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Shanks
(1974)
 

Director: William Castle               
Cast:
Marcel Marceau, Philippe Clary, Cindy Eilbacher


Director William Castle will always be remembered more for his gimmicks than his actual movies. The number of people who know about his offering of life insurance for moviegoers who went to see Macabre far exceeds those who have actually seen the movie. People still chuckle today about the gimmick behind The Tingler - electric buzzers were placed under the theater seats and buzzed at the appropriate time - but how many of them have actually taken the time to see the movie? The truth is that if you put aside the gimmicks, most of William Castle's movies were actually fairly entertaining little horror movies, and he was a competent director. This is probably most evident in the last movie he directed, Shanks. The subject matter in this movie is so bizarre and unlike other mainstream horror movies of its time (and now), that it's a real credit to him how he manages to pull it off. The movie stumbles a few times because of some weaknesses in the script, but Castle  makes the movie captivating by exploiting its strangeness.

Famed French mime Marcel Marceau plays the title figure Malcolm Shanks, a deaf mute who is mercilessly exploited by the stepsister and brother-in-law he lives with. The only joy that seems to be in his life comes with his skill at making and performing with puppets in front of the children in his small town. His skill at puppetry catches the eye of the old and mysterious Mr. Walker (also Marceau), who one days offers him a job in his laboratory.

With Shanks helping him with his experiments, Walker soon is able to bring dead lab animals back to life. Well, not really alive - through the use of electrical implants planted in key nerves of the animals, and with adjusting the dials on a remote control, Shanks and Walker can get the animals to move around as if they were alive. One day, Shanks comes to the lab and discovers Walker died during the night. Seeing his boss' body, and remembering they were determining the key nerves of the human body, Shanks starts getting ideas...

Shanks' further experiments (which you can probably guess) result in giving this movie some of the most bizarre and outlandish sequences in Hollywood history. The first such scene sets the mood for what's to follow, by being funny, amazing, and creepy to watch - all at the same time. After Shanks inserts the implants and starts fiddling with the controls, trying to make his new creation work, Marceau gets to show off his talent at miming. I don't like mimes, but after seeing Marceau at work, I can appreciate his art all the same. As the dead Walker, he slowly rises, jerking mechanically, and twisting his body into hilarious yet believable poses for the situation. Some tricks he does, like leaning at what seems to be an impossible angle, have you wonder how he did it. Plus, the site of seeing this obviously dead man coming to life (sort of), and with the cracking sounds of rigor mortis occasionally coming forth, it's also unsettling to see at the same time.

Shanks' experiments don't end here with Walker. With the knowledge he has, his subsequent actions become more twisted, and all we can do is sit and watch. It's no accident that we become so focused with what Shanks does. One reason why we have to keep watching is that there's very little dialogue in the entire movie. Because of that, you have to pay very close attention to the visual events if you want to know what's going on. It's almost like a silent movie - in fact, every so often there is a caption card just like those silent movies, written in slightly old fashioned English like when, "The town drunk with a shrew for a wife and a deaf mute for a brother-in-law" appears just before we get to see Shanks' brother-in-law for the first time. The movie feels surreal at times, not just with these devices, but others, like some outdoor scenes that were filmed on a soundstage. The movie announces itself as "A Grim Fairy Tale" during the opening credits, and it's not that far off from that description.

As Shanks gets deeper and deeper into his activities in raising the dead, you keep watching, not just to find out what he dares to do next, but how everything will finish up when the movie ends. There are some things that are indeed hard to swallow along the way; I found it hard to believe Shanks could make the bodies he controls make such complicated movements when there are only three dials on each remote control, the citizens of the town seem incredibly dense to not realize that people that they know are moving very strangely, and the death by chicken (!) was too silly for its own good.

These and a few other dubious questions come to mind on occasion during Shanks, but questions of a different sort come up that make us think deeply about them, rather than the movie's problems. Seeing Shanks up to his deeds, we wonder: Is what he's doing okay? Why is he doing these things? Should we feel amusement or horror by what he's doing? What's interesting is that the movie doesn't make is easy for us to come up with answers to these questions; we can see more than one legitimate answer for many of them. How we should feel by what we see Shanks doing is completely up to us. I chose to admire the artistry in how these scenes are pulled off, while keeping those questions in the back of my mind so I could think a little. It's a movie that's not only interesting to think about afterwards, but while you are watching it.

Still, I was a little unsatisfied with the last quarter or so of the movie. During the course of the movie, there is a feeling that the results of Shanks' experiments are building up slowly to a big climax of some kind, tragic or not. But nothing of the sort happens. It's as if the screenwriter had a great premise in mind, started writing about it, but couldn't think of a satisfactory way to tidy it up at the end. Instead of having a climax centered more around the reanimation device, the movie brings in a motorcycle gang. This is wrong on so many levels, not just that it seems like a desperate device to try and bring in something so that there will be tension, but that the tone of this whole motorcycle thing is way off from the tone of what preceded it. That's bad enough, but what's even worse is that the key moment in the climax centers around a fist fight, which is also wrong on those previously mentioned levels as well. The whole last quarter of the movie takes the eerie, poetic feeling the movie has managed to generate, and destroys it piece by piece.

Shanks is still worth watching for the first three quarters, though. And though it is a flawed movie, it's one of those rare birds, a true original movie. I can't think of another movie quite like it, and it was a nice way for an original like Castle to go out. Who knows what he might have pulled out of his sleeve had he just lived a few years longer?

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Marcel Marceau Speaks! (CD)

Also: Didn't You Hear, Let My Puppets Come, The Other

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