For most fright film fans, the disparate elements of The Maze, a nearly uncategorizable film, are difficult to reconcile. Beginning as something of a modern-dress gothic romance, it segues into some genuinely unsettling set-pieces before deteriorating at last into abject silliness. Admittedly its director, William Cameron Menzies, a bona fide filmland genius, possessed an unconcealable flair for the offbeat.

Menzies made his indelible mark initially as an ingenious production designer. In the mid-20s, he'd set filmdom on its artistic ear contributing stunning set designs to Douglas Fairbank's timeless vehicle The Thief of Baghdad. Throughout the silent era, Menzies pressed the boundaries of production design into trendsetting shapes that rival art directors simply couldn't duplicate. His designs were composed of languorous shapes and copious shadows that framed the action with an indefinable, sometimes unsettling ambience.

In 1936, Menzies designed and co-directed Things to Come, based on H.G. Wells' fatalistic tome. Menzies wove Wells' steely literary threads into a compelling futuristic canvas, contrasting the stylized grit of a society devastated by war, with the soaring chrome and immaculate machinery of a new breed seeking to better mankind through inter-galactic exploration.

Two years later, Menzies was hired by legendary movie mogul David Selznick to design Gone With The Wind. Hardly a film that requires further detailing, what with its making every bit the melodramatic saga the story itself was, Menzies delivered a sweeping, color-bathed tour-de-force of film design that earned him a special Academy Award.

Every film that Menzies worked on is imbued with his unmistakable vision, but it is the haunting sci fi fairy tale, Invaders From Mars, for which fantasy fans best remember him. Oddly lit, surreally tall sets, boldly colored, calculatedly fake backgrounds, and, another distinctly Menzian touch, actors who seem to have no idea what the proceedings are all about. It is this annoying flaw in Menzies' work, an inability to direct actors, which further serves to undermine the already tenuous tenor of The Maze.

The frayed edges of this discount 3-D shock flick are all too apparent, especially in the early going. A few fancy tables and curtains hope to pass as representative of the European cafe society in which leading man Richard Carlson and his bride-to-be exist. A Parisian floor show consists of a pair of dancers repeatedly flinging one another at the camera in order to demonstrate their breathtaking dexterity in 3-D.

Carlson might well be called the King of 3-D, having appeared in Creature From the Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space and The Maze, three of the best-liked 3-D films ever made. He brings a certain panicked credibility to scenes at the family castle where Menzies is able to more handily influence the ambience, draping the stone stairways and marble halls with moody, albeit budget-obscuring, shadows. Several scenes comprised of dark shapes slithering along locked doors are genuinely creepy, as are the heroine's misguided wanderings through the titular tangle of shrubbery wherein lurks the centuries-old family secret.

The aforementioned descent into silliness cannot be detailed without revealing a surprise ending which, on a larger budget, may have been made palatable by a designer of Menzies' caliber. Menzies refrained from exploiting the sheer novelty of 3-D, wisely determining that it would most likely serve to reveal the film's cost-cutting underpinnings. As it stands, the film is most charitably described as an interesting curio, a glimpse of a genuine movie artisan in his final years, forging a few effective moments from incompatible dramatic elements.

Film scholars are already familiar with the breadth of Menzies' career, but the fact that in later years, when the opportunity came his way to direct small, yet oddly personal films, he turned most often to fantasy, as the films described below ably demonstrate:

Invaders From Mars (1953)
The definitive B film cast (Arthur Franz, Morris Ankrum, Leif Erickson, Robert Shayne) nevertheless play second fiddle to Menzies' surreal design work. Kid-star Jimmy Hunt is our surrogate in this frighteningly child-like vision of a red planet invasion.

Acting: B+
Atmosphere: A+
Fun: A+

The Whip Hand (1951)
A rustic resort town is the setting, this time around. A Ruskie germ warfare scheme is exposed when an intrepid reporter stumbles upon a Commie-recruited ex-Nazi scientist with a basement full of zombies.

Acting: C
Atmosphere: B-
Fun: B

"Thrills and chills scream from the screen!"
Man Beast

"Raw panic the screen never dared reveal!"
Target Earth

"When the screen screams, you'll scream too!"
The Tingler

 All contents copyright The Astounding B Monster®