Wednesday, February 15, 2012

SHANKS (1974) – The REAL ‘Meat Puppets!’

Greg Goodsell here -- Legendary film producer William Castle looked upon the Earth and all was not good. His gimmick-laden features, popular in the late Fifties and early Sixties were passé, and he looked towards his most successful film to date -- ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and said, "I know! I'll make another European-styled art horror film!" The result was SHANKS, and well -- let's just say it's “interesting," if nothing else.

What won't let you down is the excellent Alex North musical score. Born Isadore Soifer, North is credited with the music to such epics as SPARTACUS, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRIGINIA WOOLF, THE MISFITS and CLEOPATRA. He's also credited with another low-budget horror film score, WILLARD (1971) about a boy and his many rats. Leaving the earthly realm at the age of 81 in 1991, North's music score is one of the very best features of this odd duck of a feature.

The star of SHANKS is none other than pantomime legend Marcel Marceau, who is responsible for an entire race of pasty-faced, twee and ironic loose change hustlers dressed in Apache shirts clogging up major urban centers to this day! Marceau plays a deaf mute, and SHANKS is essentially a silent film with old style inter-titles!

Marceau plays Malcolm Shanks, a deaf-mute children’s entertainer in an undefined California town, although the film was largely shot in Canada. Some Marceau trivia for you: at the height of his fame, a 33 rpm player was released of his performance that included two sides of total silence ending with the audience cheering!

Marceau also plays the mad scientist in the film, who, astounded with Marceau's puppetry genius, decides to enlist him in some diabolical experiments!

Marceau goes to the mad scientist's crumbing mansion on the outskirts of town. Many have theorized that Tim Burton used many of the same themes and visual tropes in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1991), what with a mad scientists’ lair bordering on suburbia, but it's doubtful Burton ever saw this as -- more about that later –

Superb atmospheric shots for a film that was obviously made with bread crumbs.

In the fading, Gothic manse, Malcolm Shanks begins his descent into the unknown!

As you see, the old man has some crazy theories about re-animating the dead!

Placing a few electrodes in a dead frog, the old man demonstrates to Malcolm that with his puppetry genius, he can make the dead once again return to life!

When he's not aiding a mad genius or entertaining the town's small children, poor Malcolm/Marceau is living in a hovel with his family –

This detestable duo, his drunkard brother (Philippe Clay) and his nagging shrew of a wife (Tsilla Chelton)! Marceau recruited these actors for their adeptness at pantomime. It's obvious these two had problems with the English language, and so Marceau and Castle limit their dialogue to an absolute minimum!

When Marceau/Malcolm returns to the mansion, he discovers the obvious –

His mysterious benefactor has croaked it! The makeup used here is very much in line for what William Castle whipped up for the old crone on a skateboard in his HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL back in 1958!

So, using a little ingenuity and know-how, Marcel wires up his deceased benefactor with some electrodes!

And using this remote control doo-hickey –

THE DEAD WALK AGAIN! And here we run into the first of many of SHANKS' problems. Unlike the autonomous zombies in the horror films before and since, these reanimated corpses are inert pieces of flesh that need constant manipulation! As we shall see, this has lots of complications down the road -- and they don't address the fact that these upright slabs of beef would start to smell pretty bad straightaway, either!

Shanks' no good brother confronts him at the manse, asking "WHERE IS MY MONEY," and –

- In a delirious moment of utterly surreal horror, a bantam rooster begins to walk up the palooka -- SIDEWAYS! Bro flips out, runs up the stairs, cracks his noggin, and dies!

Quid pro quo, brother is resurrected as a remote-controlled zombie, along with his nagging wife!

Malcolm has his fun, in what amounts to an extended Shields and Yarnell sketch!

BOING! Funny what some cleverly concealed skis will do!

Shanks takes his reanimated family to the market under the wily sheriff's nose!

William Castle puts in a cameo, like his chief rival AND idol, Alfred Hitchcock as the grocer!

The happy family catches this young girl's (Cindy Eilbacher) eye, and Malcolm invites her to a picnic!

Malcolm amuses her with some prancing, dancing and light romancing.

The lassie inspects one of Malcolm's relatives and she realizes that they're literally DEADSVILLE!

She flees in horror, but Malcolm is able to persuade her that the dead can't harm the living!

"There, there Mon amour, they can't hurt you," Marcel seems to say. But he's a deaf mute.

Malcolm then invites his too-young lady friend to a very grotesque dinner party, with brother and sis as less than nimble servants!

It is here that SHANKS goes straight down the toilet, never to recover. A biker gang on loan from an AIP programmer comes roaring into the mansion, raises a ruckus, and it becomes clearly obvious that Shanks' reanimated brood has NO PRACTICAL BATTLEFIELD APPLICATION WHATSOEVER! All the resurrected dead folk just stand there and look creepy! I'm sure these brawny bikers have had worse things thrown at them in the past! I'm not going to waste pictures or bore you with the details!

Well, I'll give you this nifty action shot, anyway –

It's ironic that one of the bikers here is played by none other than DON CALFA, who would have similar bad luck with reanimated corpses in the cult classic RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1985!

This is so LAME and badly staged, we won't go there.

Here comes the breaking point that sent the few people who saw this in the theater towards the exit (just as well as it's one of the final shots). The character of Shanks was originally scripted to be a small boy, and so this teenaged girl was originally thought of as a "big sister figure." With the very middle-aged Marcel Marceau courting her, SHANKS became something of a paean to pedophilia! When the bikers kill her and Shanks resurrects her, it becomes an ode to necrophilia as well! GRROOOOOOOOOSSSSSSS!

Blessed with a "cop-out" is-it-only-a-dream? ending, SHANKS has its moments of fairytale beauty but is mostly a bungled mélange of disparate elements. Very few saw this film when it was spottily released. Fate had one more trick to play upon producer William Castle, when his last film BUG (1975) was released the very same week as another monster picture, one that went by the name of JAWS! We'll leave you with this image, which probably held a lot of personal symbolism for the once grand showman --


JR said...

Saw this on TCM a few years ago and then promptly forgot about it. Thanks for reminding me how ridiculous this was!

Diet Coke said...

Nice product placement! Thanks!

Lionel Braithwaite said...

Saw this on Space: The Imagination Station (back when it was still a cool channel-it's crap now, just like SyFy in the USA) and think that it's not bad, just odd.

A Moose said...

Love all the "other" titles that Bill Castle did. Thanks so much. I find the coke placement ironic, considering his past involvements with Joan Crawford.

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