Color, 1974, 93m.
Directed by William Castle
Starring Marcel Marceau, Cindy Eilbacher, Tsilla Chelton, Philippe Clay, Larry Bishop, Don Calfa
Olive Films (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
No one ever accused director/cinematic showman William Castle of tonal consistency. Best known as the independent force behind such gimmicky scare classics as The Tingler and 13 Ghosts, Castle also dabbled with a sometimes heavy hand in comedy, sci-fi, and westerns, all of which came out a little skewed thanks to his peculiar touch. However, nothing is as bizarre as his final directorial credit, the 1974 gothic "fairy tale" Shanks, which found him helming for the first time since 1968's Project X. Castle had made a comfortable home at Paramount by this point (no doubt helped by his producing the smash hit Rosemary's Baby), so he presumably had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted as long as the budget stayed modest. Of course, he was also busy with other projects like producing the nifty horror TV series Ghost Story (later changed to Circle of Fear), which had just gone off the air, and after this he would even produce the wacko nature amuck film, Bug. By the time he passed away in 1977, he'd certainly left behind a legacy unlike anyone else.
The plot of Shanks is difficult to describe in a way that conveys the actual flavor of the film, but here goes. Malcolm Shanks, played by famous mime Marcel Marceau, is a puppeteer whose greatest joy comes from staging marionette shows for the local children in his small town. His favorite fan, little Celia (Bad Ronald's Eilbacher), even has a big birthday coming up where he could be the entertainer. Unfortunately his home life isn't remotely as pleasant thanks to his domineering, red-headed sister (Chelton) and her abusive husband (Clay), both of whom are obviously destined for a fate worthy of E.C. Comics. Things take a stranger turn when Shanks crosses paths with an old inventor, Old Walker (also Marceau), who lives on the outskirts of town in a spooky mansion. Shanks becomes his apprentice and learns how the application of electricity and a handy remote control can bring dead animals back to life and allow complete control of their basic motor functions; of course, when the old scientist dies, it's just a matter of time before Shanks figures out that this little trick might be applied to human bodies as well...
Like some of Castle's other later films like Let's Kill Uncle, Shanks became something of an obscurity almost immediately despite its pedigree. Marceau was something of a hot pop culture item, incredibly enough, scoring plenty of TV appearances and random roles in films ranging from Barbarella to Silent Movie. As a showcase for his skills it's actually quite impressive, though Chelton and Clay also do a very impressive job when their characters take a dramatic change of course. The fact that long passages of the film pass without any dialogue provides plenty of room to experiment for the film's composer, the great Alex North, who had recently scored the horror favorite Willard and would follow this up with his rousing music for Bite the Bullet. North even scored an Oscar nomination for his work here, while Marceau managed to land a memorable gig presenting a statuette to The Exorcist.
Obviously this was pegged as a horror film from the outset given the director and subject matter, though the actual experience is a little trickier to pin down; it has elements of black comedy, burlesque, fantasy, and sentimental drama, just for starters. Then again you also get a killer zombie rooster and a third act invasion by murderous bikers (four years before Dawn of the Dead!), one of them played by Return of the Living Dead's Don Calfa, so maybe the horror label really does stick after all.
Perhaps to its benefit, the box office and critical indifference awaiting Shanks meant that it was relegated to rare TV screenings, sometimes turning up on cable channels in the dead of night. It became something of a favorite title for horror fans to spot well into the 1990s as it was never released on VHS anywhere in the world.
The dreary full frame master prepared for initial TV airings was all anyone had for decades, even when it aired on Turner Classic Movies, until the surprising and much-needed 2013 no-frills release from Olive Films on both Blu-Ray and DVD, its debut in any format. Thankfully the HD transfer looks pretty fantastic. Apart from some icky optical zooms imposed during editing, the film appears exceptionally rich and colorful in a gaudy, stylized fashion. The aesthetic may take some getting used to as it combines flat, TV-style camerawork and baroque production design; think of it as The Brady Bunch by way of Antonio Margheriti. The DTS-HD mono track sounds very solid and much crisper than older broadcast version, with North's score in particular seeming very robust.
Reviewed on July 31, 2013.