This is the first – and I’m thinking only – starring film role for the famous French mime Marcel Marceau. It seems quaint these days to consider a mime a respected artist, but I had the pleasure of seeing Marceau on one of his American tours, and I can tell you, the reputation was completely justified and wholly earned. Marceau plays the title character, Malcolm Shanks, a deaf-mute puppeteer much beloved in his small town. Marceau also plays Mr. Walker, an elderly, eccentric scientist who owns the gothic mansion up on the hill.
Walker, impressed by Shanks’ skill with marionettes, hires him to help with his experiments, much to the delight of Shanks’ worthless sister and husband, the town drunk (Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay, respectively), who seize Malcolm’s pay each week.
Walker is working on… something. He begins with Shanks manipulating a pickled toad to jump, using electrodes. They progress to a dead rooster, using some manner of wireless devices stuck in the nervous system. They’ve just started to map out where the electrodes go in a human’s nervous system, when the aged Walker dies.
His home life having become unlivable, Shanks moves to the mansion and continues his friend’s work, using Walker as the subject. Marceau’s mime talents come to the fore here, as Shanks learns to manipulate Walker’s body like a marionette, the stiffened joints cracking and popping in protest, . This sequence is, as the poster promises, “deliciously grotesque”.
Soon enough, the drunken lout of a brother-in-law shows up to demand money from Walker’s corpse, then manages to kill himself by falling down some stairs when Shanks attacks him with the zombie rooster. Then the sister, seeing the reanimated drunk nearly hit by a car, runs out in the road and gets creamed herself… well, Shanks soon has a bizarre troupe of zombie marionettes.
The movie is at its strongest in these sequences, full of whimsical, if extremely dark, humor. Celia, a girl on the cusp of womanhood (Cindy Eilbacher, who would eventually wind up in Slumber Party Massacre II), who dearly loves Shanks, is at first horrified, then amused by these dark antics, finally having her birthday party with Shanks in the gothic mansion, attended by zombie servants.
Which is when the motorcycle gang barges in.
To say that Shanks is uneven in tone is about the biggest truth and the strongest criticism you can unload on it; as the story had progressed, silent movie-style intertitles have popped up occasionally, and for the motorcycle gang it reads, “The Outside World of Evil”. Shanks is overpowered, Celia is raped and killed (offscreen, this is a PG movie), and Walker will dig himself out of the grave to wreak revenge on the thugs.
With our required zombie murders – and Shanks’ final hand-to-hand with Celia’s killer – out of the way, the movie finally returns to its morbidly fascinating tone, with Shanks sadly revivifying Celia’s corpse and having a final dance with her. And then we cut back to Shanks’ puppet show for the town children, Celia looking on with admiration, as this was all apparently happening in Shanks’ mind, the end.
I had honestly hoped (having wanted to see this since 74, but it vanished after dismal box office) that this was some undiscovered gem, but alas, that withdrawal from the public eye is largely deserved. Marceau is wonderful – it’s a sheer joy just to watch the man walk through the frame – but its uneveness sadly detracts from the good. The concept is unique and interesting, but soon finds itself with nowhere to go. The sudden appearance of the motorcycle gang seems a desperate intervention to make the movie marketable as a horror flick.
This is nowhere more obvious than the it-was-all-just-a-dream ending, which also seems tacked on. Here is the thing, though: this is William Castle’s last film as a director, and Castle always made what I refer to as kid-friendly horror movies. House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, even the twisted The Tingler were all squarely aimed at the Saturday matinée demographic, and even later, afternoon TV and Creature Features. Castle likely felt that the sappier, happy ending wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.
Shanks would have been improved immeasurably if its running time possessed the confidence of its own macabre premise. There are sections of it where you can almost feel a young Tim Burton in the audience, filing away stuff for later use. As a document of Marceau’s talents away from pantomime make-up, it’s quite valuable. But as a horror movie – or even a coherent whole – it is sadly lacking.
A distinct lack of trailers on the Olive Films blu-ray and the Internet. Here’s a clip, though, that gives you some idea of the beautiful quality of the blu, and a sample of the macabre whimsy we could have used more of: