A cobwebbed castle? Check. Damsel in distress? Uh huh. An icky, 200 year old secret? Why not! You are about to enter The Maze (1953), a low key flick that doles out the kind of smile-inducing simple pleasure unique to the era. I also think it was partly the inspiration for Burnt Offerings, one of my favorite films.
Released and distributed by Allied Artists Pictures in late July, The Maze was dismissed as gimmicky melodrama, thanks to the commercial go-round with 3-D that Hollywood to this day still thinks we want; but director William Cameron Menzies (Gone with the Wind, Invaders from Mars) was as good (or better) a production designer as director, so The Maze is, at the very least, a slick entertainment with canny use of space. At its most, it tells a tale quite unlike anything I’ve seen before (but have since).
Enjoying his engagement to Kitty (Veronica Hurst – The Boy Cried Murder) on the French Riviera, Gerald (Richard Carlson – Creature From the Black Lagoon) has to cut it short after receiving a letter from his late uncle’s estate telling him that he’s now the Baronet of Craven Castle in Scotland and that he must attend at once. Thinking he will be back within weeks, he says goodbye to Kitty and her aunt, Edith (Katherine Emery – Isle of the Dead) and heads out for Scotland.
Kitty and Edith receive no word back from Gerald until six weeks later when Edith gets a letter from him – he won’t be coming back, and he wishes to free Kitty from any future obligations. Concerned, the two head for the castle to confront Gerald; when they arrive, he is hostile towards them, telling them to leave at once. He also appears to have aged 20 years in a matter of weeks, and Kitty and Edith must race against time to figure out how to destroy this “curse” before it destroys Gerald…
You want an old fashioned, gothic manor to luxuriate in? The Maze has you covered; massive corridors, cloaked in darkness, no doubt well served by the 3D presentation. Based on the novel by Maurice Sandoz, it runs heavy on atmosphere and foreboding to disguise the lack of action; until Kitty’s friends show up, there is no tangible menace except the unknown. But once the final reel hits, Menzies ups the stakes and the tension with a reveal that is, well, pretty ridiculous.
Don’t worry, ridiculous is a safe word around these parts; as a matter of fact, it’s essential in a film that doesn’t give the viewer a palpable sense of terror for a good chunk of its running time. Perhaps my truism is this: If the film chooses to loiter, one hopes it kicks the viewer in the privates before fleeing the property. You’ll be icing yourself for days after this reveal.
The Maze is an exercise in understated content that feels bigger than it is thanks to Menzies, who works his designer muscles sore creating a moody setting within the walls of Craven. Much as he did with Invaders from Mars (also ’53) right before this, Menzies fills the film with a sense of heightened reality, possibly due to his infamous lack of rapport with actors; some give too much, some too little, but it keeps the viewer askew as to the film’s intentions.
Let’s take a minute to discuss 3D. When I was growing up, it was making the rounds again, buoyed by the surprise success of Comin’ at Ya! (1981); my first 3D experience would come two years later with Dennis Quaid’s cocaine romp Jaws 3-D, and I have to say it was pretty underwhelming. 3D, when done right, makes the images pulsate, throb, or at the very least seemingly make its way beyond the viewer. Jaws 3-D did all of this very poorly. But 3D unto itself offers little more than distraction, a gimmick that rolls back around the theatre every 20 years or so to strain the eyes of a new generation (or those older hoping it’s improved). The My Bloody Valentine remake (2009) has probably been my favorite experience with the glasses, because they just threw shit at the camera – and it works wonderfully. So: 3D or not 3D, that is the question. I’ll go without, unless you can make it as fun and goofy as MBV, thanks. Anyhoo, heard good things about The Maze’s 3D; I wouldn’t expect less with Menzies at the helm.
But the hook for me is a core connection to Burnt Offerings (1976), my very first horror film. Craven Castle, like the Allardyce manor, feeds off of the very lifeforce of its inhabitants; when Gerald leaves for the castle, he is brimming with life and good humor – when Kitty and Edith come face to face with him at the castle, he has aged 20 years and seems exhausted with anger. I momentarily thought that anyone who stayed in the castle succumbed to its malevolent presence, but alas it’s just the rightful heir that must live with the curse. Horror was still a couple years away from turning atomic, so evil was often found in legends from folklore or literature, at least until societal anxieties would rear their misbegotten heads shortly thereafter.
While The Maze doesn’t offer up any mushroom clouds or FrankenBarons, it vibrates at an uneasy frequency throughout; proving that what we can’t see can be just as terrifying as what we can. Until the ending that is; how you deal with the villain of this particular piece will say a lot more about your cinematic inclinations than any big budget horrorshow ever could, as well as measuring how many grains of salt you’ll allow. Just in case, bring the shaker.
The Maze is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE KILLER RESERVED NINE SEATS (1974)