Tuesday, August 27, 2019

'The Maze': Fine gothic tale with a weak ending

The Maze (1953)
Starring: Veronica Hurst. Richard Carlson, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, Robin Hughes, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Lilian Bond, and Stanley Fraser
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Kitty (Hurst) and her Aunt Edith (Emery) travel to Scotland to learn why Kitty's fiance, Gerald (Carlson) abruptly cancelled the wedding plans after inheriting his family estate and title.

Although "The Maze" was made and released in the early 1950s, it has an aura about it that feels like a horror film from Warner Bros. or Universal from the 1930s. It's soaked in a gothic sensibility from beginning to end, and it presents a nice, serious-minded spin on the "Old Dark House" genre to the degree that it's almost surprising the filmmakers pulled it off as successfully as they did.

Another key to this film's success is that it embraces the full spectrum of gothic tropes, including that of a young woman who, driven by love, ends up uncovering dark secrets. While Kitty's fiance is not a dark, brooding man at the beginning of the film, he rapidly turns into one once he is ensconced in his ancestral home of Craven Castle. Young Kitty and her aunt Edith (however reluctantly the latter is drawn into the shadows) spend the majority of the movie trying to outsmart the servants in the creepy castle and to force its secrets into the light--all in the service of saving Gerald from whatever mysterious fate he has apparently surrendered himself to. The film hits almost every gothic note, except that Kitty never gets to run down corridors in a filmy nightgown (even if she does carry a candle abound quite a bit). 

Kitty's quest to uncover the mystery of Craven Castle, and what has seemingly aged Gerald a decade or more in the space of a few weeks, is one that I found to be engaging. It became even moreso when it became clear that there indeed was some sort of monster creeping around the castle at night--and that there might well be some solid justification for why visitors were locked in their rooms at night. My curiosity became even stronger when the level headed Aunt Edith came face-to-face with the creature (after devising a way to not get locked in her room), but whatever she saw was alien and strange that her mind could not process whatever it was that she saw. This encounter thickened the atmosphere of gothic horror in film by adding a Lovecraftian touch to the proceedings. 

The film is further buoyed by strong performances by all cast members. Gerald's two creepy man servants (Stanley Fraser and Michael Pate) give the sense of being equally willing to keep the unwelcome guests at Craven Castle under control until they leave, or to kill them if they prove to be too much trouble. Meanwhile, Veronica Hurst, the film's real star despite Richard Carlson's top billing, gives an excellent performance as a strong-willed young woman who wants to redeem and recover the virile, kind and personable man viewers met during the film's first few minutes, or at least discover what caused him to change into a prematurely aged, bitter and loveless hermit. 

Speaking of Richard Carlson--the warmth with which he portrays Gerald McTeam in the early scenes of the film go a long way to making viewers invested in Kitty's success. The only flaw in Carlson's performance is that his transformation from Kitty's perfect husband-to-be into the haunted lord of a creepy castle in the Scottish highlands isn't sharp enough--there needed to be more menace in his performance during the middle part of the film. It would have made his transformation more shocking, and it would have made the scenes where Gerald is rejecting Kitty's pleas for him to let her help, as well as his interactions with old friends (whom Kitty contrives to get to the castle in hopes of snapping him out of whatever has gotten hold of him) more dramatic and moving. (A few years later, Carlson would give an amazing performance as a truly vile character in "Tormented"; if he could have tapped into a little of that for this role, he would have been amazing instead of merely good.

Carlson's good-but-not-perfect performance wasn't what made me knock this film down from a High Eight to a Low Seven on my Ten-Star rating scale. As strong as this film is for most of its running time, it starts to sputter toward the end, as Kitty and Aunt Edith follow Gerald, his servants, and some thing into the film's titular maze.

First, there's a ridiculous bit where Gerald & Company are escorting the thing through the castle, but are hiding it behind a sheet for no reason other than to keep it from the view of the film's audience. Secondly, the ladies' attempt to find their way to its center (where strange splashing sounds can be heard) starts to drag quickly, and soon becomes boring. The moment where they uncover the horror that the men of Craven Castle were trying to hide is extremely well done, as is the dramatic and fast-moving aftermath... but this is ultimately squandered during the film's denouement where the filmmakers went a little too far in capturing that old-time horror movie feel: Instead of letting Craven Castle's secret be something supernatural, we're treated to some pseudo-scientific, weak sci-fi babble when "curse" would have been far more effective. (In fairness, though, I am led to understand that the film is true to the novel upon which the script was based in this sense... but a bad ending is a bad ending.)

If you like gothic horror tales, as well as horror movies from the 1930s, I think you'll enjoy this film, despite the ending not being what it could have been.

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