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Cult Movies: 'The Maze' (1953)

By Edited Jun 1, 2015 3 0

For some reason, this film never spawned a sequel.

There’s no escaping the horror within The Maze; no review can avoid discussing a conclusion which throws itself in glorious 3-D through the screen to the mercy of the audience. So, in the spirit of spoilers: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, Rosebud was Charles Foster Kane’s boyhood sled, Maggie Simpson shot Mr Burns, and the mysterious figure in The Maze, hidden from sight in a Scottish castle, is a frog. Quite a big frog I admit, but nonetheless a pond dwelling, happily hopping, green pal of Kermit. 

That The Maze works for as long as it does is thanks to director, William Cameron Menzies. A double Oscar winner, including an award for production design on Gone with the Wind (1939), Menzies also directed the epic Things to Come (1936) and the wonderfully lurid Invaders from Mars (1953). Credited as a Hollywood pioneer for his art direction in films such as The Thief of Baghdad (1924), The Maze was Menzies’ last film as director and he wrings all the tension he can with the limited resources at his disposal, focusing as much on the interplay of actors and their surroundings as between the actors themselves.

Glamis Castle
Menzies brings a sense of structure to The Maze, and builds a suspenseful atmosphere where even the outdoor scenes feel claustrophobic. Under Menzies' direction, Craven Castle, the setting for most of the The Maze, becomes a tomb-like place of locked doors, cobwebbed passageways and bricked-up windows, where nothing changes except the unlucky men who inherit the castle. (In reality, The Maze takes inspiration from the legends surrounding the real-life Glamis Castle in Scotland, which tell of deformed family members kept imprisoned in hidden rooms, unseen by the public).

 The film opens with a scene designed to whet the appetite of any mystery lover. A butler and servant discuss the premature death of the latest baronet of Craven Castle, who has died in his quarters. We see the body only from behind, seated in a chair. The servant warns the butler, William, against calling a doctor, just as we hear a strange cry from the adjoining room...William decides they must risk an outsider calling on the castle. Michael Pate, playing William, enjoyed a fifty year career in films and television (including more trouble in a British castle, with Vincent Price, in 1962’s Tower of London), and strikes the right note of doleful dignity throughout The Maze.

This gaelic gloom contrasts with the carefree merriment of the Cannes on the French Rivera where we find Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst), her fiancé Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson), and friends. A frequent lead in low-budget movies of the time, Richard Carlson briefly became a poster boy for 3-D fantasy films, with It Came from Outer Space (1953) soon followed by Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), two classic monster movies that had American cinema audiences diving for cover. The Maze failed to match those two films, and after Carlson’s stint in science-fiction, he returned to the usual run of Westerns and one-off Playhouse productions so much the lot of the 1950s B-movie lead, though his role in Bert I Gordon’s thriller Tormented (1960) lives on courtesy of its appearance in a 1992 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The impression Carlson often gave, of a rugged academic rising to the heroic challenge, is present here but he does well enough considering he shares the screen with an amphibian the size of a German Shepherd.

Richard Carlson

Gerald’s high life takes a dive when he receives a letter from the MacTeam ancestral seat. The dead fellow taking a permanent nap in the armchair was Gerald’s Uncle Samuel; the time has come for Gerald to return to Scotland to claim his inheritance. Off he goes, assuring Kitty the business at Craven Castle won’t take long, but Gerald’s absence stretches into weeks and then months without word. When a letter does arrive from Gerald, it informs Kitty their engagement is off, he can never leave the castle and she must start life over without him. Kitty refuses to give up on Gerald and determines to travel to Scotland and get to the bottom of Gerald’s inexplicable actions.

Films of this time are not often associated with proactive female characters, but The Maze has two. Joining Kitty in her mission is her redoubtable aunt and chaperone, Edith Murray (Katherine Emery, who starred with Boris Karloff in 1945’s Isle of the Dead). Together, the pair are a formidable team, defying the men who stand in their way and facing up to the frights waiting for them at the castle.

The first scare is Gerald himself, who confronts the women at the castle door. As is often Hollywood’s way, Gerald is older than his bride-to-be (nineteen years older, if the characters' ages are the same as the actors'), but a few months at the castle has propelled Gerald beyond even Tinseltown's limits of tolerance; his hair is grey, his face wrinkled, his demeanor blunt and ornery. Gerald is furious to see Kitty and Edith and denies them entry, but relents as it’s a long walk to the nearest town, and the pair might be attacked by wild haggis. At night, Kitty and Edith find their rooms locked from the outside. Later, an unknown form passes by Kitty’s door, slithering and shuffling...later still, creeping fearlessly into a decrepit turret room (cue 3-D pleasing shots of bats flying towards the camera), Kitty sees lighted figures patrolling the hedge maze which lies next to the castle, a maze whose entrance Edith told her was always padlocked.

The next morning, the change in climate has laid Aunt Edith low with a cold, forcing Gerald to allow his unwelcome guests to stay longer (here, the women play their ‘weak’ femininity against the men to their advantage). Kitty presses on, noticing the unusually wide steps of the staircase and a webbed footprint on the bottom step. Kitty meets with Gerald at breakfast to plead for the return to their old life, to no avail. In secret, Kitty posts a letter inviting Gerald’s friends in the south of France, one of whom is a doctor, to stay for a short holiday at the castle and try to bring Gerald back to his old self.

Recovering, Edith also explores, slipping into the baronet's candlelit quarters at night to face

Gerald over his behavior. Edith picks her way into Gerald's chamber and then sees a thing, repulsive and slimy, crawling for cover. Aunt Edith faints and of course, on awakening, every male in a mile radius assures her it was a trick of her feminine imagination. 

Now, my niece and her fiancé went on holiday to Spain recently, and sent a postcard home which arrived two weeks after they'd returned to England, so it takes some swallowing that in 1953, Kitty’s letter to France brings Gerald’s friends to the castle, before Gerald can kick the women out for malingering. Soon, Dr Bert Dilling (John Dodsworth), his wife Margaret (Lillian Bond, The Old Dark House) and company are beating down the door, demanding food, drink and other such frivolities. Gerald, showing all the customary grace and charm of the British hotelier, allows them in on sufferance, and in the hope William's Scottish glowering will propel them back to Cannes.

Before dinner, the friends work on Gerald to restore his good nature. One chum tries out the ‘you hum it, I’ll play it’ gag, old when W C Fields was a kid. Gerald cracks a smile at the prospect of punching his friend in the throat, only for the servants to rush in and spoil the moment; there’s a problem upstairs and it’s nothing to do with a dead seagull in the water tank. Kitty, Edith and company confer; Dr Dilling believes Gerald insane.

Kitty ‘borrows’ a key left in the dining room door to explore the room where Edith's unpleasant encounter occurred. There they find a bowl of tomatoes, some seaweed, a book on human deformities and the room devoid of furniture. It’s all piecing into something monstrous (apart from the tomatoes. I can’t figure out what those had to do with anything).

We hear noises from the adjoining secret room. Edith and Kitty leave and we soon see Gerald, followed by William and the servant, the two attendants holding up a sheet to shield a fourth figure from view. They enter the maze, with Kitty and Edith following at a distance, but the women become separated. Lost, Kitty hears someone swimming in the pond at the heart of the maze. A short time later, Edith runs into a giant frog-like being, to her great horror.

Hearing her cries, Kitty goes to her aid, only to run into the frog as it flees to the castle bellowing like an elephant (nope, me neither), hops it to the upper quarters and flings itself from a window to its death, whether through panic or suicide, we are left to guess. With the creature lying dead next to the film’s credibility, Gerald has some explaining to do.

The next day, Gerald tells his friends that Toad of Toad Hall was actually Sir Roger MacTeam, true laird of Craven Castle. Despite his monstrous appearance, Gerald was human, but his fetal development became retarded in its ‘amphibian stage’, trapped at one early branch of our phylogenetic family tree. This isn't as ridiculous as it sounds; the theory of the human embryo passing through each evolutionary stage during gestation was a commonly held one at the time of the film’s making. Gerald reveals Sir Roger's age at death, two hundred, and the film’s 3-D gimmick ensures the last vestige of the film’s rationality spills out of the screen like so much frog spawn.

Frog sign
There are some touching moments in this part of the film, when Gerald describes how Sir Roger's fully formed mental faculties ensured he was aware of his horrific appearance, and suffered great anguish as a result. “The old gentleman had some pleasures,” Gerald explains, such as his midnight swims in the maze pond, but in the end, his proud insistence at hiding brought his doom. Sad at the death, but free from the curse, Gerald and Kitty renew their engagement. The pair take ownership of the castle, to await the pitter-patter of tiny tadpoles.

Unless you own a pair of 3-D glasses, you're forced to watch the film ‘flat’. This makes some scenes look awkward, particularly those of Aunt Edith’s narration, where Katherine Emery looks sunk out of shot (a close-up head shot necessitated a large amount of background to make it project 'outwards' prominently in 3-D). The wide-view exterior shots of the castle, with the maze close by, look jarring, and shots where the giant frog leaps toward the audience are unimpressive, given the frog resembles something you’d find popping out on a wire from a box in a joke store.

One last comment on what is, in good ways and bad, an enjoyable film. Given its nature as 1950s drive-in fodder, it's interesting to note The Maze started life as a novel, written in 1945 by Maurice Sandoz, a Swiss doctor of chemistry, and featured illustrations from no less a person than Salvador Dali. I can't comment on whether the novel is any good, as I haven’t ribbit. Come on, you expected me to go this far without a frog joke?



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