Tom Hanks' film debut was a drama about Dungeons & Dragons


Where there’s great popularity, there’s sometimes an equal and opposite backlash. Pokemon has occasionally been accused of promoting everything from Satanism to animal cruelty. The book Why Knock Rock, published in 1984, warned of the morally corrosive dangers hidden in the music of Judas Priest, Kiss and Led Zeppelin.

Before all this, there was the moral panic surrounding Dungeons & Dragons. From humble beginnings, the role-playing game quickly became a phenomenon in the 1970s, taking the company behind it – Tactical Studies Rules, founded by Gary Gygax – from a tiny cottage industry to a 600-strong firm by the end of the decade.

Dungeons & Dragons’ brilliance lies in its freeform design; with only a few raw materials – dice, counters, a rulebook – the game conjures up an entire fantasy world in the minds of its players. With one player taking on the role of the Dungeon Master, responsible for interpreting the rules and describing what’s happening in the game, the rest of the players take on the roles of adventurers, battling through an imaginary world of sorcery and monsters. Long before the advent of online gaming, Dungeons & Dragons was laying the groundwork for the MMORPG.

As D&D‘s popularity swept America, its following among teenagers provoked an accompanying ripple of moral panic. The media interest began in 1979, when a 16-year-old boy named Dallas Egbert III suddenly vanished from Michigan State University. When Egbert’s well-to-do family hired a private investigator, William Dear, to find their missing son, word emerged that he was interested in Dungeons & Dragons. Dear publically suggested that Egbert had headed into the university’s underground tunnels to play the game; as writer Peter Cardwell later pointed out, it hardly mattered that Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop game, and not something you could play in a darkened tunnel. The media, even more ignorant of D&D’s rules than the detective, decided that the RPG and Egbert’s disappearance had to be linked.

While Egbert was eventually found, the case took a tragic turn one year later – something you can read about in more detail here. For now, it’s probably sufficient to say that, from 1979 onwards, Dungeons & Dragons became a target for all kinds of accusations from different angles, whether it was the suggestion that the game promoted Satanism or witchcraft, or that regularly playing it could trigger psychotic episodes. 

Several books were written about the negative potential of RPGs in the wake of Egbert’s disappearance. One of the first was Mazes And Monsters, written by Rona Jaffe and published in 1981 – less than two years after the Egbert stories emerged in the media. Leaning heavily on the misguided news reports about D&D‘s role in the student’s disappearance, the novel’s about four RPG-obsessed teenagers who play a fictionalised version of the game – and how one of them abruptly vanishes.

Which brings us to the TV movie of the same name, hurriedly directed by Steven H Stern and first shown in late 1982. Like the book, it’s a cautionary tale about the supposed impact of RPGs on delicate young minds – and perhaps best remembered as the first feature role for a young Tom Hanks.

Hanks stars as Robbie Wheeling, a university freshman who joins his new friends Jay Jay (Chris Makepeace, Kate (Wendy Crewson) and Daniel (David Wallace) in games of Mazes and Monsters. Like most teenagers, the four have tensions with their parents – Jay Jay’s mother’s a control freak, and Daniel’s father doesn’t want him to become a videogame designer. Robbie, on the other hand, is more troubled than the others realised; he’s already been forced out of one school for playing roleplaying games too much. When Jay Jay invites Robbie to join his Mazes and Monsters group, Robbie reluctantly agrees.

The trouble begins when Jay Jay decides to take the RPG a step further: “I propose we play Mazes and Monsters in a real setting,” he says. “Naturally, I’ll be the maze controller.” 

Having stolen borrowed a plastic skeleton and some costumes from the university’s store cupboards, Jay Jay and his friends head into the caverns for a bout of live-action roleplaying – which is where the trouble begins. The game somehow plunges Robbie into a delusional state where he thinks he’s really Pardieu, his character in Mazes and Monsters. A few days later, having retreated further into an imaginary world of hooded figures and quests, Robbie vanishes, leading his friends – and later the police – to assume he’s gone off into the nearby caves and gotten lost.

Viewed today, Mazes And Monsters looks like something from a parallel dimension. The characters don’t so much converse as exchange plot points (“Have you noticed that Robbie’s acting a bit weird lately? What about his blessing people all the time and giving his stuff away and acting so holy?”), and the entire production budget appears to have been spent on the construction of some fibreglass caves. The film starts with a stern address from news anchor Budd Haydn in a trenchcoat, who warns us about a game that could cause “a loss of distinction between fantasy and reality – and possibly the loss of life in the process”. Then the opening credits roll over an incongruously sappy ballad about friendship.

The makers of Mazes And Monsters caught Hanks just as he was on the cusp of big-screen success; by 1982, he’d appeared in TV shows like The Love Boat and comedy series Bosom Buddies, and made a brief appearance in the 1980 thriller, He Knows You’re Alone. The actor’s breakthrough hit, Splash, and the less widely-remembered but similarly money-spinning Bachelor Party, were still two years away.  How strange, then, to see Tom Hanks floating about in a role which requires him to wear a hooded cloak and wave a plastic sword about.  

To be fair to Hanks, he does best with the material he’s given in Mazes And Monsters. He’s asked to scream and flail his arms at a giant green monster on two separate occasions, which he does perfectly well – admirable, given that the monster looks like something knocked together for a school play. Funnily enough, it’s none other than Kevin Peter Hall in the monster suit – he’d go on to play a far more menacing creature in the 1987 classic, Predator. Also tucked away in Mazes And Monsters, you’ll find Anne Francis, who famously played Altaira in Forbidden Planet, and Vivian Miles, who played Lila Crane in Psycho.

As for the kids surrounding Tom Hanks, Chris Makepeace, who plays Jay Jay the Dungeon Master (sorry, maze controller), went on to play a role in the cult horror flick Vamp (1986), which starred Grace Jones. Wendy Crewson, who plays Kate, has appeared in all kinds of stuff, from Arnold Schwarzenegger action film The 6th Day to The Santa Clause 2 to CSI.

Maze And Monsters is therefore a unique footnote in history – not just thanks to its casting choices, but because of its part in the whole media flap surrounding Dungeons & Dragons. We later discover that Robbie didn’t disappear into a network of caverns at all, but instead wandered around Manhattan on an imaginary quest. Robbie’s friends track him down, yet nobody can get him to snap out of his delusional state; the film ends with Jay Jay, Kate and Daniel talking excitedly about their plans for the future (“You don’t know how good it is to be writing my first novel!” “I’ll be happy as a future captain of industry in future software!”) while Robbie’s left behind at his mother’s house, lost in a non-existent realm of mazes and monsters. 

Later in the 80s, a considerable amount of research was put into the psychological effects of Dungeons & Dragons, and these reports – such as this one – found no “significant correlation between years of playing the game and emotional stability.”

Gradually, the fuss surrounding D&D ebbed, perhaps because attention began to turn to violent videogames such as Mortal Kombat and Doom. Monsters And Mazes, ironically enough, harks back to a time when the media had created its own fictional reality: a place where a roleplaying game was capable of smudging the lines between fiction and reality, leaving impressionable young minds open to such evils as witchcraft, satanism and even murder.   

Thirty-five years on, Mazes And Monsters still lingers on the fringes of pop history; the movie can sometimes be found on the DVD racks in discount stores and charity shops. Hunt around on Amazon Prime UK, and you’ll currently find the film buried among its listings. It’s a Rasputin-like reminder of the small role a young Hanks played in a very odd moral panic.



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