N: The Night Walker (1964)

As I mentioned earlier in this busted-ass jalopy version of Hubrisween, you always hope to shed some light on some obscure flick from days gone by, something unjustly neglected, so you can aid in the betterment of mankind, or at least your strange clan who appreciate such things. So it is with The Night Walker, which I know I watched on TV as a kid, because it had pictures in Famous Monsters. Turner Classic Movies put out a DVD of it on a double bill with Dark Intruder, which I love, then Shout Factory split that double bill up into two blu-rays. So, not quite so obscure any more.

But I really didn’t remember a single thing from that long-ago viewing, so why not?

We will start once more with a mistreated woman, Irene Trent (Barbara Stanwyck), cooped up in a massive house with her blind husband, Howard (Hayden Rorke). Howard is obsessed with the notion that Irene is seeing another man, because she talks in her sleep at night about a wonderful lover. Howard is convinced it’s his attorney, Barry (Robert Taylor), an accusation both deny; and the truth of the matter is that Howard’s oppression is causing Irene’s dreams. After a particularly bitter argument, Irene runs from the house to spend the night at a hotel. Howard goes up to his mad scientist lab and blows himself up, and good riddance.

After the funeral, Irene has a nightmare about the explosion and seeing Howard’s horribly burned (for 1964) face. She then makes the decision to move back into the small apartment in the back of her hairdressing salon until she can sell the house. Changing locations doesn’t end the dreams, though; her imaginary lover (Lloyd Bochner) visits once more in the night, and every night thereafter. Then Burned Howard starts showing up, too, and soon people are dying in real life.

Uncle Forry says, Don’t ask! Just buy it!

Okay, let us once again indulge in SPOILERS FOR A FIFTY YEAR-OLD MOVIE and reveal that this is all part of a bizarrely elaborate plot to gaslight Irene, driving her insane so that Howard’s considerable estate can be divided up. Except that we’ve seen a few movies ourselves and we figured that out perhaps a half-hour into the movie, if not sooner. I will compliment director William Castle and writer Robert Bloch for keeping me in the dark about the extent of the conspiracy, until the last segment.

Past that, The Night Walker is pretty dull and toothless; it cribs from the aforementioned Gaslight, Midnight Lace, and others; Castle also lifts a pretty powerful image from The Man Who Knew Too Much, all to not much gain. It is painfully pedestrian, and could have easily been a TV movie. This is, in fact, Stanwyck’s last theatrical movie. After this she moved to exclusively TV roles, which usually presented her with a better showcase for her talents, at a difficult stage for movie actresses of her era (in fact the role was originally offered to Joan Crawford, going through a similar phase).

Not suspicious at all.

I know there’s a couple of online Halloween lists of “Movies That Aren’t Too Scary” and “Horror Movies With No Gore”, and I guess The Night Walker would fit into either of those – if your forbearance for “not particularly exciting” is also high.

I now know why I didn’t remember much from that original viewing, is what I’m saying.

The trailer below begins with excerpts from “Experiment in Nightmares”, a short Castle made with a professional hypnotist for ballyhoo purposes, segueing right into a bit of animation narrated by Paul Frees, which forms the first four minutes of the movie. This is the only place that extremely boss illustration from the poster, of the gargoyle perched on a woman, appears in the movie.

S: Shanks (1974)


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shanksShanks is an odd, odd movie.

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.

download (1)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.

shanks05The 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.

shanks (1)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:

Shanks on Amazon