(5/10) In a nutshell: More an old-school horror movie than a science fiction film, this low-budget effort by the visual innovator William Cameron Menzies is an atmospheric mystery play with strong expressionist leanings and a Lovecraftian atmosphere. The female heroin of the piece travels to a remote Scottish castle to find out why her husband-to-be has broken off their engagement weeks before the marriage with a cryptic letter saying he must remain secluded in his family’s old mansion. Starring sci-fi cult actor Richard Carlson. The script stalls, the characters are flat and the ending is downright silly.
The Maze (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Based on the novel The Maze by Maurice Sandoz. Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Lilian Bond. Produced by Richard V. Heermance, Walter Mirisch for Allied Artists Pictures. IMDb score: 6.0/10
The Maze is a science fiction film only by a very narrow margin, thanks to revelation in the very final scene in the movie, which I won’t reveal, since it would destroy the viewing pleasure for all involved. But I’ll try and give it a short run-down without giving too much away. The plot follows young Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) who is engaged to the dreamy Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson). During a holiday in France Gerald suddenly gets called to his old family castle in Scotland, and several weeks later sends a short letter telling Kitty that their engagement is off – pressing matters demand his presence at the castle, and they are never to meet again. Distraught, Kitty decides to travel to the castle, and her stern aunt Edith (Katherine Emery) insists on tagging along.
Gerald is a changed man, white-haired, stern and cold, he scalds them for showing up and insists they must be gone by the next morning. He is secretive and lives in the castle along with only a few servants, who also seem to be affected by some strange malady that engulfs the creepy old mansion, causing them to seemingly age quicker than usual. At night Kitty hears strange sploshing footsteps outside her room, and finds a secret passageway to an abandoned corridor that leads to a window, where she sees Gerald and the servants leading some creature hidden under a cloth through the maze in the garden – where the guests have been forbidden to enter.
On the pretext of Edith developing a cold, the pair insist on staying in the mansion until she is well, and Kitty calls for some of Gerald’s old friends to come up to Scotland and visit him, hoping that seeing his old buddies will make him loosen up. The mystery deepens as Kitty sees a strange footprint on a carpet, and the next night she again sees the men leading the hidden creature to the maze. The next day the friends arrive, to the dismay of Gerald, who nonetheless lightens up during a dinner. The next night they are able to confront Gerald, the servants and the creature in the maze, and the whole affair gets a conclusion that, as mentioned, has a sci-fi-ish explanation, which I won’t reveal.
The movie, made for Allied Artists Pictures in 3-D was directed by none other than production designer legend and director William Cameron Menzies. For more on Menzies, see my reviews of the lavish British epic Things to Come (1936, review) and the cult classic Invaders from Mars (1953, review). Suffice to say that where Menzies always triumphed in the visual department, he had problems in the dialogue and script department throughout most of his films. Such is partly the case with The Maze.
In his memoirs Walter Mirisch, the executive producer of Allied Artists, said that the film came about when AA discovered that Monogram, the sister-corporation of the newly founded AA, held the rights to a book called The Maze by Swiss author Maurice Sandoz. Sandoz was an interesting character. Born into wealth, the educated but eccentric Sandoz pursued a career as a chemist until he was forced to quit because of eye-problems and instead pursued his love for composing and writing. His novels and short stories often dealt with seemingly supernatural phenomena in a Lovecraftian vein. But more often than not, a final plot twist revealed that the whole business had a ”scientific” explanation, often more far-fetched than the actual supernatural explanation. Such is also the case in The Maze. His novels were published in small, exclusive editions, often illustrated by noted surrealist artists, such as Salvador Dalí, who did the artwork for The Maze. It has been pointed out that the story shares remarkable similarities with the old Scottish legend of the Castle of Glamis, which I’ll leave to you to google if you want to know more. Certainly Sandoz would have been aware of it, as a friend of old horror stories and Lovecraftian fiction.
Studio writer Daniel B. Ullman kept the gothic feel of the mystery novel, and Menzies directed the black-and-white film more like a thirties horror movie than a fifties science fiction film. Ullman also kept the narration by Edith Murray, who delivers a long introduction straight to the camera in the style of a TV presenter, which immediately sets the tone for the film as an old-timey ghost story. Actress Katherine Emery does a great job with the role, bringing a good deal of humanity to the character of the stern aunt, and adds some nice and much needed dashes of humour to the proceedings. Emery was primarily a stage actor, but also appeared in about a dozen B movies, best known for her role as the walking corpse in the Boris Karloff film Isle of the Dead (1945).
The biggest problem of the movie is actually the reveal, which inevitably comes off as unintentionally hilarious. Some good scripting and actors doing their best to create the appropriate emotional state for the final scene partly overcomes this, and makes for a potentially teary-eyed farewell of one of the main characters. But it still doesn’t change the fact that after all the carefully built suspense, the big mystery turns out to be – well, as said, I don’t want to spoil ut, but let’s just say that it is extremely difficult to take the whole thing seriously. Or as Edmund G. Bansak writes in his book about director Val Lewton, a friend and inspiration for Menzies: ”Menzies’ film presents a good argument for the preference for undisclosed horror”.
The suspense is extremely well built, thanks in large part to Menzies’ talents as an production designer and his knack for creating atmosphere through lighting and camera work. The sets are reminiscent of the old Universal horror films, with an added touch of expressionistic surrealism, partly thanks to the 3-D filming. There are a lot of diagonals in long hallways to create a sense of depth, the distance between furniture and props are sometimes strangely long. There’s almost no traditional shots of people walking from left to right and vice versa, instead people are always walking towards or away from the camera. All this is of course 3-D trickery, but it works well in 2-D as well, as it enhances the feeling of surrealism. There’s also strange shooting angles, sometimes leaving the actors’ heads at the bottom of the screen, while a giant wall dominates the shot, and other weirdness, creating a feeling that the world is slightly off-kilter.
A problem, however, is that between the moment the duo arrive at the castle and the end, the script sort of treads water. The scene of Kitty and Edith hearing the footsteps from their locked room is basically repeated twice without much variation and nothing much actually happens until the final showdown. And despite the fact that I love sci-fi cult actor Richard Carlson, whose third sci-fi film of 1953 this was, I can’t shake the feeling that he was miscast in the role. Carlson was always best as the pleasant, intelligent everyman, and he doesn’t quite have the nasty in him that this role would require. It’s not that he’s particularly bad, but just the thought of what, for example, a Boris Karloff could have brought to the role makes his portrayal a bit forced. I have written quite a bit on Carlson in my reviews of The Magnetic Monster (1953, review) and It Came from Outer Space (1953, review), so head over to those reviews if you are interested in reading more on him.
Strengthening the feel of an old horror film is the lack of visual effects, due to the fact that the accepted knowledge at the time was that visual effects didn’t render well in 3-D. The special effects are almost exclusively limited to the mysterious creature, fog and a rubber bat. The creature is actually pretty well-made considering what must have been a fairly low-budget production and the speed with which it was made. According to Bill Warren and Bill Thomas in the book Keep Watching the Skies the film went from conception to release in a matter of months. This must surely have been the case, since The Maze was released in the end of July and Menzies’ previous film, Invaders from Mars, was released in May.
21-year old British stage, film and TV actress Veronica Hurst is decent in her role as Kitty without shining, but it is worth mentioning that this is an unusual film for the time, since it actually has two women in the heroic roles, dealing with a mystery more or less without the help of any men. The women in the film are resourceful, brave and smart as they go about trying to solve the mystery of the old castle, and don’t take no for an answer, even after being told off by MacTeam several times. Hurst appeared in a few dozen films and TV series without ever getting a proper breakthrough and The Maze remains her best remembered film.
One face you might recognise is that of Michael Pate, a regular ”indian” and heavy in westerns of the fifties and sixties. Pate was actually Australian, and appeared in over 50 feature films (mostly westerns) and 300 TV series in his career, which spanned from the thirties to the nineties. He is best known to friends of B horrors for his role of the gunslinger vampire in Curse of the Undead (1959). He spent two decades in Hollywood, where he made films with the likes of John Wayne and Danny Kaye. He had the distinction of being the first man to portray James Bond’s CIA counterpart Felix Leiter in the live-broadcast TV film Casino Royale in 1954. He also appeared on TV shows like Batman, Mission: Impossible, Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In Australia he had one of the principal roles on the TV series Matlock Police (1971-1976) and also dabbled in writing, producing and directing. He did all this on the film Tim (1979), starring Piper Laurie and a fresh-faced Mel Gibson, hot off the success of Mad Max, released a few months earlier. The film swept the table almost clean in the actors’ categories at the Australian Film Institute Awards (Laurie wasn’t nominated), and was awarded with the prize for best screenplay by Australian Writers’ Guild.
Pate’s sci-fi work was mostly done on TV, but he did also appear in The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) and the TV film Official Denial (1993). In The Maze he is perfect as the stiff and sinister, but slightly humorous butler, skilfully overplaying just enough to bring some colour to the character.
In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver (whom I seem to be quoting in every article these days), Pate had nothing but good things to say about the experience of working on the film, calling Menzies an ”erudite, marvellous little man”. About the infamous finale he said ”Who could forget it? It was pretty awful, a bit outlandish — but, after all, they had to finish the picture”, and remembers the movie was filmed in two and a half weeks (which is more than I had guessed). He also praised Richard Carlson, just as it seems everybody he ever worked with did, and called him ”just so relaxed and 100 percent charming”. Pate passed away in 2008.
The party of friends showing up to cheer MacTeam up include Hillary Brooke and Lilian Bond. Menzies had used Brooke in a bigger role in Invaders from Mars, and in my review I wrote this about her: ”Brooke was something of a minor star of B movies, best known for her work with Abbott and Costello, and for three of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, especially Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) and The Woman in Green (1945).” /…/ ”Brooke appeared in small roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941, review), the Spencer Tracy version, and had the female lead in The Lost Continent (1951).”
Since the film was set in Scotland, Menzies obviously tried to get as many British actors, or actors who could do a convincing British accent. British film star Lilian Bond had previously played the female lead in the superb Universal horror film The Old Dark House (1932), co-starring Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger and Gloria Stuart, and directed by horror legend James Whale, and in William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940). As she passed her forties, her roles grew smaller and she partly transitioned to TV. She was 53 when she did The Maze, which was one of her last films.
Stanley Fraser had a small role as a man in the future in World Without End (1956) and John Dodsworth appeared (reanimated or not) in The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), The Mole People (1956) and The 27th Day (1957). Owen McGiveney had a small role as a shopkeeper in the Jules Verne adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), starring Pat Boone and James Mason. Robin Hughes had small roles in The Mole People and The Road to Hong Kong (1962).
The film also features Bess Flowers, who probably appeared in close to 1 000 films or TV productions, and was known about Hollywood as ”Queen of the extras”. She appeared in five films that won an Academy Award for best picture, and worked with most of the top directors in town. Flowers also got her fair share of credited roles, often in comedies. She played Stan Laurel’s wife in We Faw Down (1928) and had a major role in the Three Stooges pic Mutts to You (1938). Despite her prolific career, she only appeared in a handful of sci-fi films: The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), The Mad Ghoul (1943, review), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), The Fly (1958), The Lost World (1960) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). She was active between 1922 and 1964.
Allied Artists was, basically, a new moniker for the old Poverty Row studio Monogram, instigated by producer Walter Mirisch, who felt that with the advent of TV, the age of the shoestring-budget films made in a week or less was over. People could watch the cardboards sets of Captain Video (review) and other TV productions at home, and wanted more value for their money when they went to the cinema. The average budget for a Monogram film had been 50 000 dollars, while the average budget for a Hollywood movie at the time was 800 000 dollars (or about 6 millions in today’s money). Under the AA banner, the studio started producing both costly films around the one million dollar mark, and what Mirish called ”B-plus” movies, such as The Maze, for which I can’t find any cost figures, but I would suppose that it was somewhere between 200 000 and 300 000 dollars, from the looks of it and the shooting schedule. It doesn’t look overly cheap, and has stunning miniature photography of the maze, and even the suit for the ”menace” in the end wasn’t laughable so much for its execution or quality, but rather for the idea behind it. From a point of view of design and craft, it’s one of the better sci-fi menaces of 1953.
A funny story about the cinematography was that Mirisch had problems renting 3-D cameras cheap, since the companies providing them clearly took advantage of the 3-D craze and demanded slices of the profits. After listening to Mirisch complaining about it, camera assistant Maurice Davidson said ”I don’t know what all the fuss is about. If you want one of those cameras, I can put one together for you in a couple of weeks”. Said and done, Davidson built his own 3-D camera and is credited as ”technical advisor” on the movie. Cinematographer Harry Neumann was a Monogram veteran, who proves that he could do good work with the right director and some time. Much of the crew on the film is the same as worked on Monogram’s previous sci-fi film Flight to Mars (1951, review), such as Neumann, composer Marlin Skiles and art director Dave Milton. A new name is special effects designer Augie Lohman, who would go on to work on The Monster that Challenged the World (1957), the cult movie Barbarella (1968) and the classic Soylent Green (1973), and was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the disaster movie The Last Voyage (1960).
The film is well-made and suspenseful, even if it drags it feet behind it in the middle of the movie. The design, the visuals, the atmosphere, all is great, if a bit of the cheaper side. Despite this being 3-D, Menzies doesn’t throw things at the audience, apart from the one scene with the rubber bat, but that’s a nice little homage to the old horror movies, and a point in the finale where something falls from a high point towards the camera. Decent acting, although Carlson is a bit miscast, and the characters are quite one-dimensional. The movie gets a plus for having two female heroins solving the mystery without (much) help from any men. I was going to say this was an anomaly in the fifties, I am struck by the notion that it still is today, even though friends of sci-fi have gotten fairly used to strong female leads at this point. If you’re looking for straight-up sci-fi, you might want to give this one a pass, but if you like old Universal-style horror films, this is a little treat. Not Menzies’ best film by far, but it stands head and shoulders over much of the low-budget drag of the decade. Bill Warren and Bill Thomas call it ”a grotesque little film that can be surprisingly moving”.
The Maze (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Based on the novel The Maze by Maurice Sandoz. Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Stanley Fraser, Lilian Bond, Owen McGiveney, Robin Hughes. Music: Marlin Skiles. Cinematohgraphy: Harry Neumann. Editing: John C. Fuller. Production design: William Cameron Menzies. Art direction: Dave Milton. Special effects: Augie Lohman. Sound: Charles Cooper. Produced by Richard V. Heermance, Walter Mirisch for Allied Artists Pictures.