John Hennigan as the Minotaur in Dave Made a Maze (Chelsea Coleman/Gravitas Ventures)

A 30-year-old, frustrated artist starts building a maze out of cardboard, until the project consumes his life, figuratively speaking. But then the maze takes on a consciousness of its own and begins growing, evolving, until it threatens to consume its creator and everyone he knows—literally.

Admittedly, this is a pretty out-there premise, but to the credit of Dave Made a Maze, which premiered earlier this year at the Slamdance Film Festival and now arrives in theatres and through video on demand, it never takes itself too seriously. And what it may lack in gravitas, it more than makes up in far-out visuals, a wacky sense of humor, and empathetic characters.

Director Bill Watterson wisely refrains from tossing viewers into the deep end right away. The earliest scenes mostly take place in the living room of Dave (Nick Thune), the aforementioned creator of the maze, and his much-suffering girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). Arriving home from a trip, the latter comes face-to-face with Dave’s cardboard structure, which, from the outset, is a marvel of construction incorporating vacuum hoses and steam jets. His voice emanating from its depths, Dave claims he cannot find his way out, which Annie has trouble believing, and so they invite over their mutual friend, Gordon (Adam Busch), who subsequently invites over many more mutual acquaintances to gawk.

The tension in the couple’s relationship is obvious from the start, though the filmmakers use this early section to spell it out: Dave constantly disrupts their shared life with all kinds of crazy endeavors, while Annie inevitably restores it to something resembling normalcy. It’s a dynamic that has left Annie emotionally worn out. However, that doesn’t stop her from forming a rescue party after the trapped Dave reveals that he’s been without food for three days and counting. Undeterred in the face of his protestations that the maze is booby-trapped and far too dangerous, she enlists Gordon; Harry (James Urbaniak), an aspiring documentary filmmaker; and other guests, who have been champing at the bit to go into the maze.

They find Dave’s initial claim that the maze is much bigger on the inside to be accurate, maybe even an understatement. What they are less prepared for is the sheer visual randomness of the place, as there are entire sections seemingly inspired by random objects, including playing cards and synthesizers. Along with bending the laws of everyday physics, there’s something else clearly at work, too: the walls absorb human blood; the traps are lethal, even though they are ostensibly made of cardboard; and all kinds of objects that shouldn’t be alive are very much sentient, such as origami cranes. Unfortunately, the rescue party has had to pass through the mouth of a massive cardboard wall face, so now they’re trapped, too.

Harry, accompanied by his camera crew, asks pointed questions such as, “How long has Dave been able to bring inanimate objects to life?” A satisfying answer seems unfathomable, and the film never tries to come up with one. Actually, Dave attempts a response, shortly after the gang finally catches up with him, but after a beat, even he gives up. However, he thinks he knows the way out, although it would involve what would be an unprecedented act for him: finishing something he started building.

Despite the life-and-death stakes involved, the film constantly undercuts its own seriousness. After a flying cardboard blade decapitates a member of the group, what comes flying out of the victim looks at first glance like blood, but it turns out to be yarn. At that point, someone asks if the friend has just died or been turned into a craft project. There is also a streak of self-referential humor reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s great Shaun of the Dead. Like that earlier film, Dave Makes a Maze centers on men-children who are ineffectual in their real lives but quite adept in the strange new reality they find themselves in. Realizing that the maze is governed by the same rules as children’s games, they successfully elude the flesh-eating Minotaur roaming the corridors by taping up a piece of cloth to create a secret wall. (The creature is there because, as Dave explains, his maze was inspired by the concept of a labyrinth.)

What elevates this thoroughly entertaining romp are its two central protagonists. Dave, as the animated title sequence reveals, is constantly diving into new creative pursuits, but he lacks the persistence to ever finish any of them. It’s the pursuit itself that he seems most into, and the maze offers a creative universe in which he can lose himself forever. Annie, meanwhile, is all serious early on, but she becomes more compelling once inside the maze. There she continues to play the straight woman, but at least there’s a practical advantage now. She keeps the focus on the mission: to find a way back home.

There are times, though, in which Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears struggle to give their cast enough to do (Gordon seems far less essential once the team locates Dave), and many of the jokes land with a thud. However, they more than make up for it with constant visual and narrative inventiveness. Dave Made a Maze is likely to find an audience with lovers of offbeat and cult cinema. Like the maze itself, the film looks curious and strange at first glance, but once you’re in it, there are unexpected depths.

Directed by Bill Watterson
Written by Steven Sears and Watterson
Released by Gravitas Ventures
USA. 80 min. Not rated
With Nick Thune, Meera Robit Kumbhani, Adam Busch, and James Urbanisk