Saturday, March 13, 2010

William Castle's Shanks

William Castle's Shanks, a '74 super-oddity that has never been released on VHS or DVD anywhere in the world, played last night on Turner Classic Movies (TCM); when I saw it in the program listings a week ago, a long voyage to experiencing it was finally drawing to an end.

I first read about Shanks, which stars world famous mime Marcel Marceu, in Cinefantastique. They'd given the film a short, not entirely positive review, but it sounded like gold to me. I waited and waited for the film to be released in Australia, but that never happened. Never saw it on TV, either, and never stumbled on a pirated version from a US TV broadcast (I know others did). Nope, Shanks was destined to be the one that got away, one of those titles I never thought I'd see in my lifetime.

Well, now I've seen it, and I must say it is easily Castle's most bizarre and original achievement; it was also his last. Was it worth the thirty-five year wait? Well, is anything? My expectations were high -- but why? Cinefantastique had not canonized the film as a classic; they'd been somewhat critical of it. So why did I choose to ignore their review and act like they'd championed it? I don't know. I do know I get "feelings" about films sometimes. Irrational feelings. Feelings that have no basis in fact. Feelings formed by pure intuition.

That's why I always knew I'd like Shanks. I knew it would touch something in me. And it did. Parts of it disappointed, too, but they didn't spoil the overall experience of seeing it for the first time.

Marceu is Malcolm Shanks, a deaf mute puppeteer and mime who works for the crusty Old Walker (played by Marceu also). Shanks lives with his greedy sister (Tsilla Chelton) and her alchoholic, good-for-nothing husband (Philippe Clay). These two scoundrels are out to steal every cent Shanks makes working for Walker. What Shanks actually does for the grizzled Walker is pretty vague, but puppet making appears to fall under the job description.

Old Walker is a backyard reanimator, and he shows Shanks how he can make a dead frog hop by attaching electrical nodes to its body. He fires up a dead rooster, too, but he uses a type of acupuncture to do that; he controls the creature with a remote control resembling an early incarnation of a video game controller. When Walker kicks the bucket, the lonely Shanks decides to reanimate him. The movie gets very strange from there.

The film's opening title sequence, featuring circus music and animated figures, is a pleasing taste of things to come. Alex North's music, which received an Oscar nom, see-saws between contemporary and classical. Because Marceau is the main character and never speaks, the film is a defacto Silent Movie. There is dialog, but the tone and the pitch of the central performances are more Charlie Chaplin than 70's exploitation. Unfortunately, there is an off-kilter exploitation angle introduced later in the film that feels totally out of place, and it is the one aspect of the film that deflates its virtues.

A great deal of the film's running time is spent on Marceu's amusing and beautifully directed experiments with the dead. He revives several key characters, and some of the best scenes involve him parading them down the main street of his country town, or manipulating them to kill his enemies. The stuttery movements of the actors playing these animated corpses is a sight to see, as is a sequence where the corpses battle a biker gang led by exploitation staple Larry Bishop, the director of the recent (and pretty awful) Hell Ride.

The film is set in gorgeous countryside that reminded me of the rural English location of William Wyler's magnificent The Collector. The film's pace is a little too slow at times, and the drama is fairly inert. Although Marceu is excellent in his multiple roles, I didn't find him to be a terribly commanding screen presence. The classical photography and lighting by legendary cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc is stunning, though, and acts as a striking counterpoint to Castle's wild surrealism.

Unfortunately, the introduction of a motorcycle gang into the story does considerable damage to the brittle tone and texture of the movie; it felt very European until this strange switch occurred. Was Castle forced or felt obliged to pander to his teenager audience by throwing them a piece of familiar exploitation meat? Looks like it.  Although the scenes of the bikers being stalked by the dead are effective, their presence just feels wrong.

There is a sweet subplot involving actress Cindy Eilbacher, a young teenager who seems smitten with Shanks. Resembling a slightly more attractive Marcia Brady, Eilbacher has a few great scenes in which she expresses disgust at what Shanks is doing with corpses. A scene in which she is served by a couple of reanimated humans at her own birthday party, organized by Shanks, is a beauty. Larry Bishop also gets an opportunity to molest her in a surprisingly brutal scene (for this film, anyway).

Although it has its faults, Shanks is a truly original, bizarre, and beautiful movie. I waited thirty-five years to see it. The wait wasn't in vain.


  1. You say Larry Bishop got to molest the gorgeous Cindy Eilbacher!!! (the lucky bastard), i wonder if he got to bugger her during the making of this film as well?.

  2. Phantom, I'm right there with you--I have been looking for this movie for years, and when I couldn't find it, I began waiting for it to play on television...but it seemed that would never actually happen. Thank God for Turner Classic Movies. I respect TCM more than any other cable channel for reasons just like this, which is why I post notifications for upcoming genre movies on their channel so often. I couldn't stay up late enough to watch it (damn work!), but I recorded it--along with the great Mr. Sardonicus--and am looking forward to a Creepy Castle double feature in the very near future.


    Word Verification--Extubber: (noun) One who used to bathe, but no longer does so.

  3. Actually, this has been released on VHS but it's not something you're likely to find in the bins, or even online.

    This sounds like the real deal. Fuck the bad reviews.

  4. I think Cindy Eilbacher was at her most gorgeous and desirable in "Crowhaven Farm" (1970) what an incredible little darlin` she was when she was 10 or 11 but by the time she was 17 or 18 the magic was gone.

  5. On a whim, I taped this off TCM Friday night. I have to admit, I wasn't really looking forward to watching it. But after reading your thoughts, I can't wait to devour me some Shanks; it sounds wonderfully strange.

  6. you-know-who(hamster, etc) -- why don't you ask him?! I'm not privy to such details. And what are you doing writing to me when you could be visiting HO'R's grave?


    Jonny Metro -- I agree that TCM is an amazing network. It's my favorite. I can live without the premium movie channels, but TCM, Sundance, and IFC, I can't do without them.

    Extubber is a funny one.


    d -- I stand corrected. If you're into bizarre stuff, I don't see how you couldn't enjoy SHANKS (despite the flaws I mentioned).


    teddy (hamster) -- time for your own blog, hamster -- altho, without anonymity, you may find yourself compromised. Eh?


    Yum-Yum -- glad I could turn you on (to SHANKS). It is definitely wonderfully strange.

  7. they`re coming after me with guns and knives and fast, fast women, they call me captain apacheMarch 31, 2010 at 5:38 PM

    If i started my own blog all i would ever talk about would be Heather O`Rourke and the only reason i`d have to worry about my anonymity being compromised would be that i`m living in such a time of appalling sexual repression. 30 years from now my lust for Heather wont be offensive to anyone.

  8. they're coming... (Jervais Brook Hamster) --

    this may all be so, but I can't make this a forum for your feelings about this girl; the law is the law; I didn't draw it up.

    Start a Heather O'R IRC channel or something... I won't host any more on this subject.