer’s delusions – it is an approach that could work in the short term, while you gently coax the sufferer back to reality.
The film is a relic of the Satanic Panic era and has been the subject of derision over the years for its attitudes towards roleplaying. Is that fair? Or do you think it’s ripe for reappraisal?
Empire critic Dan Jolin called it “laughably clueless,” which it is. But I think people will give the film a lot more credit than they expect to; certainly that’s been the experience of everyone who’s watched it prior to release. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it's “ripe for reappraisal”, but it’s certainly worth a second look with an open mind.
Have you read the book by Rona Jaffe that it’s based on?
I did, years ago. In those days we read everything we could get our hands on that was even tangentially D&D related, as there was so little published. Once you’d read everything on Gary Gygax’s reading list you were hungry for more.
Did you learn much about the production of the movie while preparing the Blu-ray release?
There’s a great deep dive into the film in the booklet accompanying the release, a more sober accompaniment to the shenanigans of the RPG podcasters – including the How We Roll crew, plus Scott Dorward and YouTuber Seth Skorkowsky – on the commentary track.
Was it difficult getting the rights to release the film?
It was fairly easy to get the rights; what was trickier was remastering the print supplied, which was pretty poor quality. We sent it to ITV’s restoration bay and they did a great job of ironing out the many problems you get when working with an 1980s made-for-TV movie shot on videotape.
I’m sure some people will complain that it’s imperfect, but for the 40th anniversary we would rather have something out there that’s the best available than not have it available at all. It’s not like it’s ever going to look amazing in 4K.
The Blu-ray has a very entertaining commentary track. What can you tell us about the guests on that?
It features fantasy author Seth Skorkowsky, Scott Dorward, Joe Trier and Eoghan Falvey of the How We Roll podcast and GM and writer Veronica Escamilla-Brady and it’s hilarious!
I expected everyone to have seen the film before they recorded it, but to my surprise half of them went in cold – which made it all the more fun as they were reacting in real time as the film unfolds.
So what’s coming up next on the label that you can talk about?
Nothing I can talk about yet, but we do have a few films in the pipeline and we’re building the label one small-time release at a time. Every release is a 1,000 copy limited edition and they’re currently sold only via our website so building the brand is a slow process.
Having said that, the more titles you release, the more people you reach, so hopefully our diverse slate will find new fans.
Mazes and Monsters - 40th Anniversary Edition is out now released by Plumeria Pictures
Order a copy now from plumeriapics.co.uk
This piece originally featured in Wyrd Science Vol.1 Issue 3 - The Horror Issue