Older generations really get hot and bothered by millenials. They don’t like our modern technology, social media, new trends, progressivism, cannabis, collapsible bicycles and most of all: Netflix. The loudest declaration from what can only be described as #BabyBoomerFilmTwitter is that millenials don’t appreciate classic films, despite all signs pointing to us actually liking them. Take me for example: I may have hot takes on Jaws: The Revenge, prefer shlock cinema, and fall for those dumb summer blockbusters, but that appreciation was cultivated because of the exposure to early, black and white cinema when I was a kid. TCM was a staple of my house, most of my mornings spent watching whatever was playing from Here Comes Mr. Jordan or The Horn Blows at Midnight (there were a surprising number of angel films on at 8AM). But behind every misguided hot take, there is a kernel of truth, and that’s that storytelling isn’t the same as it used to be and that is never more evident than in classic film. The pace is slower, the takes are longer, the effects are more DIY, which can help ratchet up the ingenuity, especially in the case of a film like William Cameron Menzies’ The Maze (1953). Compared to 80s babies, people born today will have a slight learning curve in fully comprehending and appreciating older cinema for what it is: the origination of everything we take for granted today. Especially in the horror film.
Gerald (Richard Carlson) and Kitty (Veronica Hurst) are engaged to be wed, but Gerald gets word that his uncle has passed away and he’s inherited his grand estate. Though after his arrival, he sends word back to Kitty and her Aunt Edith (Katherine Emery) that the engagement is off and to not come to his new ancestral home under fear of death. Shook by this revelation, Kitty says to hell with that and embarks on a mission with Aunt Edith to find out why. Upon arrival though, they find Gerald a changed man. Morose and grim, looking as if he has aged years when it’s only been a matter of weeks. His servants, equally unnerving, follow a set schedule to maintain what they describe as Gerald’s illness. Clearly perturbed by Kitty and Edith’s surprise presence, Gerald begrudgingly allows them to stay when Edith comes down with a cold, affording Kitty the time to figure out what Gerald’s illness is: be it mental, physical, or otherwise. But then what is that she hears shuffling in the hallways at night, the mysterious light in the garden maze at the heart of the estate, and what exactly did happen to the last person who stayed?
The story feels Lovecraftian in its structure, with Aunt Edith narrating the past events casting a shadow over the dark brooding mansion where a man who is mysteriously, and clearly, effected by something that has driven him almost mad. For 1953, it’s dripping with dread. And while the ending will be seen by some as ludicrous, and is confoundingly a popular GIF that floats around in social spaces, there is a bizarre poignancy to what happens that doesn’t divorce itself from the film’s melancholy tone. It’s a cleverness that you only get in a film from this time, and it still works. The Maze is a visual portrait, simplistic in its theatricality. Cascading shadows down dark staircases framing the action almost like a surrealist painting, evocative of the German expressionism of earliest horror cinema. Like Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s work a decade prior to him, it’s impossible not to see the influence that William Cameron Menzies’ production design has had on some of the most popular recent horror franchises, from Insidious to The Conjuring, these Gothic macabres pulling from the well of great American cinema as a snapback from the J-Horror cycle of the early 2000s.
Another theory that I have as to why younger generations are more averse to classic films is that the generations that preceded us did a terrible job preserving these films on home video. Encouraging audiences to see these classics in cinemas was really the only way to get any idea of what the directors/photographers originally intended, rather than seeing a oddly formatted, grainy, or blurry picture on VHS. And even then the film prints that we were seeing 20 years ago still were fighting with the degradation of time, so unless you were alive when these films were fresh it was rare that you’d see the pristine condition that it was meant to be seen in. That is, until now. What Blu-ray has truly given us is a resurrection for so many of these past films, like The Maze, that have been lost in the shuffle. Presented here in new 4K Restoration, I can only imagine what has been lost to audiences for decades. The crystal clarity of the hedge maze, the stark contrast between light and shadow, the hard lines down the staircase would have lost the lustre because of standard, shoddy transfers. Here Kino Lorber has proven why physical media has value, as I can’t imagine the care and treatment for a long forgotten film like this would be the same if this was a digital release. The disc also features restored three-channel stereophonic sound by Eckhard Büttner, a restored 3-D version of the film, an insightful audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, and an absolutely delightful interview with star Veronica Hurst, where she makes the set and her experience of The Maze sound like the happiest place on earth.
The Maze is the perfect example of what a lost gem should be. While its story is relatively simple, and an ending that more than likely turned audiences off, it’s not a huge surprise that this has been a forgotten footnote in the career of Menzies, which included an honorary Academy Award for his production design of David O Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. But maybe because of this lowered expectation, Menzies ingenuity rises to the top and the effectiveness of The Maze becomes undeniable. And with this gorgeous new restoration from Kino Lorber, it deserves a place in your home library.