The Maze (1953)
Starring Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery and Michael Pate. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. From Allied Artists Pictures.
I stumbled on this film quite by accident. A random search for “classic horror films” of a certain length yielded The Maze so I checked it out. I was pleasantly surprised. And I wasn’t.
Gerald MacTeam, a Scotsman, is traveling through Europe with his fiancée, Kitty (Hurst) and her Aunt Edith (Emery) and some friends. He suddenly gets word that his uncle, a baronet, has died and Gerald has inherited his title and Craven Castle, the family estate in the Scottish highlands. Gerald leaves his party of traveling companions to deal with this family business promising Kitty he’ll be in touch soon. Weeks go by before Kitty hears from Gerald and the news is not good. Kitty is abruptly informed by telegram that Gerald cannot possibly marry her. She is to go on with her life and forget about him. Kitty, of course, is concerned by Gerald’s uncharacteristic tone and decides to go to Craven Castle, with Aunt Edith in tow, to investigate.
The two women are shocked at what they find at the castle. Gerald seems to have aged ten years and he is obviously tortured by something. Also at the castle they find two sullen servants who are devoted to Gerald and very stern and unwelcoming. Finally they find that the backyard of the castle is one giant hedge maze. Gerald insists the women leave at once but Kitty won’t hear of it. She and her aunt stay the night. They are informed that there are rules of the castle that stipulate they avoid the maze at all costs, refrain from wandering through the castle by day and that they be locked in their rooms overnight. The ladies retire to bed and hear their doors locked. Later, they hear an odd sound in the hallway outside their doors. Through the crack underneath, they can see the shadow of something moving along the floor outside their room. This, of course, is unsettling.
Aunt Edith gets loose the next day and stumbles on a room in the back of the castle. Upon entering, she sees something hideous moving in the corner and promptly faints. With Aunt Edith confined to her bed with shock and sickness, the two women must linger at the castle, to the consternation of Gerald. When Kitty sees odd footprints on the carpet outside her door, she reconnoiters. She notices that the stairs leading up to the room where her aunt saw the hideous thing are oddly huge, like platforms, she says. She also finds Gerald reading a book on teratology and decides something must be done. Through a passing farmer, she gets word to her friends – one of whom is a doctor – to come to the castle. Her friends arrive and decide that Gerald has gone mad. Instead, what they find horrifies them beyond even their wildest imaginations.
William Cameron Menzies was the original “production designer”. He was working in silent film for Paramount before it was called Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) as a special effects artist and a setting designer. He soon developed a reputation as the top man in Hollywood for the design of a production. His work on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) drew the attention of David O. Selznick who hired him to work on Gone With the Wind. The term “Production Designer” was coined for Menzies and he directed the “burning Atlanta” segment of that legendary Civil War drama. In fact, Menzies was so integral to the look of Gone With the Wind that a memo had been circulated stating that Menzies had the final word on many visual aspects of the film and subsequently Gone With the Wind bears the credit “This Production Designed By William Cameron Menzies”. At this point, though, Menzies had already directed 1936’s Things to Come, Chandu the Magician with Bela Lugosi and he would go on to helm The Maze and Invaders from Mars, both in 1953.
The Maze was part of the “3-D Movie” craze of the 1950’s. In an effort to draw viewers away from their television sets and back to the theatres, filmmakers came up with this process that lent itself well to Menzies’ visual style. Many prints of this film have by this time jettisoned the 3-D process but you can spot certain shots and setups that no doubt exist because of the original 3-D presentation. The film was produced by Allied Artists and, in a “Six Degrees of Elvis” element, Allied was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1966 when it released the Presley picture Tickle Me, the financial success of which brought the studio back from the brink. The Maze is based on a short novel written by William Sandoz and featuring illustrations by Salvador Dali. In turn, this novel is based on the legend of Glamis Castle in Scotland that reportedly contained a mysterious resident that lived in a hidden part of the castle and that no one ever saw. Interestingly, Sandoz seems to have been involved with a pharmaceutical firm that supplied legal LSD to the medical profession in the 1960’s.
The film stars Richard Carlson, an actor I know best from Beyond Tomorrow, a fantasy film centered around Christmas. He also appeared in Too Many Girls with Desi Arnaz, Hold That Ghost with Abbott and Costello and later in King Solomon’s Mines and Creature from the Black Lagoon. He also was given the chance to direct a handful of small pictures before wrapping up his career in films by appearing with Elvis Presley in 1969’s Change of Habit, which was also EP’s last acting role. Veronica Hurst is an English actress born in Malta. She is one of those actresses that acted in virtually nothing anybody has ever heard of on this side of the Atlantic but she is a delight as the fiancee of the tortured MacTeam. She looks and acts a little like Debbie Reynolds and she is pretty and bright and seems to be totally comfortable and confident in front of the camera. She plays Kitty as headstrong and determined and she actually carries this film and does it well. Miss Hurst is still with us as of this writing, aged 89.
Australian Michael Pate plays Gerald’s butler. Pate was seen earlier in the decade in a couple of Boris Karloff horror vehicles. He was the first man to portray James Bond’s CIA buddy, Felix Leiter, and did so in the television production of Casino Royale in 1954. He went on to a middling career in films: Hondo, Sergeant’s Three and McLintock! and then worked extensively in his homeland and with his son, also an actor. Aunt Edith is played by Katherine Emery. I thought I had seen her in something before but I must be mistaken. She has a mere 12 acting credits to her name and The Maze is the last of them. She lived to age 76, dying in 1980.
The funny thing about The Maze is the maze itself. It serves as little more than a setting for a small aspect of the plot. The film is still remembered today only because of it’s 3-D presentation. It was one of the first 3-D films and it helped introduce the format to the masses. And then there’s the pay-off; the reveal at the end of the story. How do I describe it without spoilers? It is remarkable, actually, but it really matters little. The pacing and the build up to this reveal are handled surprisingly well. The Maze received mixed reviews at time of release. Notably, one reviewer praised Carlson’s “excellent” performance. One of my favourite reviews is most apt; “(The Maze is) moronic but entertaining”. Bang on.