Friday, August 23, 2013

The Maze

The Maze (1953)
Dir. William Cameron Menzies
Written by Daniel Ullman
Starring Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst

They spent so much money on the tagline "The Deadliest Trap in the World" (and they would have had to, because there's nothing deadly and no trap and it all takes place in one location) that they couldn't afford the "S.'

So, I’ve been watching some of these pre-60’s B-horror films, like DONOVAN’S BRAIN, THE APE, THE BLACK SLEEP, THE GHOUL and so forth, as well as some of the Universal Monster acknowledged classics that I hadn’t seen like THE WOLF MAN, INVISIBLE MAN, and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. And I’ve come to a conclusion about them that I suspect will come as a surprise to people who know I’m a horror buff but who haven’t really watched these movies themselves. They’re not very good. Oh, I know they’re remembered fondly by the critical establishment, and maybe even more so by the crop of horror geek directors who grew up watching them on TV. They have good things about them, obviously; who doesn’t love seeing Boris Karloff ham it up, and who can resist the awesomeness of the early monster makeup and matte painted castle backdrops. I’m not saying they’re completely worthless. But honest to fuckin’ god, they’re mostly tepid exposition scenes, stilted melodrama, goofy comedy, and cheap castle sets. A lot of them never even get around to any actual horror until the last few minutes, and a lot of the time even when it comes it’s just some big guy waddling towards a screaming woman and then getting shot.

To be clear: it’s not because they’re dated, it’s because they’re bad. You think old film can’t be scary? Try THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, or M, or the end of FREAKS, or THE SEVENTH VICTIM, or THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, or NOSFERATU, or the utterly one-of-a-kind HAXAN. Two scoops of nightmares in every bowl. These are movies which feel utterly compelling and horrific even to this day because they utilize the power of cinema to create more than just a lumbering menace; they create an atmosphere of lingering dread which hints at the disturbing, unknowable darkness which pervades their every shadow. They follow in the tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, guys who never shied from conjuring a woman-snatching monster or two, but knew that true horror lives in the human psyche, not in some rubbery suit.

The ladies enjoy smoking a bowl or two to calm their jangled nerves.

OK, not every director is going to be a Fritz Lang or Murnau. But it seems like a lot of directors who got into the horror game later on learned the wrong lessons from their predecessors, i.e. that a monster by itself made it horror. Bullshit. Sesame Street has monsters. Horror films are about atmosphere, about perversity, about the things we can’t see and can’t understand, sometimes out in the world but more often in ourselves. They’re not tangible things you can just point a camera at; they’re something you have to evoke by carefully manipulating the basic tools of pure cinema in concert with each other. In so many ways, it’s a shame that the horror genre seems to have ended up the least reputable of all film genres* because the success or failure of horror films probably relies on the strength of the direction more than any other type of film you could make. Other genres can get by on the strength of their acting or the scale of the spectacle...  but a good horror film is going to need to draw you into it’s world using the most basic tools of cinema: sight, sound, music, and editing. Many great horror films are amateurish in ways which would doom any other kind of film; they may have weak scripts, stilted action, poor production values. But they have something else: a cinematic artistry which reaches past your logical brain and stirs up the amorphous sludge of your fears lying deep below the surface.

This is a long way of saying that I didn’t have much hope for THE MAZE, a gimmicky B-movie from 1953 by a director I didn’t recognize. It has many things that would make you suspicious: an early use of 3-D (the words “3 Dimension” [sic] appear as large as the title), another dreary castle set, a lackluster-sounding mystery with a plucky female protagonist, that guy Richard Carlson from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (who I described as “generic modernist handsome” in that review). It gives you every reason to expect it will be yet another excruciatingly dull drama shot mostly in generic drawing rooms that have fires and gas lamps but for some reason are lit like a Wal-Mart.

But, as we’ll learn by the end of the movie, looks can be deceiving. Turns out not everything is what it seems, and all those warning signs actually turn out to not quite signify the abject lack of entertainment that they usually would. Director Menzies doesn’t have too many famous movies under his belt as a director, but that’s because he was a pioneering art director/production designer, so pioneering in fact that the very title of production designer was created specifically for him by no less an authority on cinema than David O. Selznick. Selznick was so confident in Menzies that he specifically sent a production notice to the crew of GONE WITH THE WIND that “Menzies is the final word,” and had Menzies personally direct the famous sequence where Atlanta gets the torch. As if that weren’t enough, Menzies also (re)directed the Salvador Dali dream sequence from Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND, worked as a director on the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD (uncredited) and directed the eyeball-popping partially-lost H.G. Wells adaptation THINGS TO COME. If you’ve seen even one of those, it becomes obvious that Menzies was a guy born to work in “3 Dimension,” which he uses not as a gimmick but as a way to enhance the layered, deep focus approach he takes to framing his scenes.

True story.

Likewise, other aspects of the production work out better than you might think. The castle set, which looks pretty much identical to any number of similar movies (is it the same one from THE BLACK SLEEP?), is much more artfully lit and photographed and hence feels genuinely imposing and isolated, rather than obligatory. Menzies knows that just like monsters, castles have a good reason to be in horror movies; you just have to do more to actually make them work for you than simply point the camera at a bunch of rooms with fireplaces. Even boring old Richard Carlson is actually pretty good here. His particular brand of distracted nonacting suits his remote, tormented character quite nicely.

What really works best here, though, is the mystery. Here’s the setup: Our plucky heroine Kitty (Veronica Hurst) has it all: a rockin’ 1950’s body, “honey blonde hair” according to wikipedia, financial security such that she seems to spend all her time picnicking and laying poolside, a wacky aunt sidekick, and, most importantly, a handsome Scottish fiance played by an American. Things seem suspiciously idyllic, and sure enough, out of the blue her husband-to-be Gerald MacTeam(Carlson) discovers that his old uncle has died and he has inherited a mysterious castle in the Scottish highlands, which he must attend to personally. As the days pass and MacTeam doesn’t return, Kitty gets suspicious and heads up to investigate things for herself. She finds MacTeam a changed man, visibly aged and obviously concealing a dark secret from her. He wants her to leave and forget about him, implying that she’s in terrible danger is she stays. But as I mentioned, Kitty is a plucky gal and won’t take no for an answer. She digs in her heels and tries to investigate the mysterious goings-on in the castle, particularly its sinister hedge maze.

Unfortunately, there is no tiny version of this inside.

The great thing about this setup is that it lets a production guy like Menzies go to town on the atmosphere. Since Kitty’s ability to investigate is limited, it offers him ample opportunity to do exactly what I was talking about 650 words ago: forgo showing us exactly what’s happening and instead imply, evoke and hint, and let our imagination do the rest. Menzies is a top-notch scene-builder and has a gift for conjuring stark, nightmarish black and white images that recall Robert Wise’s keen eye for deep blacks and ghostly pales. And as a production guy, he knows how to use sets and subtle mise-en-scene to communicate the deep unease that permeates through this weird place without ruining everything by ever showing us too much (until the very end, anyway; more on that later). That, along with the imaginative details of the mystery and a fine, classical score by Marlin Skiles, allow something as simple as watching the light under a door vanish as something large groans by in the hallway to bloom with veiled menace. The movie has an almost Lovecraftian sense that something genuinely bizarre and beyond experience is happening.

Unfortunately, the reason this movie is not better remembered today is the reveal of what is actually happening. After a genuinely fantastic buildup and the creepiest hedge-maze chase this side of you-know-what (which I bet looked awesome in 3-D), we finally get a full-on look at the reason behind all this secrecy and weirdness, and it is laugh-out-ludicrous and hilarious. Once the mystery is solved, everything wraps up neatly in about 5 minutes in a way which begs the question of why this was not done sooner. Obviously, the mystery is always gonna be better than the solution… but this is one of the worst (and goofiest-looking) solutions I’ve ever seen, and it goes a long way towards completely undoing all the good will that the movie’s built up before now. It makes you retroactively angry at the movie for wasting your time and energy making you care about something that turns out to be so silly. But you know me, man, I love a great movie, but I can still really like a movie which has a ratio of greatness to shittiness as low as 1:8. And this one pretty much reverses that number. It’s a genuinely great movie that completely blows it in the last 5 minutes. Imagine if at the end of THE INNOCENTS the big reveal was that Deborah Kerr was actually Santa Claus in disguise.** It’s nearly on that level.

In 3-D, that guy would have looked really far away.

Even so, I can still heartily recommend this one for it’s excellent atmosphere and impressive direction up until the very end. The movie has only itself to blame for missing it’s opportunity to be an acknowledged classic, but I think it's equally unfair to dismiss something which is otherwise so strong on the basis of a silly climax (after all, NIGHT OF THE DEMON has a pretty silly looking monster too!). This is a fine example of the best 50’s horror had to offer, and deserves to be celebrated as such. Even if it is also, maybe, a lesson about why it’s always better to reveal too little rather than too much.

You thought I was troubled, didn't you? Acting.

*(I was gonna say other than porn, but actually I think more classy, respected directors have made sex flicks than horror films. At least Kubrick did both. Was he the only one?)

**Or if the end of SHUTTER ISLAND was just that he was crazy and nothing in the film really happened or meant anything. Yeah, wouldn’t that have been annoying?

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