Directed by schlock-master William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler), Shanks is a little-known curiosity piece, telling the story (written by Ranald Graham) of Malcolm Shanks, a deaf-mute puppeteer who leaves his abusive family to go to work for the creator of a device that brings the dead back to life. Shortly after sharing his secrets with the puppeteer, the scientist dies.
Since pantomimist Marcel Marceau stars as both the deaf-mute and the scientist, Shanks offers precious little dialogue. In fact, long stretches of the film have no speech at all. And with title cards to connect the scenes, Shanks plays almost like a silent movie. It’s really too bad it wasn’t filmed in black and white.
In this dream-like fantasy, Shanks continues the resuscitation process on the scientist himself. But instead of a complete resurrection, the bodies of the dead come back more as reanimations – not unlike puppets, for they need a control-device to regulate their jerky, clumsy movements. It is not long before Shanks decides to use the devise on his evil stepsister and brother-in-law, who have controlled and manipulated him all his life.
The only kindness Shanks finds in his unhappy life comes in the form of a young woman amused by his puppet shows. He shares the invention with her and they entertain themselves by watching the bodies serve them at dinnertime. In fact, the dead returning to life and performing in a stilted, puppet-like manner is the source of several humorous sequences.
The tale abruptly changes when a motorcycle gang inexplicably intrudes on Shanks and the girl. Violent mayhem ensues and the control-device ends up in the wrong hands. In these last scenes, Joseph F. Biroc’s cinematography is so murky and dark that it is difficult to see what is happening, while the absence of dialogue makes it even harder to follow the plot.
I must also admit that I was disappointed to see Shanks himself use violence against the bikers. I would rather have seen him use his cunning – or at least the reanimated bodies – to win the fight.
Shanks was William Castle’s last film. It was a grand exit for a director who regaled in presenting gimmicks and ostentatious showmanship for his horror movies of the ’50s and ’60s. Castle’s last effort was also in the vein of novelty. Watch him play a cranky old shopkeeper in this one; it will be the last glimpse of a genius who was never afraid to try something new.
© Danny Fortune
SHANKS (1974). Director: William Castle. Screenplay: Ranald Graham. Cast: Marcel Marceau, Tsilla Chelton, Philippe Clay, Cindy Eilbacher, Larry Bishop, Don Calfa.