‘It occurred in Scotland…’ our narrator sets the scene for William Cameron Menzies’ sometimes derided, sometimes praised but mainly forgotten fantasy film from 1953. A cautionary tale of an amphibian aristocrat who rules from deep inside a maze inside Craven Castle, this feels a fairly accurate representation of how we live in Bonnie Scotland, right down to the rhubarbing, pipe-smoking, gibberish spouting peasants who wander around the castle grounds. The Maze has amassed a measly two critical reviews to date on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s actually better than you might expect for a story about a giant frog…
The Maze was shot in 3D by Menzies, who know a thing or two about production design; Things to Come and Invaders From Mars are both iconic, and he even masterminded the famous shots in Gone with the Wind and Spellbound. Even working with a small budget, he pushes letters, suitcases and all kinds of objects to the front of the frame, and moves his camera quite a bit too, with dark corridors, threatening topiary and cobwebs adding to the ghost-train feel. The corridors are those of Craven Castle, and we’re introduced to their murky recesses, somewhat formally, by Edith Murray (Katherine Emery, from Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead), who talks straight to camera like a newsreader. ‘Gerald was the next in line,’ she explains of Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson), a handsome man engaged to her sister Kitty (Veronica Hurst), but what exactly is Gerald next in line to? A vigorous romantic song and dance number in Cannes is cut short when Gerald is forced to return to his ancestral home in Craven Castle, and when he fails to check in regularly with his fiancé (Craven Castle has no telephones!), the gals set off for Bonnie Scotland to find out what the secret of Craven Castle is.
And what a secret it turns out to be; even the reference books I examined as a kid didn’t provide many clues as to the climax of The Maze, but it’s quite something. ‘Every Scottish castle has a maze but most of them have been removed ’ we’re told, but I’m not sure that’s actually true. Daniel Ullman’s script seems to be specifically based on the legend of the monster of Glamis Castle, but with a twist; the belief in teratology, the notion that an embryo moves through different evolutionary stages in the womb, has produced Gerald’s relative Sir Roger who is, and there’s no other way to break this to you, a two hundred year old giant frog who lives in the centre of the maze. Even in Scotland, this kind of domestic arrangement raises eyebrows, and Kitty and her sister must brave the maze in full eveningwear to find and free Gerald of the slimy influence of the aristocracy, and particularly his sinister monster butler William (Michael Pate) who makes Mrs Danvers look as lively as Carla from Cheers.
Something like Hitchcock’s Rebecca re-imagined by a wayward child, this tale of giant frog prints on the floor was adapted from a surrealist novel by Maurice Sandoz, illustrated by Salvador Dali. The dialogue is equally surreal to modern ears; Kitty questions locals with the enquiry ‘I have a letter I should like to post. Won’t you tell me where I should wait for the postman please?’ while posho after-dinner talk involves tall tales of tackling ‘a whole tribe of fuzzy wuzzies.’ Yet The Maze offers unexpected pathos to the lost; Sir Roger turns out to be no threat, but a victim of a birth defect; after he’s topped himself off, we’re told of a tragic development where he’d grown up ‘fearing that he was a monster but feeling that he was a man.’ We’re told Sir Roger’s state was seen as a ‘disgrace’, and Scotland has no shortage of repellent lizard-people in castles to this day, but The Maze’s out-dated sentiments reveal a Hollywood version of Scotland where antique superstition and even older class can still appear somewhat archaic to interlopers from awa’.