February 16, 2012
One of the more sensationalistic aspects of horror and science fiction films over the years has been the phenomena of 3-D. Long before James Cameron’s Avatar reintroduced the world to the fad that enjoyed a resurgence in the horror world in the 80’s, when it seemed that every franchise’s third film was in 3-D (Friday the 13th Part 3D, Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D), the kids of the fifties enjoyed the golden age of 3-D movies. In 1953, hidden between Vincent Price’s House of Wax and Universal’s It Came from Outer Space sat a neat little thriller called The Maze that has been all but forgotten among its contemporaries.
The Maze begins with the engagement party of Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson, who was also seen in 3-D in Creature From the Black Lagoon) and Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst from Peeping Tom). After the happy couple spends a night of celebration with Kitty’s Aunt Edith (Isle of the Dead’s Katherine Emery) at a nightclub, Gerald gets a letter from Craven Castle, a castle that belongs to his family and in which his uncle lives. After reading the letter, Gerald leaves for Craven Castle, promising Kitty that he’ll be back soon. He doesn’t return, instead sending a letter calling off their engagement. Understandably, Kitty and Edith are concerned, and the two women decide that the best thing to do is to go and see him at the castle. When they arrive, they find Gerald looking sickly and gaunt, as though he’s aged several years. Gerald tries to make the ladies leave, but eventually relents and lets them stay. He tells the servants, William (played by the spooky Michael Pate from Tower of London and Curse of the Undead) and Robert (World Without End’s Stanley Fraser) to lock them in their quarters at night, but Kitty finds a secret passageway in her room that leads to a window that overlooks a huge hedge maze on the castle grounds. While looking down at the maze, Kitty sees something moving around in the maze. The next morning, on her way outside, Kitty happens upon a weird footprint on the stairs, which Robert quickly cleans up. Outside, Kitty notices the door to the hedge maze unlocked, and wanders in, only to be confronted by a furious Gerald. Gerald throws her out of the maze, but not before she gets a look at another strange footprint on the ground. All of the locked doors and uncanny footprints coupled with Gerald’s odd behavior make Kitty and Edith all the more curious to learn the secret of what is in the maze at Craven Castle.
Like many of the films from the golden age of 3-D, The Maze doesn’t rely on its 3-D effects to tell its story. In fact, it’s just as effective of a story when watched in two dimensions as it is in three. The Maze was directed by William Cameron Menzies (whose claim to fame was his stunning use of color as the production designer for Gone with the Wind, but he also directed the legendary Invaders from Mars), and his use of the technology is more textural and layering than gimmicky. The Maze doesn’t have any arrows shooting towards the audience, instead opting to use the 3D imaging to make the castle crawl and shift with depth. Sure, there are a few exploitations of technique (a showgirl being swung into the viewers face, or some bats floating in the air), but for the most part the 3-D is tasteful as opposed to obnoxiously in-your-face, which allows the audience to concentrate on the story.
The Maze was written by Daniel B. Ullman (Mysterious Island), adapted from a novel by Maurice Sandoz. The plot is part gothic horror and part classic mystery. The women’s fear of the unknown versus their curiosity and concern for Gerald drives the story along well, and the tension and suspense builds nicely. The castle is a perfect setting for a horror film, with its long hallways, arching doorways and sweeping staircases, and the environment only adds to the excitement. The mysterious maze is another great setup, a forbidden area that arouses suspicion in both the characters and the audience. And the two creepy butlers are the icing on the cake. All of the ingredients for a good scare are in place.
Unfortunately, like so many other films, where The Maze disappoints is in its ending. The revelation of the secret of the maze is has got to be one of the most baffling moments in cinematic history. 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. If the entire film had set the tone for the ending, it would have been far more effective, but with all the great scary buildup and terrifying clues, the climax just leaves the viewer unsatisfied, if not confused. It’s almost as if a different movie starts…and then ends.
Despite its crazy ending, The Maze still stands as a testament to the power of suspense and mystery. Whether seen in 3D or 2D, The Maze is a tight and cool little flick that is definitely worth the time and trouble to watch.