Veronica Hurst’s fiancé Richard Carlson becomes estranged as he takes possession of his ancestral Scottish castle, harbouring a dark secret. Atmospherically filmed in 3D in 1953, this SF mystery play is hampered by an oft-ridiculed climax. 6/10
The Maze. 1953, USA. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Based on novel 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. IMDb. 5.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
The Maze is a science fiction film only by a very narrow margin, thanks to revelation in the finale of the movie, which I won’t reveal in this article, since it would destroy the viewing pleasure. Really, try and watch this film without reading spoilers beforehand.
In short, this is really an old-school mystery story. The plot follows young, British Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) who is engaged to the dreamy Scottish-American Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson). On the eve of their wedding, Gerald is called to his ancestral castle in Scotland, where he is to become the new baronet after the passing of his uncle. While away, Gerald breaks off his engagement to Kitty without explanation, telling her they will never see each other again. But Kitty doesn’t give up that easy, and packs her bags, along with her stern but loving aunt Edith (Katherine Emery), and the two set out for the foggy moors of Scotland in order to get to the bottom of the mystery.
When they arrive at the old MacTeam family home, they find a changed Gerald – now suddenly white-haired, stern and cold, he insists they leave and ask no questions. A strange malady seems to hang over the creepy old castle, and its inhabitants seem to harbour some dark secret. Doors are locked at night, and someone – or something – unnamed is hidden in a forbidden room in the attic. Late at night, Kitty and Edith hear strange footsteps in the corridors, and see Gerald and his servants leading some creature hidden behind sheets out to the mysterious maze in the courtyard, where the guests are forbidden to enter. On the pretext of Edith developing a cold, the pair postpone their departure from the castle, and Kitty secretly 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. And in time the mystery unravels itself – and one thing you can say about the ending of this film, is that you did not see that coming.
William Cameron Menzies is perhaps the most lauded production designer in the history of movies – he was the man for whom the title was originally created, as mere “art director” simply did not suffice. Menzies didn’t just design sets — he designed the film — often creating sets for very specific camera angles and movements, provided instructions for lighting and direction – and often a director had no choice but to follow his instructions, as the sets didn’t allow for alternative ways of shooting. This all-round approach to design also quickly led him to act as assistant director, most famously directing the scene of Atlanta burning in Gone with the Wind (1939). But he also directed nearly two dozen films of his own. As a director Menzies was never quite able to follow up his success as production desiner. His best known effort is the expensive and imaginative, but stilted and preachy SF epic Things to Come (1936, review), adapted for the screen by H.G. Wells from his own book – and for the wonderfully surrealistic juvenile classic Invaders from Mars (1953, review). But Menzies made three other fringe SF movies, all as interesting as they are flawed – the Bela Lugosi adventure/horror movie Chandu the Magician (1932, review), the atmospheric invasion thriller The Whip Hand (1950, review) and The Maze.
Menzies had designed Invaders from Mars to be shot in 3D, but failed to secure a 3D camera. The Maze, released later the same year, almost met with the same fate, but this time he managed to get a camera, thanks to the ingenuity of one of his camera assistants. The film was made for Allied Artists, and in his memoirs executive producer Walter Mirisch states 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 suspense is extremely well built, thanks in large part to Menzies’ talents as a 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 3D 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 3D trickery, but it works well in 2D 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.
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 3D. The special effects are almost exclusively limited to the mysterious creature revealed in the end, 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’s 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.
The main problem of the film is its pacing. Between the moment Kitty and Edith arrive at the castle and the finale at the end, the script treads water. In fact pacing and rhythm are problematic in almost all of Menzies’ films as a director, but especially so in The Maze. The characters are too thinly written for us to engage in, and there isn’t enough plot development to carry the film’s 80-minute running time. Cutting it down to standard 60-minute B-movie length would have made it tighter, without losing anything of importance.
Another potential problem is the final reveal, which inevitably will come off as unintentionally hilarious to many viewers. Some good scripting and actors doing their best to create the appropriate emotional state for the finale partly compensates for 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 it, but let’s just say that it may be difficult for many 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”.
And despite the fact that I love sci-fi cult actor Richard Carlson, 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.
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. In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, 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”.
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 300 000 and 500 000 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 3D cameras cheap, since the companies providing them clearly took advantage of the 3D 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 3D camera and is credited as ”technical advisor” on the movie.
I have found no contemporary reviews of The Maze, a film which is not a household title today, balancing as it does precariously on the borders between the gothic “old dark house” genre, science fiction and melodrama. Its final reveal has made it a bit of a laughing stock, and I can’t blame those who burst out in fits of merriment in the film’s climax, rather than experience the intended shock. Even with the visual effects tools we have today, the concept itself is so surreal as to be difficult to take seriously. But on re-watching the film, knowing what is coming, the story itself may sink in, if one lets it, and it is, in fact, a rather sad and touching story, and one utterly different from most horror or SF films of the era — in tone one might perhaps draw parallels to some of the work of M. Night Shyamalan.
Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster dismissed The Maze as a “shaggy dog story”, however I would argue that Cole misunderstands the term. A shaggy dog story is a sort of joke, in which the author snubs the audience of a satisfactory ending by more or less negating the premise. The titular example is a story which builds up to a climax that hinges on the fact that a particular dog is the shaggiest dog in the world. But at the very end of the tale the reader is matter-of-factly told that the dog isn’t really the shaggiest dog in the world, thereby rendering the whole story pointless. The Maze isn’t pointless, neither does it deliberately set out to deceive the viewer by pulling the carpet out from under the story’s feet. Its surprise ending may be seen as many by unsatisfactory, but it doesn’t negate the rest of the story. Jeff Kuykendall at Midnight Only makes an interesting observation, writing that “it’s unusual to find a pre-1960’s film which can truly be called Lovecraftian, but look no further than The Maze, whose setup and finale seem to exist in the same mythological universe”. Kuykendall continues: “If you’re charitable toward the unusual nature of the final revelation, you can see that The Maze, much like its sibling Invaders from Mars, is ultimately a dark fable – and, in retrospect, invaluably unique for its era.”
The Maze has a mediocre 5.9/10 rating at IMDb and no Rotten Tomatoes consensus. AllMovie gives it 2.5/5 stars, with Hal Erickson calling it “a fascinating fantasy film”. TV Guide gave it 2/4 stars, calling it “a cut above average”; “Though somewhat hampered by its minuscule budget, this 3-D nightmare is fascinating to look at. The direction moves the story suspensefully through its eerie sets”.
Modern critics all agree that The Maze has its flaws, many citing the awkward pacing and the out-there ending. There are those for whom said ending is too much. Dennis Schwartz, for example, calls the film “moronic” and “ridiculous”, and James Jay Edwards at Film Fracture writes: “Compared to the rest of the film, the conclusion is just plain corny, taking the film from classic horror to B-movie in seconds flat”. On the other hand, others feel that the movie’s strengths outweigh its flaws. Richard Scheib at Moria gives it 3/5 stars, and while mentioning both its weak pacing and its controversial “revelation that nearly wrecks the otherwise credible build-up”, he writes: “The film manages to work despite this”. Clive Davies in his book Spinegrinder calls The Maze an “underrated, effective b/w chiller”. And Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies sort of sums up the debate: “Too unusual for many, and often The Maze is greeted more with laughter than with anything else. However, for those with an exotic sense of sympathy, the ending of this grotesque little film can be surprisingly moving.”
I have a soft spot for The Maze, partly because it doesn’t really feel like anything else made in the fifties. It’s partly a throwback to the atmospheric horrors of the twenties and thirties, but has a Lovecraftian edge and the melodrama doesn’t feel like reheated thirties soup, but is updated for the times. I really like the fact that both protagonists are women, and especially Veronica Hurst is good as the spunky, modern, independent woman. And it is a beautiful film, despite its low budget. The sets alone are reason enough to watch it, and the camera work is occasionally very interesting. The first time I saw it I was as taken aback by the bizarre ending as everyone else, and have admit to feeling — if not let down, then at least slightly annoyed as the reveal came so far out of left field, and didn’t quite live up to the terror that I had already constructed in my head. Upon subsequent viewings, however, I have come to appreciate the film’s unique humanity. While clunky, the ending does feel refreshing amidst the cynical cold war movies of the decade. This is not to say that The Maze would be a neglected masterpiece — its shortcomings still stand.
Michael 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.
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, review) 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.
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 Maze. 1953, USA. 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.