Maze, The (1953)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-06-11 07:54

Written by: Daniel B. Ullman (screenplay), Maurice Sandoz (novel)
Directed by: William Cameron Menzies
Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, and Katherine Emery

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

The unknown beckons you!

The Maze comes down to one money shot that I imagine may have at least jolted its contemporary audiences, if only because it would have been aided by relatively new 3D photography. Such technology had been around for years, but the format really emerged during the early 50s with a rash of films like this. Youíre familiar with the more popular brethren of The Maze (House of Wax, 13 Ghosts, The House on Haunted Hill), but William Cameron Menziesís effort has been lost in the tangle of obscurity. The film's promotion insisted that audiences keep its ending a secret, a smart tactic considering The Maze has very little to offer beyond that.

This is the stuff of melodrama: Scotsman Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) has recently become enganged to Kitty (Veronica Hurst), and the two intend to marry in a few months. Before the two can tie the knot, Geraldís uncle passes away and bequeaths him the family castle back in the homeland. While it seems like heís just landed an awesome pad for he and his bride, it comes with a catch: he has to return to the castle alone to carry out some mysterious family tradition that has left previous heirs unwed and dead at a relatively young age. After receiving the staggering news that Gerald has broken their engagement, Kitty heads to Scotland with her aunt (Katherine Emery) to get to the bottom of the situation.

She sifts for a long, long time. Weíre talking about a mega deliberate, great-grandfather to a Ti West movie type of slow burn here. Upon arriving at the castle, Kitty notices that Gerald seems different, which might be an understatement given his dramatically altered appearance: gone is the vibrant, youthful guy, here replaced with a haggard, disheveled doppelganger who is far from inviting towards his unexpected guests. In fact, he stops just short of treating them like prisoners by cordoning off portions of the house and confining them to their bedrooms after night falls. Heís obviously hoarding some secret that becomes the center of the filmís very limited propulsion. In an effort to assure viewers that something horrific is lurking within the castle walls, thereís a scene where the aunt catches a shadowy glimpse of a seemingly inhuman shape before the film reverts to a talky, domestic drama, complete with Kitty inviting mutual friends over to essentially stage an intervention.

Everyone is at least gathered in an ornately creepy place. While Menzies directed over a dozen films over the course of two decades (with The Maze being his final feature), he gained more renown as an art director and production designer (in fact, the latter credit was invented for him) for the likes of Selznick and Hitchcock. His lush, distinctive visual flair is an obvious fit for something like The Maze, a film brimming with ethereal vistas and enormous architecture (his framing often swallows his characters with high-arching walls). Craven Castle is predictably draped in shadows and fog, while the underused titular maze remains a striking image nonetheless. Itíd be the stuff of an Old Dark House movie if anything remotely compelling happened in side (such as a murder, which is pretty much required by that particular genre). Instead, there are a handful of obvious 3D gags here (such as a bat screeching towards the screen) and there that may have been of interest when the format was new but come off as completely gratuitous now.

The climactic jump does seem like it might have been quite a scream, though. Iím not exaggerating when I say the entire film comes down to it: with about five minutes left, everything is finally illuminated with the appearance of the houseís big secret. Conceptually, it doesnít disappoint. The Maze seemingly sets you up for some typical werewolf crap before suddenly shifting towards another direction thatís broad, silly, and slightly unsettling all at once. Thereís something disturbingly inhuman and tragic about the filmís eventual revelation (as you can tell, Iím really tip-toeing around spoiling it since to do so would literally give the entire film away). Lovecraft seems to have been a slight influence, too, which is never a bad thing, even if itís underdeveloped and slightly undone by the special effects bringing it to life. Without giving too much away, letís just say itís a man-in-suit deal thatís goofy and weird, if only because it does come out of left field. In fact, the film is at its most effective during these bewildering moments that feature a mysterious creature bounding about the screen without much of an explanation (donít worryóthe final couple of minutes provide an exposition dump to untangle it all and shuttle us to the end credits).

Iíve said this about several films, but The Maze feels like it could have made for a fine episode of The Twilight Zone. At 80 minutes, it feels far too bloated considering it hinges on some undercooked drama (Hurst is in relentlessly pugnacious damsel mode, while Carlson is a reliably tortured soul) and very little plot development. Its one unique element also canít compensate for the utter familiarity that dominates most of the proceedings. The Maze is skirting around a few different genres (chiefly, the old dark house and the monster movie) without excelling at any of them, and it feels almost unfair that Menzies should be chained to such an obviously threadbare production that constrained his imagination (the maze itself barely figures in the proceedings when it could have made for an obviously nightmarish set piece). Currently, the film hasnít made it to DVD, so itís been resigned to Netflix streaming, which is a perfect platform for these lost, semi-forgotten curiosities. The Maze might hold some interest for those with an eye towards Menziesís career and Hollywood history, but itís definitely a bit of a footnote in a more storied oeuvre. Rent it!

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