“Released by Paramount Pictures and utilizing top-tier talent like composer Alex North, cinematographer Joseph Biroc, and production designer Boris Leven, Shanks is an exceedingly strange film, a horror-fantasy punctuated by stretches of dialogue-free narrative, morbid black comedy, and occasional sentimentality.”–John M. Miller, TCM.com
DIRECTED BY: William Castle
FEATURING: Marcel Marceau, Cindy Eilbacher, Tsilla Chelton, Phillipe Clay
PLOT: Malcolm Shanks is a talented mute puppeteer who lives with his shrewish step-sister and her alcoholic husband. A reclusive local scientist, who is working on a device that allows him to animate dead animal bodies with electrodes activated via remote control, hires Shanks as his assistant. Shanks’ puppeteering training makes him a natural at controlling the corpses; naturally, it is only a matter of time until he finds a human subject to experiment on.
- This was the final film directed by B-movie gimmick-meister William Castle (Homicidal, Strait-Jacket). At the beginning of his career in the 1950s, Castle was known for his outrageous promotions such as “Emergo” (glow-in-the-dark skeletons that flew above the audience at a scary moment in House on Haunted Hill) and “Percepto” (electrified theater seats used to shock patrons’ rears in The Tingler).
- Although famous mime Marcel Marceau played may bit parts in films (including a role in Barbarella and a notorious cameo in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie), this is his most substantial role as an actor. Marceau plays both Malcolm Shanks and the inventor Old Walker, often acting alongside himself. Marceau came to Hollywood searching for roles but found producers unwilling to hire him for parts other than cameos or appearances as his alter-ego, Bip the clown. “I was a great admirer of the silent-film comedians, Chaplin and Keaton, and I thought producers would recognize that I could also perform the same broad pathos comedy. But nothing happened,” he told an AP reporter in 1973. When Shanks came along, it “was exactly what I had been looking for.”
- Marceau originally hoped Roman Polanski would direct and Castle would produce; he asked Castle to direct when told Polanski was unavailable. Castle reported that Marceau was a perfectionist, eccentric and difficult to work with, and didn’t seem to appreciate the practical aspects of shooting on a tight schedule and budget.
- Although the movie was not generally well-received, it did earn an Academy Award nomination for Alex North’s eerie score. North reused and re-worked some of the compositions he wrote for 2001: A Space Odyssey that had been mothballed when Stanley Kubrick decided to use an all classical score.
- Shanks had not been available on VHS or DVD until Olive Films’ 2013 release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The herky-jerky birthday cake cutting scene, when Shanks’ typically impeccable control over his remote control zombies breaks down for one brief moment for comic effect.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a movie about a mute puppeteer who learns to control dead bodies by remote control, and eventually harnesses that power to fight a biker gang. Calling itself “a grim fairy tale,” it’s a black comedy that uses silent movie aesthetics to tell a tale of reanimation of the dead. It stars Marcel Marceau, the world’s most famous mime, and is directed by William Castle, the world’s most famous B-move huckster. The chances that the results of this collaboration would not be weird approach zero; it’s like nothing else out there.
Clip from Shanks
COMMENTS: Shanks is one of those rare movies that just wants to be what it is. Although the reanimation of the dead setup suggests a Frankenstein-style mad scientist parable—with hubritsic men tampering in God’s domain, delving into secrets better left alone—the plot, themes and moral don’t lead where we suspect. Malcolm Shanks’ experiments in puppeteering the dead don’t bring him any ironic punishment—rather, it represents a well-earned symbolic vengeance on those who wronged him—and yet it also brings him no happiness, as this kind and gentle clown seems doomed to a life of tragedy. Although Shanks starts from a sci-fi/horror premise, the movie rarely delivers shocks (although there is one bloody remote control chicken attack). Instead, the film cycles through black comedy, slapstick, melodrama, and exploitation movie styles, while wrapping the whole bundle up in a silent film aesthetic, with minimal dialogue, grandiose music, and frequent intertitles. Shanks is the love child of two distinct, powerful personalities—the sophisticated pantomime of star Marcel Marceau and the genial gruesomeness of director William Castle—and like most children it exhibits traits from both parents, while finding its own unique personality. Shanks doesn’t intentionally subvert genre conventions, simplistic morals, or storytelling rules; it’s simply indifferent to them, lost in its own world.
Shanks announces itself as a “grim fairy tale,” and that framework explains the broad magic of the plot as well as any other. Malcolm Shanks himself even has a traditional fairy tale pedigree, being a thrall to a wicked stepsister, forced to clean up after his drunken step brother-in-law when he shatters the dishes in a fit of irrational anger over suspected gin-filching. The action takes place in Anywheresville, America, a rural society with a General Store where the locals gather for supplies and puppet shows, overlooked by a mansion on the edge of town that might as well be a Gothic castle. Folks here have good old-fashioned Protestant values, and look down their noses at Malcolm’s drunken, scheming family. Shanks’ stepsister makes a point of telling a caller that she’s French: as a way of explaining her in-movie accent, but also to identify evil with what’s foreign, with the wide world outside the fairy tale hamlet. A kindly wizard (the inventor “Old Walker,” also played by Marceau in rubbery makeup) takes pity on our gentle, put-upon hero. He passes along his arcane knowledge, before expiring himself. Though explained via the miracle of electricity (the same primal force Dr. Frankenstein harnessed to animate his Monster), the remote control Shanks inherits is really a magical relic, Old Walker’s wand. Despite the forced clunkiness of the bodies he controls, there’s no way Shanks could articulate such an incredible range of motion with two little dials he casually spins (anyone who’s ever tried to navigate a 1974-era remote-controlled car around a corner in their kitchen understands the impossibility of Shanks’ precision). The electrodes embedded in the bodies somehow preserve the corpses from decay. But never mind all that; the point is that radio waves are the strings on Shanks’ newfound marionettes, and his inherent talent at puppetry is the special gift that allows the meek hero to hold his own against the evils of the world.
After this fairy tale setup—from Shanks’ adoption by Old Walker to the accidental deaths of his tormentors—Shanks applies the first of its major changes in tone. Although we had already seen Shanks experimenting with a remote-control zombie, taking Old Walker out for a country stroll with a parasol, upon the deaths of his stepsister and her husband he obtains two new corpses to experiment with. Tsilla Chelton and Phillipe Clay were members of Marceau’s mime troupe, and he puts these performers through their paces in a series of farcical set-pieces that might have come out of a silent slapstick film (if Tod Browning had decided to direct a comedy while in a particularly macabre mood). Staggering about stiffly with their limbs on hinges, like arthritic dancers doing the robot, Shanks sends the dead couple out on a picnic, takes them grocery shopping, and, in an ironic revenge for his years of servitude, uses them as his personal maid and butler. He also runs a wire from their lips to cheekbones so he can give the dead a goofy grin when he chooses. This extravagance leads to some grotesque mugging, particularly by redhead Chelton, that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Sherwood Schwartz sitcom of the period (particularly when augmented by the burlesque of Alex North’s trombones).
It’s not long before Shanks takes the second of its whiplash turns in tone, this time into much darker territory. Besides the quickly-deceased Old Walker, Malcolm’s only real friend in the world is Celia, an adolescent girl in blonde pigtails. Malcolm has promised her a birthday present, which seems innocent enough, but things take a mildly unsettling turn as the unsupervised lass and the middle-aged mute start spending more and more time alone, chaperoned only by a couple of corpses, playing house in Old Walker’s abandoned villa. They commandeer the mansion and raid Walker’s wardrobe, discovering a dress for young Celia to wear for the private birthday party Malcolm throws (in an extra-creepy touch, the lacy white number could almost be a bridal gown). On a plot level, their relationship is purely innocent—Shanks has no visible libido—but it is hard to ignore the subtext that arises in the back of your mind as you watch the lonely bachelor tenderly caresses the young girl’s hair. It’s not Malcolm that is the problem, however; the specter of sex instead roars into town on a pack of hogs (from, the intertitles tell us, “the outside world of evil”). The gang of bikers that crash the happy Platonic couple’s birthday party is the final odd straw that breaks many viewers’ backs. A horde of leather boys burst in to the villa and dump a fallen comrade’s body on the dinner table, as a grease-stained moll in a halter top grieves over her old man’s body. It’s like a gang from The Wild Angels got lost on a long and winding country road and found their way into Shanks by accident. The home invasion that follows isn’t explicit enough to garner Castle’s film an “R” rating, or to keep it off television screens, but the implications of what happens offscreen are disturbing indeed. This scenario leads, in pretty much the most roundabout way possible, into a “zombies vs. bikers” showdown in the villa’s Gothic courtyard.
Despite Marcel Marceau’s intense physicality, his Malcolm Shanks is an almost disembodied character. His muteness sets him apart from the common run of humanity, making him into a ghostlike presence at times. As opposed to his take on the aptly-named Walker, Marceau’s Shanks is restrained in all his physical movements (although his face is wonderfully expressive). He prefers to creates waves in the wider world through intermediaries, using only the flick of his wrist and the turn of a knob. As we have seen, he himself is as sexless as a zombie. He is ever the puppeteer–his existence in the world is defined by the bodies he controls, not by his own incarnated nature. He is also passive and pacifist; he never kills his victims intentionally, and only fights back when he or someone he loves is attacked. Malcolm Shanks is a symbol of enlightened rationality, a pure animating spirit who inhabits a human body like it was a marionette. He acts indirectly; that is, until he is finally pushed into direct physical action by insistently encroaching evil at the climax, when he is forced to drop his remote control to make a fist. It is perhaps not surprising that at this moment the film collapses, like a marionette whose strings have been dropped.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A strange and engrossing film, this ‘grim fairy tale’ carries both the stigma and beauty of uniqueness.”–Boxoffice (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Shanks (1974)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Shanks (1974) Overview – Basic background information, five film clips, and an article by John M. Miller
Shanks – Hear snippets from Alex North’s Oscar-nominated score at Quartet Records’ Shanks page
DVD INFO: The 2013 Olive Films DVD contains no special features (not even a trailer; no trailer is known to exist for this film). The picture and sound are excellent, however, and Olive can’t be faulted for making this long-forgotten movie finally available on home video.