31 July 2006 | adriangr
This must surely be one of the most neglected fantasy films of all time. By all accounts a flop at the time of it's release, it has become the hardest to see of all William Castle's movies. It's also in colour, which is another rarity from this director. French mime/actor Marcel Marceau plays the title role of Malcolm Shanks, a deaf mute puppeteer who scratches out a living putting on shows for children, while bearing the brunt of a miserable home life with his money grabbing brother and sister-in-law, who take all the money he earns for themselves. One day, an elderly professor (also played by Marceau in a dual role) sees his puppet show and offers Shanks a job - to come to his home to assist him is some experiments involving the artificial stimulation of dead animals via electricity, or something...why or how it actually works is not expanded on, but it involves small implants being attached to the muscles and these are then activated by means of a small control box.
Due to his background with puppets, Shanks proves to be very adept at controlling the movement of his first animals (a dead frog, and later a rooster). However things take an unexpected turn when he turns up for work one day only to find the professor dead in his armchair, seemingly from natural causes. Shanks has all but been hounded out of his own home by his cruel relatives, and he realises that desperate measures are needed to avoid going back there...and so the professor becomes the first human subject for re-animation.
What follows is the beginning of a macabre and dreamlike fantasy. The "awakening" of the dead professor is one of the most ghoulish things I have ever seen. Marceau is famous as a physical performer, and his depiction of a dead body being artificially roused into movement is very skillful. With a shock of white hair, sunken face and glazed white eyeballs, the professor's body jerks up off the ground and begins to wobble around the laboratory, as Shanks perfects his manipulation of the control box. It isn't long before he feels confident enough to take his new puppet on a stroll into the streets outside, and this is the start of an escalation of events that you really need to watch to get the full enjoyment out of.
This is almost a silent movie for much of it's running time, with long scenes involving no dialogue whatsoever, but the film is so effective in holding your attention that you will barely even notice the fact that nobody is talking. Shanks himself never speaks at all, but the support character all talk naturally when required - except for when they are dead of course! And some rather charming silent movie-style subtitle boards on the screen fill in any required exposition. The acting in this film is amazing, I suspect that Marceau is not the only performer to have a background in mime or theatre, as when he has to animate other dead characters, the movements are always effectively creepy.
If I have any criticism, it would be that Castle - as he has often done before - stays shy of making the film as truly horrific as it could have been. He never exploits the "yuk" factor of the dead bodies, and there is no allusion to bloodshed or decomposition at any time. William Castle is an oddity among horror directors in that he always puts on the brakes before his subject matter goes to deep into unpleasant territory, whereas others would gleefully revel in the more gruesome aspects of a story like this, Castle seems to prefer to keep things suitable for family viewing! Plus, the movie even ends with a tacked on "it's only make-believe" epilogue that completely squashes the very dark ending of the real story...it's something he has done before, and it seems a shame that the films of William Castle are often sabotaged from being truly horror by the directors very own sensibilities.
That notwithstanding, I would call "Shanks" a success, as it holds your attention constantly throughout. If any one thinks Marcel Marceau's talents end with a white made-up face and leotard, they should see him in this...he is perfect for the part, effective in bringing his whole character to life without speaking a single word. The film is a true oddity, but almost impossible to classify. Ultimately, it's just a unique and bewildering experience, and I think everyone should see it.