Nether Regions 08.16.11: Shanks
Posted by Chad Webb on 08.16.2011
This week it's William Castle's final film, which stars iconic mime Marcel Marceau as a mute puppeteer who re-animates dead bodies. I'm sure you're curious....
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Featuring: Marcel Marceau, Tsilla Chelton, and Philippe Clay Directed By: William Castle Written By: Ranald Graham Running Time: 93 minutes Original Release Date: October 9th, 1974 Missing Since: Never Released Existing Formats: None Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
Shanks was the final film of legendary B-movie director William Castle. It is also the first major role for the famous pantomime Marcel Marceau, who had appeared in numerous short films and in Barbarella (1968), but Shanks was intended to display his extraordinary talents. When you learn about a film starring Marceau, one expects something possibly in the vein of Chaplin or another silent film star. Of course since the gimmick king himself, Mr. Castle, is at the helm that is obviously not the case. This is an inventive horror film, spliced with some terrific dark humor, but ultimately it is not well thought out enough to deserve a recommendation.
Malcolm takes Old Walker outside for the first time after death.
The story follows a deaf, mute puppeteer named Malcolm Shanks (Marcel Marceau) who lives with the Bartons, his sister (Tsilla Chelton) and her drunken lout of a husband (Philippe Clay), both of whom are nasty and treat him like dirt. His skills entertaining the children in town is observed by Old Walker (Marcel Marceau), a doctor who decides to take him on as a lab assistant in his gothic Mansion. For this help, Malcolm receives $500 weekly, which his sister and husband take for themselves. Old Walker wastes no time in showing Malcolm his experiments, which involves reanimating dead bodies. They test this with a frog, followed by a rooster. Unfortunately, Old Walker dies, but when Malcolm discovers his body, he proceeds with the experiments and carries them out with human beings himself. Meanwhile, the Bartons soon notice the absence of money, and try to find out what is going on.
Admittedly, there are several grimly hilarious sequences in this film. One includes Malcolm controlling two dead bodies and actually having them stroll into a grocery store to buy various items. For those who care, the clerk is played by William Castle. The problem is, while the premise is creative and fun, its execution is not adequately developed. This is not a matter of nitpicking; it's taking an idea and filling in the gaps instead of just concentrating on the few significant set pieces. First of all, it seems to me that anyone could reanimate corpses based on the theories presented here. Just insert some electrical shock pins into a few important nerve endings (wrist, back of neck) and you can manipulate your very own dead body. This would be fine if Malcolm didn't maneuver them in the most intricate fashion. To do this, he uses a controller with approximately three knobs. This enables him to contort the bodies any way he chooses. Regardless of how subtle their movements are, how deliberately timed they must be, only a few knobs are required. When he is using the control pad, he does so inside his vest or jacket to conceal the truth. This looks like he is twisting his own nipple.
Marceau assumes two roles, as the titular Malcolm Shanks and Old Walker, the latter of whom actually speaks, albeit very little. Under the guise of Old Walker, he is caked in enough makeup that he looks dead even when he is not yet. Obviously, Castle and Marceau took this storyline as a way to express Marceau's pantomime prowess without simply describing the character as a pantomime. That goal succeeds, but it is only a portion of what it takes to craft an enjoyable whole. As gifted as Marceau is, his acting leaves a lot to be desired. Now, he doesn't speak much, but Malcolm is our hero, someone we must sympathize with, yet the creepy sinister grin he has permanently etched on his face causes us to wonder what his intentions are. Shanks is a film that everyone refers to as bizarre or weird. It is because of Marceau's performance, not the plot. In the horror genre, this premise is not so outlandish, but the character of Malcolm is an enigma, and Castle never really delves beneath the surface of his personality or emotions.
Marceau's real-life friends, Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay, help out a great deal with the pantomime hijincks via dead bodies. They are extremely funny as the Bartons, but the overacting during any spoken bits is almost grating. In fact, almost all of the supporting cast members overplay their roles as if vying for an daytime Emmy. Cindy Eilbacher portrays Celia, the young blonde girl with pigtails who finds Malcolm fascinating. She pops up everywhere he happens to wander, and is the first to learn his secret. Up until that point, Malcolm was parading the bodies in public, and everyone interacted with them as if they were alive and normal, which is a bit of a stretch even for this fantasy. There is also the smell, or lack thereof, to consider, but I digress.
So what would you expect from the climax of such a strange film? Someone else discovers Malcolm's technology and tries to exploit it? Nope, a motorcycle gang crashes the party, duh. I won't elaborate on the ending, but I will just say these are the most inept gang of bikers in history, and the final twist was unnecessary. Suffice to say, the last 20 minutes warrants a collective "WTF!?".
Malcolm controls the Bartons as they perform a show.
As kooky and odd as Shanks might be, it could have been gutsier, crazier, and increasingly gruesome. For a 93 minute film, this could have easily been shortened. There are segments that tend to drag, and Castle integrates silent film intertitles for seemingly no reason. Since the action contains dialogue, the use of these baffles me. His desire was a silent...talkie? Maybe that could explain the zany acting. The tone transitions are incredibly jarring and uncomfortable: black comedy, sentimental drama, and revenge film. The sad fact is that the story is sufficiently offbeat and peculiar to hold our attention, but the pacing and structure is a complete mess.
Alex North's score received an Oscar nomination, which I thought was interesting since his compositions came across as music one would hear in a family picture. It turns out he used parts of his rejected score from 2001: A Space Odyssey for Shanks. The music during the opening and closing credits possesses a dream-like quality. While that is playing, viewers see still images of Marceau and some kids that soon become live-action.
Shanks is a disappointment, but didn't have to be even though the final efforts of recognized directors tend to be among their weakest. There are similarities to Frankenstein, but Castle was aiming for a sillier product, one that was not fully realized despite its sprinkles of charm. I caught Shanks on TCM, which periodically airs out-of-print titles. It has not been released on DVD, and until Paramount launches a service like Warner Archives, I would not bet on seeing Shanks in stores anytime soon. Still, this is an intriguing look at Marceau on screen, and can appeal to those who like silent comedy, dark comedy, horror, or William Castle.
Final Rating: 5.5/10.0
No trailer or clip could be found of "Shanks", so instead I have provided this tribute video to William Castle.