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DECEMBER 2 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : MAZES & MONSTERS
From ironicconsumer.com

Imagine my surprise when I saw Mazes and Monsters at the local video store. On the cover were four fantasy-style warriors, and one of them looked like — could it be? Yes! Tom Hanks, in a swords and sorcery movie from the 80s?

Not quite.

The film opens as cops rush to the Pequod caverns, where a reporter explains that a missing university student was the "victim of a seemingly innocent game — Mazes and Monsters. It's kind of a psychodrama you might say, where these people deal with problems in their lives by acting them out." It all sounds a little fishy to me. If most roleplayers dealt with their real life problems in-game, there would be a lot more Quests to Defeat the Crippling Fear of Women.

Flashback to Jay Jay, a college bound fifteen year old sociopath with an affinity for funny hats. Maybe I'm understating that last part a bit — the man wears a different hat every twenty seconds. Jay Jay wants to be a comedian when he grows up, but other than the hat thing, he never does or says anything even remotely funny. So I guess he wants to grow up to be a comedian like Chris Rock.

Jay Jay starts a Mazes and Monsters campaign with his friends Daniel and Kate. But they still need one more player...

Enter Tom Hanks. His parents warn him to cut out that roleplay business. He listens to them, at least until Kate uses her feminine wiles to convince him to play. ("We're not fanatics," she promises.) This scene is the first clue that Mazes and Monsters treats roleplaying less like a game than an addiction. It's like something straight out of an after school special — which isn't too surprising, considering it was made for CBS.

Not long after their game begins, Jay Jay considers suicide. He wants it to be memorable, so he explores the nearby Pequod Caverns, looking for the perfect spot. Unfortunately, Jay Jay's weasely life is saved when he realizes the Caverns would make a better live action roleplay site than a tomb.

Of course, they're already involved in a campaign. So Jay Jay gets his character killed in an obvious trap, ruining the game for everyone. (Tom Hank's character, a holy man named Pardue, can't save him. "I'm all out of points!") Rather than roll up a new character, Jay Jay suggests that they end Daniel's campaign and begin a new one in the Pequod Caverns. "And naturally, I'll be the maze controller."

If he had tried to pull that with my friends, we would have shoved a hundred sided dice up his ass. But the others agree, and before you know it, Kate, Daniel and Tom Hanks are wandering the caverns, bumping into frightening traps, like a skeleton with a flashlight shoved in its mouth.

Hanks gets separated from the others, and as he listens to Jay Jay's echoing description of a monster, he hallucinates a real live Gorvil. Hanks FREAKS THE HELL OUT. Unbeknownst to his friends, the encounter has snapped Hank's fragile grasp on reality. Afterwards he refuses to break character, even on the ride home, proving there really is something more annoying than Jay Jay's hat collection.

Hanks starts calling himself Pardue (after his character) and breaks up with Kate because, as a Holy Man, he can no longer make love to her. "I can't believe this is happening!" Kate says."This is just like last time. This is deja vu!"

This is just like last time. Implying that she's had multiple boyfriends who become monks and could no longer have sex with her. You know, maybe — just maybe — the problem isn't Mazes and Monsters. Or maybe they weren't really monks.

Hanks gets separated from the others, and as he listens to Jay Jay's echoing description of a monster, he hallucinates a real live Gorvil. Hanks FREAKS THE HELL OUT. Unbeknownst to his friends, the encounter has snapped Hank's fragile grasp on reality. Afterwards he refuses to break character, even on the ride home, proving there really is something more annoying than Jay Jay's hat collection.

Hanks starts calling himself Pardue (after his character) and breaks up with Kate because, as a Holy Man, he can no longer make love to her. "I can't believe this is happening!" Kate says."This is just like last time. This is deja vu!"

This is just like last time. Implying that she's had multiple boyfriends who become monks and could no longer have sex with her. You know, maybe — just maybe — the problem isn't Mazes and Monsters. Or maybe they weren't really monks.

Anyway, Hanks wanders around New York city in a jazz daze. (If you don't know what a jazz daze is, it looks an awful lot like this). When a thug demands his pouch of spells, Hanks imagines that he's being mugged by the Gorvil and stabs him. Shocked from his fugue state, Hanks places a frantic call to Kate, telling her that he has blood on his knife and that he's in New York. Amazingly, Tom Hanks can actually pull scenes like this off, and as he sobs on the phone, it's more than a little creepy.

After approximately six weeks, our heroes realize that the "Two Towers" are the Twin Towers and stop Hanks from "joining the great Hall" — by jumping off the World Trade Center. (Hanks plans to use his magic to fly, so he's not suicidal, just really stupid. His magic NEVER worked, not when Jay Jay's character died, not during his two battles against the Gorvil, and probably not this time, either.) Teary reunion, fade to black. At least this thing has a happy ending, right? Wrong.

Three months later...

Everyone has stopped playing Mazes and Monsters. Even Daniel is happy to give up his dream of being a game programmer. They go to visit Hanks, who is resting at his mother's estate. Hanks greets them by their character names. Looks like his prognosis was a bit optimisitic — he still thinks he's Pardue the Holy Man. Hank's friends nurture his psychosis with one last Mazes and Monsters game, as Kate's melodramatic voice over closes the movie:

"And so, we played the game again. One last time. It didn't matter that there were no monsters — Pardue saw the monsters. We did not. We saw nothing but the death of hope, and the loss of our friend."

The message is clear: Imagination is dangerous. Do as your parents say. Beware the pointy dice. Mazes and Monsters will drive you mad, I tell you! Mad!!


DECEMBER 2 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SHRUNKEN HEADS
From moria.co.nz

USA. 1994.
Director – Richard Elfman, Screenplay – Matthew Bright, Story/Producer – Charles Band, Photography – Stephen McNutt, Music – Richard Band, Main Theme – Danny Elfman, Visual Effects Supervisor – Paul Gentry, Digital Visual Effects – DHD Postimage, Full Moon VFX Digital & Praxis, Miniatures – Donald Pennington Inc, Special Effects Supervisor – John Cazin, Makeup/Mechanical Effects – Alchemy FX (Supervisor – Michael S. Deak), Production Design – Milo. Production Company – Full Moon Entertainment.

Cast: Julius Harris (Mr Sumatra/Lieutenant-Colonel Aristide Pierre Lafayette Sumatra), Becky Herbst (Sally Conway), Aeryck Egan (Tommy Larson), A.J. Damato (Vinnie Benedetti), Meg Foster (Big Moe), Bo Sharon (Bill Turner), Darris Love (Freddie Thompson), Bodhi Elfman (Booger Martin), Leigh-Allyn Baker (Mitzi), Troy Fromin (Pudowski), Paul Linke (Mr Larson)

Plot: When young Tommy Larson and his two friends Bill and Freddie videotape the neighbourhood gang The Vipers stripping a car and turn the tape over to the police, The Vipers swear vengeance. The three of them are captured and taken before the local mobster Big Moe. However, they manage to make an escape and steal Big Moe’s gambling receipts. Ordered to get the receipts back, The Vipers instead shoot Tommy and the others. Their friend, the Haitian comic-book dealer Mr Sumatra, a former member of the tonton macoute, sneaks into the funeral home, cuts off and shrinks the boys’ heads and then brings their spirits back to life inside the shrunken heads. Mr Sumatra then teaches the boys how to harness their powers and sends them out into the neighbourhood to seek vengeance against Big Moe and the Vipers.

Father and son Albert and Charles Band have made an extremely prolific output of direct-to-video horror films, which have include the various Ghoulies, Puppetmaster and Trancers series. Many of the Bands’ films – Dolls (1987), Dollman (1991), Demonic Toys (1992), Blood Dolls (1999), Doll Graveyard (2005) and, of course, the effort that Shrunken Heads most resembles, Puppetmaster (1989), which has so far spawned nine sequels – have a fascination with dolls and toys come to life. Among these, Shrunken Heads, with its concept of shrunken heads returned to life and flying around to exact revenge against street thugs, is one of their more conceptually whacked out efforts.

Shrunken Heads comes from director Richard Elfman. Richard Elfman was one of the principal members of the alternate rock group Oingo Boingo and is the brother of the better known Danny Elfman, the composer celebrated for his scores for Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and a host of other films, as well as creator of the theme tune for tv’s The Simpsons (1989– ). Richard has developed a minor cult as a director. His first film was the totally whacked-out Forbidden Zone (1980), an almost unclassifiable surrealist sf film. Subsequent to Shrunken Heads, Richard made a mediocre vampire film Modern Vampires (1998). At the same time as Shrunken Heads came out, Richard also made the juvenile crime thriller Street of Rage (1994), where he took the pseudonym of Aristide Sumatra, the chief voodoo practitioner here. (Richard Elfman can be seen in a cameo here as the person leading the people on the bus in a singalong during the climactic chase). Shrunken Heads was written by Matthew Bright, one of Elfman’s co-band members in Oingo Boingo. Matthew Bright went on to become one of the most exciting directors of the late 1990s with the likes of Freeway (1996), Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby (1999) and Ted Bundy (2002).

Shrunken Heads alas proves to be a disappointment – in the sense that one expected more of a film with such a wacky premise. As it is, it is not much more than a B movie with a novelty concept – in fact, there is not much that sets Shrunken Heads apart from being another Puppetmaster sequel. The optical effects of the flying heads are mediocre – Elfman cuts between closeups of the actors’ faces and brief medium angles of the flying creatures so often that it is difficult to follow what is meant to be happening during the action.

As the central character of Mr Sumatra, Julius H. Harris, at age 71, often seems a bit beyond it and to be struggling with the requirements of the role. (Of considerable amusement is the character’s total hodgepodge of a background – he is said to be from Haiti but is called Mr Sumatra, which is one of the islands that comprise Indonesia; he swears by the name of Haile Selassie, who was the emperor of Ethiopia up until 1974 and most known as a convert to Rastafarianism; and claims to have been a member of the tonton macoute, which was at least Haitian but was a far less nicer organisation than the film would seem to have them – formed by Haitian dictator Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, it could be considered the Caribbean equivalent of Hitler’s SS). An unrecognisable Meg Foster is made up in a double-breasted suit as a cliché version of a mobster, although gets to play the part with unmistakeable overtones of a butch dyke.

For all Richard Elfman’s probably undeserved cult reputation, Shrunken Heads is ordinary in terms of its potential wackiness. There is an almost perverse scene where the head of the lead youth burrows down the top of Becky Herbst and between her cleavage. However, compared to the similar severed head scene in the Bands’ Re-Animator (1985), there is a singular lack of anything perverse or tongue-in-cheek to the scene. The tone is almost one of sweetness rather than anything kinky. Furthermore, the actress and head are never seen in conjunction, which considerably diminishes the effectiveness of the scene.

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