By Elias Savada.
Is there any way to regain whatever amount of dignity an actor has gained in his career after he’s played a penis? Funny guy Nick Thune, who played a live action prick in 2014’s penile comedy Bad Johnson, thinks so. With the titular role in Dave Made a Maze, Thune’s character is just…handy…with cardboard. While he does proclaim himself a spineless asshole early in the film, it’s not because he feels like that oxymoronic part of the anatomy. With what might be called in-jokes poking amusement at Thune’s earlier role, there are at least two dick jokes tossed into the script written by Steven Sears and Bill Watterson (from a story by Sears). It’s Watterson’s first feature as a director, and it’s a doozy. I think it can best be paraphrased as a wildly fantastic funhouse retelling of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, staged in a grade school set of Doctor Who‘s TARDIS.
Thirty-year-old Dave lives with his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). She’s the bread winner; he’s the penniless coach potato. Returning home from an out-of-town trip, she finds him self-imprisoned inside a ramshackle structure he has constructed in the middle of their living room. He claims it’s an unfinished labyrinth and that he’s been lost in it for three days. Annie is not amused, but Dave’s sincerely frantic tone, coupled with the nature of his distant voice emanating from deep within the small construction of boxes, gives her pause. She calls Gordon (Adam Busch), Dave’s best friend, who is intrigued and perplexed by the situation. Other eccentric friends, enthralled by the oddball event, quickly surround the house within a house. Among them is Harry (James Urbaniak), a self-absorbed documentarian who decides to film (with a cameraman and boom operator in tow) the goofy antics that ensue. Despite Dave’s warnings not to enter, nearly all of them do.
Danger, of sorts, lurks within.
I don’t know where the idea for this funny-silly and sometimes hallucinogenic movie came from – too many shipments from Amazon and afraid to throw away the boxes? – but Watterson, an actor and occasional production assistant for over a dozen years, has now built his future on cardboard. Actually, over 30,000 square feet of it that he and his production design team (John Sumner and Trisha Gunn) shaped into almost two dozen wonderfully wacky sets. It may have started with on an acid trip while watching old VHS tapes of mid-1980s science fiction films, if you’re going to believe Watterson: “I wanted to explore the mad fantasy worlds and heightened realities of a Labyrinth or a Legend, but to see that journey taken by foul-mouthed adults rather than a band of plucky tweens.”
I do feel there are Goonies lurking about, too.
No matter what lunacy this throwback machine is pumping out as the ten or so friends traverse the strange and wondrous paper landscape, there is demented genius at work as the cast rounds every ever-changing corner. They shuffle about one fantastical chambers after another, including a room stacked with playing cards; a magical music area with white and black panels arranged as a flowing, immersive keyboard; even a trash bin that might have been inspired from a certain Star Wars film. I kept thinking about Journey to the Center of the Earth (the 1959 version with Pat Boone and James Mason), and how Jules Verne’s inspiration for that film also can be seen at work in Dave Made a Maze. On a much smaller budget.
The group of rescuers and Dave become harried cardboard hand puppets in one sequence, and scratchy black-and-white film characters in another, each reciting the best lines from Raging Bull with various comic inflection. And yes, there is a hypnotic cardboard vagina, as mesmerizing as the Eye of Sauron. “It’s a trap,” Dave cautions Annie and the others (one by one), just as they are about to explore this nether region.
The funhouse also features several Rube Goldberg-style devices, the first of which provides an enchanting, hilarious look at death as an artsy-crafty experience using spray string, ribbons, and confetti. There are a couple of Flemish tourists (why not?), and, of course, a Minotaur (played by John Hennigan a.k.a. WWE sensation John Morrison).
Is this a thinking man’s maze, or just a labyrinth that seems to be taking on its own demonic notions? The phrase “smoke and mirrors” morphs into “smoke and cardboard!” Sadly, this self-evolving installation piece won’t be a future attraction at one of Disney’s theme parks. Image an endless ride because you’re not sure where to get off.
Eventually the group’s MacGyver skills kick in. A towel, a very sharp Samurai sword, some cutting shears, wool yarn, a long length of rope, some playing cards, and, naturally, some duct tape.
Optical illusions are whimsically carbon-based. Origami creatures abound. There are booby traps, including a rather peculiar string trap, waiting for someone’s leg to trigger it. Is it giggling in maniacal glee? The opening and closed credits are a lot of fun, the visual effects are quite organic, and I adored the Zoetrope salute to the prehistory of cinema. Although there is no disclaimer, I’m sure no cardboard boxes were harmed in the making of this film.
For my D.C.-area readers, it won’t open here, but I’ve been told it will be somewhere on video-on-demand. Keep an eye open.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).