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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Shanks (1974)

Director: William Castle
Star: Marcel Marceau



William Castle did a lot in his years in the movie industry: the early entries in crime series, the mid period B movies in most genres and, of course, the classic horror days where he seemed to invent a new gimmick every time out. He began as an actor on Broadway at the meagre age of fifteen, apparently passing himself off as Sam Goldwyn's nephew, then worked through a range of different jobs before leaving for Hollywood at 23. He worked through the jobs there too, racking up a few uncredited acting performances in late thirties pictures, was the dialogue director for a couple of films including Penny Serenade and had started writing pictures too before he began directing in 1943. Even then he found time to shoot second unit direction for Orson Welles on The Lady from Shanghai and produce Rosemary's Baby.

Every career has an end, however long and fascinating it was, and Castle's was here. He'd retired in 1968 after Project X but came back this one last time for Shanks in 1974, his swansong as a producer and director. It's a rather quirky picture, 'a grim fairy tale' as the subtitle would have it, perhaps comparable to Edward Scissorhands, but played out more as a ballet or performance art piece than as horror story or social comment. It's so different I'd suggest that the concept spoke to Castle personally, though I really should apologise for that pun because the stars of the film are Marcel Marceau and Marcel Marceau, although one of them does speak. In fact he speaks quite a bit more he did in Silent Movie, for instance, a Mel Brooks film in which, rather ironically, he had the only speaking part.

His speaking part here is Old Walker, who begins the film watching a deaf mute puppeteer called Malcolm Shanks, who sits high up on a ladder making his puppets dance far below him to please the assembled throng of children. Guess which Marceau's non-speaking part is! Well anything beyond that is open to question because we're never quite sure if it's supposed to be a story for us or a story for that gaggle of children. I lean towards the latter, making the bulk of the film a sort of live action puppet performance, in fact doubly so because while the whole thing is a sort of puppet show in itself, merely one played by people, many of those people also become puppets. And now I'm just confusing you, I'm sure. I should add that as Shanks is the lead character and he can't speak, we're introduced to the story through title cards as if this was a silent film, though he's the only one without a voice.

Yes, this is pretty strange stuff, but I should really back up a step. Whether it's a story within a story or just the story itself, here's what we get. Malcolm Shanks, the deaf mute, lives with the Bartons, his shrew of a stepsister and her drunk of a husband, making him something of a Cinderella figure. Fairy tale nods abound here. They live on welfare even though Barton always seems to have another bottle to hand, but Malcolm gets an opportunity to earn five hundred bucks by going to work for Old Walker, a rich but strange old man who lives in a huge and spacious mansion that I'd certainly buy for a dollar. It has everything, including a huge iron gate, a library and a laboratory. What more could I want?

Well the situation Malcolm finds himself in is as strange as Walker himself, with his purple rinse. Walker talks him through a few experiments, all of which lead to one macabre and inevitable conclusion. First he wires up a frog to electrodes to make it move. Then he animates a chicken by remote control. No wires this time, just metal pins placed into key locations on the body and controlled by what look suspiciously like the controllers for my old Grandstand game system. The next experiment is going to be on a human being because Walker has Malcolm place those pins into a map of the human body, an anatomical wall chart that remains conveniently there when he turns up the next day to find the old man dead in his laboratory. So the third experiment is going to be Old Walker himself.

Well, we apparently need a little reinforcement first, so Malcolm goes goes home to play with his puppets, who look just like the characters in our story, but finds that his hosts are hardly pleased at his presence. 'Lazy silent freak!' cries Barton. 'Why aren't you at work?' asks Mrs Barton. 'Get back to work,' she demands while her husband stomps on his Walker puppet until it's as dead as its model. Life is tough when you're not just Cinderella, but you're deaf and dumb to boot. But hey, you can still have a ball because you can go back to Old Walker's mansion and stay there, animating his corpse like a remote control puppet. Yes, that's where this film is going and it has more than a little macabre fun in doing so.
We can't forget the other characters, of course. With no more money coming in, Barton heads over to the mansion to demand it and Malcolm, in self defence, uses his remote control chicken to peck him to death, then animates him too. He even walks him home, but when his wife rushes out of the house to find out what he's doing in the middle of the road, she's run over by a car and he can animate her as well. Now we have a whole bunch of puppets for Malcolm to play with and of course that's what he does. He takes them shopping, he takes them on a picnic, he has a blast. Just think how Cinderella would have felt if she was freed from all her drudgery and she could play with her ugly stepsisters like they were dolls? This works well because Philippe Clay and Tsilla Chelton, both experienced French actors, demonstrate something of a talent for mime themselves as Mr and Mrs Barton respectively.

Every fairy tale has to have a little girl for the story to happen to and here she's called Celia. Actress Cindy Eilbacher was sixteen at the time but she looks a few years younger, which makes it rather sinister to watch her hang around with Marcel Marceau, especially when she seems to have a crush on him. He looked younger than his age too but given that he was over fifty that's still a lot older than her. Nothing happens between them though, everything remaining as innocent as it would be in a Hans Christian Andersen story, even though she ends up having her birthday party alone at Old Walker's mansion with Malcolm and the animated corpses of the Bartons, who act as servants and entertainment both. At least he's buried Old Walker by this point, because the old gentleman must have been starting to reek.

Just as we reach the pinnacle of this bizarre ballet, when Mrs Barton unwittingly cuts off her own finger while slicing the cake and Malcolm retrieves it and pops it into his breast pocket, Evil enters the story. Yeah, none of this is remotely evil, apparently, because Malcolm and Celia are our heroes. The bad guys comprise a biker gang who barge in with the corpse of one of their number to lay on the birthday table because he's just crashed outside the mansion. Good things happen, bad things happen and very bad things happen, but we get to see Marcel Marceau reanimate himself via remote control and climb out of his grave and that's worth the price of admission all on its own.

While William Castle directed and made a cameo appearance as a grocer, this is utterly Marceau's show, or perhaps his sheau. He's bizarrely watchable as the deaf mute puppeteer of the title and even more watchable as the old man who he turns into a quirky puppet corpse. The script was by Ranald Graham, his first film as a writer, but I wonder how much input Marceau had. Fairy tales are natural material for mimes, though he was famous for running through all of human life from birth to death in a few silent minutes. He did all the choreography himself and he must surely have taught Clay and Chelton too, who were presumably able students. In fact I preferred both of them in this film in animated corpse form.

By comparison, the biker gang get next to nothing to do except fight the puppet corpses, but they're comprised of an interesting set of actors. The only female biker, Mata Hari, is Helena Kallianiotes, a belly dancer who became Jack Nicholson's property manager. The rapist murderer of the gang (OK, they got to do some things, but offscreen) is Goliath, played by Biff Manard, who looks rather strange here in his sleeveless shirt and leather collar given that I know him best as the homeless baseball player Hap Ashby in the Trancers movies. Einstein is bug eyed Don Calfa, the hitman from Weekend at Bernie's, though he had already acted for Scorsese, Spielberg and Robert Downey Sr, among others. Napoleon is played by Joey Bishop's son Larry, who made a lot of biker movies around this time. That leaves Phil 'Kamikaze' Adams as Beethoven and he was a stuntman who played a lot of odd bit parts in movies. I presume Genghis Khan is the corpse, which leaves Mondo very little to do indeed.

The other notable name is Alex North, who composed the music and contributed to the film in a more solid way by fathering its producer, Steven North. It's a quirky score, as befits a quirky movie and it was nominated for an Oscar, making his twelfth of fifteen nominations. He never won though so the Academy just gave up and gave him an honorary award instead in 1986. I found the music a little intrusive early on, but perhaps my brain was still transitioning to the particular Twilight Zone that it needed to be in to get what was going on. As time ran on it seemed more and more appropriate. Some of it was sourced from the score he had composed for 2001: A Space Odyssey at the studio's request but which Stanley Kubrick didn't use, given that he had planned to use classical pieces all along. Other themes were reused in The Shoes of the Fishermen and Dragonslayer.

Overall I honestly can't say whether Shanks was successful or not. Different from anything else I've seen and very different from anything else I've seen with William Castle's name on it, it's certainly a memorable piece and I'll want to come back to it again for a second viewing. Did it feel like a piece of genius? Not really. Was I enthralled, disturbed and entertained, as I should be when viewing a 'grim fairy tale'? Well, yes, I was. I'm sure it's not going to disappear from my mind any time soon and that's usually a pretty good sign. As the closing remark to a notable career, it's a bizarre but worthy footnote. Maybe the film itself was the gimmick for a change and Castle had the last laugh. He died three years later at the age of 63, but perhaps his animated corpse is still having a great time today.

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