Malcolm Shanks, a lonely deaf mute who lives with his cruel sister and her husband, finds pleasure in making puppets. This skill gets him a job with a professor who is trying to re-animate the dead with electrodes and manipulate them like marionettes. When the professor dies, Shanks decides to use the results of the experiments for revenge.
The Gist (Shanks) - THE GIST
The opening title card of Shanks sets the proper tone by announcing "William Castle presents A Grim Fairy Tale." Sepia-tone stills and silent-movie style type also convey the unique mood of the piece as we are introduced to Malcolm Shanks (Marcel Marceau), a puppeteer entertaining some children outside a small-town grocery store. One local girl, Celia (Cindy Eilbacher), is particularly fond of the mute man with the marionettes. Another title card introduces "the town drunk with a shrew for a wife and a deaf mute for a brother-in-law." The drunk is Mr. Barton (Philippe Clay), husband of Malcolm's sister (Tsilla Chelton). The pair is cruel to Malcolm, but become excited when they learn that the eccentric and elderly Mr. Walker (also Marcel Marceau) wants to put Malcolm in his employ. Malcolm reports to Walker's enormous old residence and is shown the strange experiments the scientist is engaged in; using electrodes, Walker is able to animate the dead bodies of animals like a frog and a chicken. One day Malcolm discovers that Old Walker has died, but using the electrode technique he has learned, Malcolm reanimates his friend's corpse. Before long, Malcolm finds himself entertaining his friend Celia at a picnic and birthday party with the help of two other dead people, Mr. and Mrs. Barton.
By 1974 Marcel Marceau was 48 years old and had long been the world's most celebrated mime, but he had not yet appeared as the lead actor in a motion picture. Anxious about picking the right project, Marceau was attracted to William Castle for a simple reason he greatly admired the film Rosemary's Baby (1968), which Castle had produced at Paramount six years before. It is certainly possible that Marceau had never seen Castle's low-budget gimmick films for Columbia Pictures, such as 13 Ghosts (1960) which required patrons to don a Ghost Viewer, or The Tingler (1959), during which certain viewers were given a mild seat-vibration during critical scenes. The majority of what the mime had admired so much about Rosemary's Baby was provided by director Roman Polanski, and Marceau initially asked if Polanski could direct Shanks. When told that Polanski was unavailable, Marceau persuaded Castle himself to direct.
In his autobiography, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Castle goes into great detail on his behind-the-scenes dealings with the great mime. Just prior to signing the contract to star in Shanks, Castle wrote that Marceau's lawyers asked for a clause granting the artist "complete autonomy" in the project, which would give him final approval over the cast, script, score, everything. Castle blew up and refused. As he later wrote, "giving creative autonomy to any artist - no matter how great - was tantamount to giving away the picture. A producer must retain the right of all approvals in order to protect his film, and I wasn't about to sign them away, even if it meant blowing the deal." Castle did grant Marceau several requests, such as casting his friends and fellow pantomime artists Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay in the key roles of Mrs. and Mr. Barton.
Marceau also implored Castle not to make a horror film. "Fantasy, yes, but horror, no," Castle quoted the mime as saying. On the set, Marceau began to complain about details in costuming and makeup. Castle argued that fussing over such details would cripple the schedule on the tightly-budgeted picture, but Marceau countered that Chaplin would take all the time he needed to shoot a picture his way. Castle wrote, "In all fairness to Marcel, his ideas were usually brilliant. In all fairness to me, I had a schedule to meet and a very low budget - something that Marcel didn't understand or really care about. Accustomed to giving his own commands and to being alone onstage, he found it difficult to take direction. He was insecure in a new medium and was constantly on guard."
In either a fit of playfulness or a stab at Method Acting, Marceau confronted his director on the set while playing his dual role. In makeup as Old Walker, Marceau scolded Castle, saying, "why do you give all the close-ups to that young upstart, Malcolm, if you agree that Old Walker is the more important of the two? ...I will not have fewer close-ups than Malcolm. ...I am the star of Shanks." The following morning, in character as Malcolm, Marceau asked Castle if Old Walker had been bothering him. "Don't listen to him, Bill. ...He's getting senile, and besides, you are the director. ...Don't you see what the old man is trying to do? ...He's trying to steal the picture away from me. But I won't let him - and don't you." Castle wrote, "Was he only putting me on? I was never certain."
In the final film, the partnership of Castle and Marceau provide some scenes with just the appropriate balance of humor and intense unease, as when Malcolm uses his control box to have a smile slowly appear on the face of Old Walker's corpse, or when he diverts a policeman from seeing that he is tending to two corpses by pretending they are watching television together. Other scenes of corpse activity, however, play much too slowly or awkwardly and become tedious.
Marceau apparently had lofty hopes for Shanks, not only in the wish that it would establish him as a film actor, but that it might even revive the lost art of silent film. In a pre-release interview with the Christian Science Monitor, for example, he dismissed the advance publicity that he speaks in the film. "I say maybe eight words. ...You don't miss the words. It is a confrontation between life and death. Very exciting. The great problem of humanity is life and death. Every person dreams of becoming invisible one day. The want to be immortal, to survive the struggle is in the film."
Sad to say for Marceau, but most critics at the time of release saw the latest movie from William Castle as something trivial, far from a matter of life and death. Writing in Time magazine, Jay Cocks calls Shanks "awful," and accuses Castle of casting Marceau as a gimmick. Cocks writes that "...Marceau appears as the old scientist and gets the chance to wear a great deal of makeup. Little else can be said of his first major screen appearance except that he is admirably limber. Castle is using him as a come-on for his movie, as if Marceau were a skeleton that glows or a hotwired seat."
Roger Ebert was more positive, and wrote that "...although Shanks is a disappointment it's not an unworthy effort; Marceau's performance in his first feature length starring role is always interesting and sometimes gruesomely funny." Ebert admires the efforts of the mime actors, saying that "[Marceau] has fun with the choreography of his Undead robots, whose legs and arms seem made of two-way hinges, and who lurch up stairs and down hills in a way just a fraction short of absolute loss of balance." Ebert concludes that "...what we have is an audacious idea well handled, and yet Shanks never really engages us. Maybe it's just too civilized; it perfects subtle physical jokes that Jacques Tati would have been proud of, but it never really gets into its characters and it moves slowly. Perhaps the presence of Marceau intimidated the filmmakers, who may have thought... that they were making an art film." With all due respect to Ebert, it is difficult to imagine William Castle ever thinking that he was making an art film.
The review in Boxoffice, the trade magazine for exhibitors, noted the risky nature of the venture but predicted that it was "...sure to gain a strong cult following." The writer goes on to say that "like most experiments, Shanks is not entirely successful. Mime, a stylized form of expression, demands a more credulous, accepting audience than filmmakers can usually expect to have. Despite a beautiful score by Alex North and excellent Movielab photography by Joe Biroc, present-day audiences may lack the patience to enjoy the film's silent-era style which includes titles to announce scene changes and a fascinating, but unterrifying, horror plot. ...A strange and engrossing film, this 'grim fairy tale' carries both the stigma and beauty of uniqueness."
Finally, in brief comments for the genre magazine Cinefantastique, David Bartholomew gave the film an "average" rating and calls it "alternately dumb and clever. Technically sloppy (at first I thought it was intentional). That it is all a murderous fantasy lets everyone off the hook. Too bad." In the same magazine Dale Wingogura rates the film slightly higher and says that there are "some lovely, lyrical moments in this, one of Castle's better films. Splotchy black comedy with some fine touches and a superb job by Marcel Marceau."
Following Shanks, William Castle would produce one more horror film, Bug (1975), but would never direct again, and Marcel Marceau would enjoy 23 more years as the most celebrated practitioner of the art of pantomime, but he would never return as the lead actor in a feature film. (Of the many minor roles he performed in films, the most fondly remembered may be a cameo as himself in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie , in which he utters the only word of dialogue). Reflecting years later in his autobiography, Castle acknowledged the failures of the movie when he pondered his fascinating collaboration with Marceau: "I wondered if perhaps I had done this great artist - creator of illusions, a man who fills his stage with invisible folk - a disservice by inviting him to enter the frightening world of my horror films."
Producer: Steven North
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Ranald Graham
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Production Design: Boris Leven
Music: Alex North
Film Editing: David Berlatsky
Choreography: Marcel Marceau
Cast: Marcel Marceau (Malcolm Shanks/Old Walker), Tsilla Chelton (Mrs. Barton), Philippe Clay (Mr. Barton), Cindy Eilbacher (Celia), Larry Bishop (Motorcycle Gang Member), Don Calfa (Motorcycle Gang Member), Biff Manard (Goliath), Phil Adams (Motorcycle Gang Member), Helena Kallianiotes (Mata Hari), Read Morgan (Cop), Lara Wing (Little Girl), William Castle (Grocer), Mondo (Genghis Khan)
by John M. Miller
The Gist (Shanks) - THE GIST
Released in United States 1974
Released in United States 1974