Something evil lurks at the center of a hedge maze in murky, misty Scotland, and you can bet that a couple amateur sleuths are going to take their time figuring out what it is.
Gerald MacTeam (a grim-faced Richard Carlson, Creature from the Black Lagoon ) is about to marry his lovely fiancee, Kitty (Veronica Hurst). To celebrate, they are frolicking in some sun-kissed paradise with, for some reason, Kitty’s dry-witted aunt Edith (Katherine Emery, also in the Val Lewton-produced Isle of the Dead). Fun in the sun is interrupted when Gerald gets an urgent telegram from his uncle. It turns out that Gerald has a family castle in the highlands of Scotland, and all sorts of weird things happen in it. As a boy, Gerald remembers being locked in his room at night whenever his family visited the castle, and that there was a massive hedge maze into which no one was ever allowed. He departs to tend to the emergency, and Kitty and Edith become increasingly worried when they receive no word from him. When a letter does arrive, it only distresses them more. Gerald calls off the wedding, breaks off his engagement to Kitty, and forbids them from ever visiting or contacting him again. Kitty is understandably perplexed, and rather than merely accepting Gerald bizarre, out of the blue proclamation, she and Edith pack up and head for Scotland to see what’s up at the ominously named Craven Castle.
Gerald is, needless to say, upset by their sudden arrival, just as they are shocked to discover his hair has turned white and he seems to have aged considerably. He is adamant that they must leave immediately, but Kitty is determined to stick around until she has figured out what the heck is going on and why Gerald has suddenly become so hostile and elusive. Clues begin to present themselves later that very night, when they hear Gerald and two servants dragging something out of the off-limits guard tower and into the maze. Kitty discovers a secret passage in her room that leads to a long-forgotten chamber with a window (most of the windows in the castle have long since been bricked up) and observes the men hauling something into the maze. On the second night, Edith encounters some hideous thing that scurries from her view an disappears into the shadows before she can get a proper look at it. This tears it for Gerald, who insists that they get lost. Kitty counters by arranging to have a group of their friends show up, hoping that familiar faces and friendship will snap Gerald out of his funk and force him to come clean about the mysterious shenanigans. Her scheme almost works. Gerald even smiles at some point. But then it all goes horribly wrong.
The Maze depends heavily on atmosphere. For the bulk of the movie, very little actually happens. Small tidbits are thrown the viewer’s way to keep them interested — a fleeting glimpse of a glistening creature, a weird webbed footprint, the frequent foreboding stares of the butlers. Richard Carlson, who already had a long list of credits, including at least one other Scotland-based horror tale (an episode of Lights Out entitled “The Devil in Glencairn”), does a wonderful job of transforming Gerald from happy-go-lucky regular guy to world-weary crank, and he does so in a manner that makes you both sympathetic (you know he bears some horrible family secret) and irritated (why won’t he just trust someone?). Veronica Hurst also does well with a character who stays within the bounds of femininity at the time (oh for the days women investigated unspeakable horrors whilst dressed in a shimmering cocktail dress and heels) but also emerges as strong-willed and determined not to simply let Gerald be a spooky jerk.
That said, she may be one of the worst amateur sleuths in the history of amateur sleuthing. Although she constantly foils Gerald’s plans to send her and Edith away, nothing ever really comes of the time she buys herself. Edith, for that matter, is set up as sort of the stolid voice of reason, but her sneaking about never bears much fruit, either. It gets to be frustrating at points, and even though both women are well-written for the time, one can’t help but with there was a bit more of the modern in them, allowing Kitty to grab Gerald by his tweed lapels and knock some sense into him. I mean, he has a dark spooky family secret, but it’s not that dark or spooky. Kitty sort of stands up to him by defying his orders to skedaddle, but it would have been nice to see her actually confront the guy and not let him glower and frown his way out of everything.
The supporting cast, lead by Katherine Emery as Edith and Michael Pate as William the butler, is also excellent. These are all experienced players, and they handle the film with dedication, so much so that when the final reveal of the thing proves to be somewhat comical, both by today’s standards as well as the standards of the time, it hardly matters. They sell it regardless, and after the initial guffaw, The Maze makes it easy to get over creature design short-comings. It helps that the creature is only on screen for a brief moment, but what helps more is that the entire cast sells the tragedy of the situation. There is also some attempt to justify scientifically the appearance of the creature. Kitty discovers Gerald reading a book about human deformation, and Gerald explains that the human fetus goes through many stages of evolution before obtaining its final form, including one that is amphibian in nature. As with most horror film science, the end result is somewhat dubious but wholly believable within the confines of the film’s reality. Once again, this is the product of a cast that is committed to selling the plot of the film, even at its most outlandish moments.
Complimenting and, usually, overpowering the cast is the cinematography, production design, and director. William Cameron Menzies isn’t exactly a well-known name among modern horror fans, but he directed a number of early horror efforts, including 1931’s The Spider and 1932’s Chandu the Magician, both films that drew heavily upon the world of magic and illusionists, as well as 1936’s Things to Come (based on the predictions of H.G. Wells), 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, and the sci-fi cult classic Invaders from Mars. However, what’s probably more important to the success of The Maze is his long career and vast experience as a production designer and art director. In this role, Menzies is perhaps better known. His experience in this field reaches as far back as 1918 and includes a whole slew of famous films such as the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad, Pride of the Yankees, and in 1939, Gone with the Wind. A couple of Oscars and a few other assorted awards later, he found himself directing The Maze, as well as serving as the film’s art and production designer. This means that the guy responsible for the “burning of Atlanta” sequence in Gone with the Wind is also the guy responsible for the unfortunate beast in this film.
Although the direction itself in The Maze is best characterized as “blandly competent,” the unassuming nature of the direction allows the mood to take center stage. That’s a wise decision, since it’s the film’s strongest character and was obviously the aspect in which Menzies was most interested. We barely get a glimpse of Craven Castle (obviously because of budgetary concerns — this is a low-budget film, after all), but when we do, it is all twisted brambles and gnarled trees. When Kitty and Edith first arrive, the moors are awash in fog. Everything inside the castle is shadows and gloom. Even when sets aren’t draped in moroseness and cobwebs, it feels like they are. Augie Lohman was the special effects supervisor, so one has to assume that blame for the appearance of The Maze‘s signature monster should be pinned on him — though Menzies ultimately made the decision to go with the creation. Judging by his long list of credits, which includes special effects for everything from John Huston’s Moby Dick to Barbarella, one has to assume that Lohman was good at what he did. But The Maze represents his first real foray into the realm of the fantastic, having previously worked on adventure and crime films. I don’t know if it was his relative inexperience (hard to believe since three years later he was working magic in Moby Dick), or a function of time and money that resulted in the final product. To some degree, he was hamstrung by the story. The Maze was based on a novel by Maurice Sandoz, so the nature of the beast was already set. Even the most adept effects man in the early 1950s would have a hard time when saddled with the assignment of bringing it to life. Maybe Lohman was just faced with an impossible task and did the best he could.
Which, in all honesty, was pretty bad. If you didn’t know ahead of time that the monster was going to be a colossal let-down, then that first reveal, when Kitty stumbled upon the creature while wandering desperately through the maze, would pretty much undo all the hard work the atmosphere of dread put into the rest of the film. To make matters worse, rather than walking upright like a man, the creature is down on all fours — which might have worked if the suit was designed to better mimic a four-legged creature. Instead, it’s designed in the same way that the Anguilas costume from the Godzilla movies was designed, meaning that the hind legs are bent because the guy in the suit is just crawling around. And as if that wasn’t enough, it seems like even the makers of The Maze couldn’t justify trying to pass off a frog’s “ribbit” as a terrifying noise and so instead rely on…elephant noises? Huh. How about that. The end effect is singularly laughable. There have certainly been sillier looking monsters (Giant Claw, I’m looking in your direction), but few that are surrounded by as much somber atmosphere and seriousness.
Screenwriter Daniel Ullman, who worked mostly in television but also wrote the screenplay for Mysterious Island (where his script is once again upstaged by production design and special effects), redeems himself in the film’s final moments, which actually succeed in making you feel sorry for our doomed man-frog beastie. The Maze is an enjoyable, if somewhat silly, film that boasts some tremendous mood and a hearty chuckle. The script does tend to run in place for too long — Kitty diligently investigates the situation but never makes any real progress — but I have a pretty high tolerance for films comprised mostly of well-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs, sipping scotch and pondering things. I didn’t find The Maze to be boring even when it was biding its time, and I think the build-up is quite nice even if the pay-off is more side-splitting than horrifying.