The Maze (1953)

Image Source: Wrong Side of the Art

Synopsis: Life for the newly-engaged Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) and Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) couldn’t be any happier – until Gerald receives a letter notifying him of the death of his uncle. Now it is his duty to take on the role of baronet of Craven Castle in the Scottish highlands. It’s expected that Gerald will settle his business at Craven and then return to Kitty, but soon he makes it clear that he’s not coming back and that the engagement is off. The heartbroken Kitty and her supportive aunt Edith (Katherine Emery) pay an unannounced visit to Craven, where they find Gerald a prematurely-aged and altogether different man. Kitty tries her best to bring back the warm and good-humored Gerald she once knew, but all Gerald wants is for Kitty and Edith to leave Craven Castle. What is affecting Gerald? Could the MacTeam family secret lie in the forbidden hedge maze in the center of the castle grounds?

Based on a novel and originally filmed in 3D, The Maze was the final film by Oscar-winning art director and production designer William Cameron Menzies, who received an honorary award in 1940 for his outstanding use of color in a little picture known as Gone with the Wind. Despite the fact that Menzies had more than twice as many artistic credits as he did directorial roles, he was also at the helm of such notable movies as 1932’s Chandu the Magician and 1936’s Things to Come. For a man who at the time had been in the business for nearly forty years, practically since the beginning of the medium of film itself, Menzies clearly knew what he was doing with The Maze. Although the plot synopsis may make it sound like a schlocky low-budget B horror picture (not necessarily a bad thing!), The Maze is definitely aided by Menzies’ directorial experience and impeccable eye for detail. It’s a beautiful movie with some stunning cinematography; Craven Castle has so many inky, shadowy corners you might think you’re in a German Expressionist film from the ’20s, not an American monster movie from the ’50s. The players, all relatively unknown (to me, anyway), also help add to the spooky ambience of the picture and heighten the mystery. The narrator is Aunt Edith, and while Katherine Emery at this point was an accomplished character actress and stage performer, here she sort of gives you the impression that she’s played by someone’s actual Aunt Edith. It’s distracting but not too much; I suppose it just adds a hint of realism.

Doesn’t it ever occur to anybody to bring HEDGE CLIPPERS into one of these damn things?!?

It’s good that the atmosphere is so strong, because the film relies on it a lot to pass the time. That’s my way of saying that nothing much happens until the last ten minutes or so. While many reviewers complain that The Maze is too slow, I rather enjoyed the build up of suspense and thought that it helped those last ten minutes really pack a punch. I don’t want to spoil it too much – seeing as how the poster above specifically requests that I don’t give away the ending – but I will say that there is a monster at the center of the maze, and it is definitely worth the wait. I can’t say you’ll be scared, though, but hopefully you’ll be entertained. There’s also some very silly science in the last few scenes which I enjoyed probably too much. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze, which I had never heard of prior to stumbling across it on Netflix (which predicted I’d give it a very low rating). It’s a wonderfully eery little picture with the perfect hint of schlock thrown in for good measure. I can definitely see adding it to my annual must-watch Halloween roster.

The Maze (1953) – 3.5/5 stars

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: When wayward seafarer Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a freighter after being stranded by a shipwreck, he and the frequently-soused captain don’t see eye to eye. Instead of transporting him to the Samoan capital of Apia, where his fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) is eagerly awaiting her beau, the nasty captain drops Parker onto the boat of manservant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and his mysterious boss Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who are receiving a large shipment of wild animals to take back to their private island. Parker is naturally upset, but Moreau promises to give him a ship to sail to Apia in the morning. When they arrive on the island, Parker is treated to dinner, drinks, and the delightful company of the exotic and friendly Lota (Kathleen Burke). She warms to Parker quickly, and soon informs him that the charming Dr. Moreau isn’t what he seems. In actuality, he’s a scientist on a devilish mission to control the process of evolution – transforming animals into men.

This scifi/horror gem by director Erle C. Kenton was the first in a long line of cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Its status as a pre-Code talky is evidenced by the repeated references to rape and bestiality, as well as Moreau’s own explicit blasphemy. The film was banned in the United Kingdom for over twenty-five years – though interestingly it was the scenes of vivisection, prohibited by the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of the 1930s, which kept it under wraps for so long. Furthermore, H.G. Wells himself was outspoken in his dislike of the way the movie overshadowed his more serious philosophical ponderings with overt horror elements. I must admit that I haven’t yet read Dr. Moreau, although Wells is one of my favorite authors. I hope his spirit won’t be too angry at me for saying this – who knows, he could be out and about, what with it being Halloween season and all – but I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed this film.

“This is Ms. Panther; she’ll be cleaning your teeth this morning.”

The picture features some striking cinematography and an excellent use of shadows, as well as employing its tropical jungle setting (which was really just Catalina Island) to appropriately spooky effect. The story itself is intriguing, but it’s the performance of Charles Laughton as Moreau which really makes this movie worth seeing. Laughton is at once smooth, calm, and dangerous; he wields terrifying power over his subjects and all that goes on on his island. Perhaps I’m reading too much into his portrayal, but I found something slightly sissified about Moreau, imbuing him with a “menacing queerness” that adds a whole new dimension to his obsession with creating life in a non-procreative manner. In the same way that critics have read homosexual undertones into the mad scientist character of Dr. Pretorius in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, I feel there’s definitely a little more lurking beneath the surface of Dr. Moreau than what we’re explicitly told. Whether this was an intentional move by the filmmakers or by Laughton (who himself was homosexual), or whether it’s just me choosing to see what I want to see, I don’t know, but I stand by my hypothesis.

Another performance I enjoyed was that by Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman, who I think portrayed a perfect blend of naïvete, awkwardness, and sexual curiosity in her film debut. A dental assistant working in Chicago, Burke began acting after winning a beauty contest sponsored by Paramount Studios; she went on to appear in over twenty films before retiring from the profession in 1938 at the age of 25. However, besides Laughton and Burke, there’s not really much worth noting about the other actors, with leading man Richard Arlen being particularly hammy and terrible. Bela Lugosi also has a very very small role as the Sayer of the Law, the animal-human hybrid who recites the rules as dictated by Moreau. I found it to be a pretty big waste of Lugosi’s talent – but then again, Lugosi specialized in that. Overall this is a truly creepy yet beautiful film with a completely stellar performance by Laughton that really brings the whole thing up a notch from B-grade scifi/horror to a Grade-A classic. Definitely perfect for Halloween, or, hell, any time of the year – you never need an excuse to watch a movie as neat as this one.

Island of Lost Souls (1932) – 4/5 stars

’50s Monster Mash Blogathon: 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: An American astronaut (William Hopper) is rescued by fishermen when his ship crash lands in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sicily. Later that day, a local boy (Bart Braverman) finds a curious organic artifact on the beach and sells it to a visiting zoologist (Frank Puglia) on a trip to Sicily with his granddaughter (Joan Taylor). Soon, the object reveals itself to be an egg, out of which hatches a tiny and strange creature. But the alien doesn’t stay small for long, growing at an incredibly rapid rate. The monster escapes the confines of the zoologist’s cage and flees into the countryside. With the Italian police force on its trail trying to protect humanity and the American Army trying to recover their valuable scientific specimen, what fate awaits this monster on this planet where he was never meant to be?

This is an official entry in Forgotten Classic of Yesteryear’s ’50s Monster Mash Blogathon, a truly fantastic event celebrating the joy, pleasure and pain of 1950s monster movies from around the world. Organized by Nathanael Hood, this blogathon spans from today until August 2, and with forty talented bloggers pledged to participate, a fun and wacky time is sure to be had by all. Please click the banner to view some of the contributions, and keep checking back on Forgotten Classics as the contributions roll in all week long.

First of all, sincerest apologies to Nate for the lateness of this review! Dealing with a lot of illness and business ’round these parts, not to mention planning a trip out of town and a possible move out of town after that. I’m going to keep my intro brief so that I actually have some chance of getting this post up before the day is through. 20 Million Miles to Earth was directed by Nathan Juran for Columbia Pictures for the sole purpose of displaying the incredible, jaw-dropping, still-as-of-yet-unparalleled stop-motion animation effects talents of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. While a lot of the film seems quite low-budget, Harryhausen, as always, shocks and awes. Come take a trip with me into this monster movie classic, this B-grade gem, this long long journey… 20 Million Miles to Earth!

Warning: This is a Full Recap review, meaning it includes screencaps and commentary on the film in its entirety. Therefore, it is much longer than a regular review, and spoilers are pretty much guaranteed. (more…)

Japanese Cinema Blogathon: The Cat Returns (2002)

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Synopsis: Shy and awkward Haru Yoshioka feels like she never does anything right. She can never wake up in time for school and is always tripping over things. When Haru performs a good deed by saving a cat from getting hit by a truck, the animal responds by thankingher and promising to repay her kindness! Soon Haru is getting all kinds of gifts from the Kingdom of Cats, including cattails in her garden (which make her sneeze) and live mice in her locker (which make her squeamish)! Haru regrets helping the cat, because now his brethren won’t leave her alone. But things really turn serious when the Cat King decides to bestow upon Haru what he views to be the ultimate gift: the hand of his son, the prince, in marriage! Desperate to avoid being taken to the Cat Kingdom and turned into a cat forever, Haru seeks the help of the Baron, a dapper kitty in a formal suit, along with his fat and grumpy friend Muta and a crow named Toto. But before her new friends can stop them, representatives of the Cat Kingdom come and steal Haru away in the night. Can Haru find her way out of the Kingdom before she’s completely and permanently transformed?

This is an official entry in the week-long Japanese Cinema Blogathon for disaster relief, co-hosted by CinemaFanatic and Japan Cinema. As we all know, Japan was struck with a 9.0 earthquake on March 11, resulting in devastating tsunamis and widespread destruction. Please CLICK HERE to make a donation to the represented charity of your choice to aid Japanese disaster victims, and be sure to click the banner at left to view the other contributions to the blogathon.

The fifth and final installment in my week-long tribute to Studio Ghibli started off as a twenty-minute short about cats commissioned by a Japanese theme park. Banking on the popularity of the two felines from 1995’s Whisper of the Heart – Muta/Moon, the fat train-riding cat, and Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, the well-dressed figurine in the antique shop which provided inspiration for the main character’s novel – Hayao Miyazaki wanted to bring both characters back in anthropomorphic form for the short. He hired Aoi Hiiragi, who had written the manga on which Whisper was based, to pen the manga equivalent of the new film. However, when the theme park pulled out of the deal, Miyazaki instead decided to keep the existing material and expand the film as a training exercise for future Ghibli directors. Hiroyuki Morita, who had done previous animation work for the studio on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), was handed the task of directing based on the 525 pages of storyboards he created based on Hiiragi’s manga. (more…)

Japanese Cinema Blogathon: Pom Poko (1994)

Image Source: Webry

Synopsis: On the edge of the forest of the Tokyo suburbs, a clan of wild raccoon-dogs (known in Japanese as tanuki) feel their habitat being increasingly encroached upon by the construction of human dwellings. Realizing that they will soon run out of food and places to raise their families, the good-natured but concerned tanuki band together to find a way to drive the humans out of their territory. Summoning their long-forgotten powers of shape-shifting and transformation, the tanuki begin a guerrilla campaign to scare the humans away by impersonating every deity, demon and ghost under the sun. But when it soon becomes clear that the humans won’t be chased off that easily, a militant male by the name of Gonta lobbies for more violent tactics to rid the tanuki of the human presence. Can the wise elders Tsurugame and Oruku and the rest of the clan stop Gonta and his militia before they get themselves killed? Or is resorting to violence really the animals’ last plausible hope for peace?

This is an official entry in the week-long Japanese Cinema Blogathon for disaster relief, co-hosted by CinemaFanatic and Japan Cinema. As we all know, Japan was struck with a 9.0 earthquake on March 11, resulting in devastating tsunamis and widespread destruction. Please CLICK HERE to make a donation to the represented charity of your choice to aid Japanese disaster victims, and be sure to click the banner at left to view the other contributions to the blogathon.

My third review of this blogathon/mini-Ghiblithon focuses on the most kid-friendly film discussed so far, an escapist tale (like Porco Rosso) with an environmentalist message (like Nausicaä – isn’t it nice when everything ties together like that?). Released in 1994, Pom Poko was directed by studio co-head Isao Takahata, his third directorial effort for Ghibli following 1988’s anti-war masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies and 1991’s coming-of-age tale Only Yesterday, reviewed here by Clara of Via Margutta 51. (And in case you’re wondering, I did end up watching Fireflies, but I’ve decided not to review it for this particular blogathon. It’s kind of hard to criticize a film’s technique when you’re too busy crying your eyes out.) (more…)