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Film

Don't Open That Door! Unlocking 3D secrets in 'The Maze'

On a story level, The Maze is a silly movie. On a production level, it's a silly movie with class.

The Maze
Willliam Cameron Menzies

Kino Lorber

24 Apr 2018 (Blu-ray)

Bless the folks at 3D Film Archive. For several years, they've been restoring the products of the great 3D scare of the '50s and apparently won't stop until every last obscurity has been resurrected like a throbbing disembodied brain. More power to them, and this Blu-ray is a model of how to assemble an enjoyable package around a feature that's almost designed to disappoint the unwary, not to mention the wary.

The Maze is based on a short novel by Maurice Sandoz that featured illustrations by Salvador Dali. According to Tom Weaver's fascinating commentary, the novel was based on a 19th Century legend about Scotland's Glamis Castle, which you may recall was once lorded over by Macbeth. Local lore reported that the castle's lord or scion was deformed in some way and kept hidden from public view. As Weaver points out, this practice is mirrored even in 20th century examples of England's royal family, so it doesn't seem like a stretch.

The novel reveals a bizarre explanation involving an evolutionary hybrid, and the film does its best to present this idea literally in its ooga-booga climax. To most modern eyes, this absurd "pay-off" to a slow, teasing movie is more likely to provide giggles and eye-rolling as the movie drops straight into camp territory. Weaver reads from prominent reviews of 1953 that indicate the original 3D audiences found it effective enough when the revealed creature started jumping into their laps, or so it seemed, and in truth the picture was a hit.

As scripted by Dan Ullman and designed and directed by the great William Cameron Menzies, the project displays a straight-faced absurdity, stressing gothic atmosphere in a plot that feels stretched even at 80 minutes. Much of the film is narrated by Aunt Edith (Katherine Emery), who hovers in a high-ceilinged room addressing the camera about events of a year ago in a "had I but known" manner typical of Mary Roberts Rinehart's woman-centered gothic suspensers. While Weaver speculates on the 3D reasons for the voluminous head space around Aunt Edith, I think Menzies just loved high ceilings.

Anyway, Edith looks on as her niece Kitty (Veronica Hurst) trades coy banter with fiancé Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) as they go diving into pools and attending nightclubs where acrobatic dancers fling a lass into the camera. The revelry is cut short when Gerald learns his uncle is dying and he must repair to Scotland for his inheritance. All at once the wedding is off without explanation, and spunky Kitty decides to drag Aunt Edith to Scotland to surprise Gerald and get to the bottom of the mystery.

One of the film's most admirable qualities is Kitty's unconventional strength and determination, partly born of love for Gerald and perhaps partly of a sense of entitlement that's let everything go her way before. This headstrong element, which makes her the viewer's surrogate as she goes Nancy Drew-ing into spider-webbed passages and the titular hedge maze, is hamstrung by the script's requirement that nothing be revealed too quickly. Even the self-possessed Aunt Edith is required to do a lot of screaming and fainting at inopportune moments to drag the plot out further.

Kitty faces a newly rude, adamantine Gerald who shows the makings of a Bluebeard and refuses to say anything except that she should leave as soon as possible. His two servants are equally sullen and boy's-clubby, making the whole atmosphere both mysterious and tiresome. The two supposed lovers treat each other as enemies in a series of counter-games that make you wonder about any hope for their relationship, even if the castle weren't hiding an Awful Secret.

Katherine Emery and Veronica Hurst (IMDB)

Weaver observes that Kitty may be the first '50s horror and sci-fi heroine. It feels possible, and she also foreshadows the tormented and curious candle-bearing corridor-wandering brides of the '60s Italian gothics, as often played by Barbara Steele, thus cementing the link between those films and the Rinehart tradition.

Walter Mirisch would become a very distinguished producer. This is part of his apprenticeship at Allied Artists (formerly Monogram), and he and the overqualified Menzies oversee a low-budget project that makes maximum use of a handful of big shadowy sets: a wall, a staircase, huge fireplaces. Menzies was into size and knew what to do with it. So did photographer Harry Neumann, who spent a long career in B films, and this crystalline image scanned in 4K makes even the flat version look swell beyond its budget. Both 3D and flat versions are included, so even non-3D players can show the film.

If the feature can cause viewers to shift in their seats during its longeurs, which account for most of the running time, there's hardly enough time to listen to Weaver's fun-packed commentary. He gives a thorough rundown of production details, the cast members, the original novel, the lengthy attempts to get this story filmed since the '40s, and its similarity to future efforts like 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon (another 3D item starring Carlson) and 1959's The Alligator People. As a side note, I'll inject that it's not likely to have had any impact on the Russian Amphibian Man (1962), as that's derived from a 1928 novel by Alexander Belyaev, but you never know.

A generous researcher, Weaver cedes the floor to Bob Furmanek's discussion of the 3D restoration issues, Robert J. Kiss' detailed appreciation of Marlin Skiles' non-bombastic score (with its prominent harp), and David Schecter's account of the film's release history.

Veronica Hurst, still alive, is briefly interviewed and says nothing beyond recalling that everyone was nice to this young British girl and kept taking her out to dinner. She also mentions visiting the family of American boyfriend William Sylvester. Weaver points out that they got married and Sylvester starred in Gorgo (1960) and Devil Doll (1963). For that matter, he was in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

On a story level, The Maze is a silly movie. On a production level, it's a silly movie with class. On the level of '50s-era 3D and horror history, it's a silly movie that deserves to be taken as seriously as Weaver and his colleagues do, even though they're aware of its shortcomings and never try to pass it off as a neglected masterpiece. The paradox is that taking the film seriously is what underlines its fun.

5

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