I t wasn’t that long ago (2009, if you’re counting) that James Cameron’s Avatar hit the screens for the first time, setting off a wave of critical backlash as well as a rush to imitate that film’s success. While some of the early 3D films were pretty bad, as was the experience of watching them, many of the technical kinks have been ironed out in the intervening years. Today, 3D has become fairly commonplace for certain types of films, including big-tent children’s animation and franchise action movies. Critics will continue to debate whether 3D adds anything to the viewing experience, but as long as audiences are willing to pay extra for tickets to 3D screenings, you can be sure theatre will continue to show them.
Of course, 3D movies existed long before Avatar, with a number being released in the 1950s and early 1960s. While it’s not easy to find a theatrical showing of those early films in 3D, some are being released for home viewing. Yes, you can now watch 3D movies in the comfort of your living room, courtesy of 3D Blu-ray players and televisions, a delicious irony considering that one reason the movie studios developed the technology in the first place was to get people away from their TV sets and into the theatres.
The Maze, newly released in both 2D and 3D formats by Kino Lorber, is a good example of a mid-range 1950s horror film. Originally released in 1953, the same year as (among other films) From Here to Eternity, Stalag 17, and The Wages of Fear, it makes no attempt to challenge those films in terms of significance, but offers an enjoyable viewing experience along the lines of the many horror films released in the early 1950s. While The Maze lacks the philosophical weight of, say, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it has enough to offer in terms of atmosphere and moments of pure weirdness to make for a memorable viewing experience.
Kitty Murray (a very blonde Vernoica Hurst) is happily engaged to Gerald MacTeam (B-movie stalwart Richard Carlson). Then MacTeam’s uncle dies and he inherits a Scottish castle (Craven Castle, to be precise—make what you will of the name), after which he abruptly breaks off the engagement. Kitty is not one to give up easily, however, and heads to the Highlands with her aunt (stage actress Katherine Emery, whose on-camera presence suggests she could have had a career as a sort of Judith Anderson lite had she chosen to do so). They find Gerald much aged and oddly altered in personality, strange things keep happening, and the key to it all seems to lie in, you guessed it, a puzzle maze of the type featured in The Shining.
Even for 1953, the special effects in The Mazeare nothing to brag about (you’ll probably be tempted to laugh rather than scream at the movie’s climax), but this film offers other pleasures. Menzies and cinematographer Harry Neumann create a properly spooky mood (the fog machines get a heavy workout, but the use of oversize sets is also impressive), the actors seems to be enjoying themselves throughout, and the standard tropes of a horror movie are salted with unexpected outbreaks of weirdness that keep you guessing. We’re not two minutes into the film before Emery speaks directly into the camera, for instance, and an early nightclub scene features an acrobatic act in which a young woman is swung and thrown about by two men as if she were made of rubber. A less creative director would have been satisfied with voiceover narration in the former case, and an ordinary band in the background in the latter, but Menzies were for something unexpected and pulled it off. He takes similar care in setting up ordinary scenes, creating multiple planes on the screen in ways that you can appreciate even in 2D.
The Mazeis distributed on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber, with a street date of April 24. I reviewed the Blu-ray release, which includes both 2D and 3D versions on a single disc, along with a number of extras. I was not able to watch the 3D version, but the 2D restoration is generally of high quality and does credit to Menzies’ visual sense (he was far better known as an art director and production designer, but does a fine job directing in this film). Extras include a commentary track by film historians Tom Waver, Bub Furmanek, Dr. Robert J. Kiss, and David Schechter an interview with Veronica Hurst, and the original 3D trailer (which you can watch in 2D). | Sarah Boslaugh