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SHANKS (director: William Castle; screenwriter: Ranald Graham; cinematographer: Joseph F. Biroc; editor: David Berlatsky; music: Alex North; 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); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Steven North; Paramount Pictures; 1974)
“A grim fairy-tale.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The last film directed by William Castle (“The Tingler”/”Zotz!”/”Strait-Jacket”) is his weirdest, yet. Castle was primarily known for his marketing skills, publicity stunts and his low-budget gimmicky films. In his 13 Ghosts (1960), Castle made patrons wear a Ghost Viewer. This oddball macabre horror/fantasy story, called by Castle “A grim fairy-tale,” is written by Ranald Graham and has very little dialogue. It’s a black comedy, but one that loses track of what it wants to be after its silent movie-like pantomime sets a strange comical mood and its gimmicky reanimation conceit wears thin as the abused hero mime doesn’t know what to do with his new found powers and soon the story turns into an unpleasant routine revenge film.

Marcel Marceau, the legendary mime, has a dual role in this curio, one in which he speaks and the other in which he’s a mute: he plays Old Walker, the eccentric inventor of electrical devices that can make the dead walk again by use of a control box and the young downcast deaf mute puppeteer Malcolm Shanks, who becomes his assistant and takes over when Walker dies.

In the opening scene the gentle deaf mute puppeteer entertains some children outside a small-town grocery store, where his only friend is the wide-eyed local adolescent Celia (Cindy Eilbacher). Malcolm lives with the Bartons: his brother-in-law, the brutish town drunk (Philippe Clay), and his shrewish wife (Tsilla Chelton), Malcolm’s nasty sister. They abuse the timid lad and when Walker dies Malcolm leaves them. But the drunken brother-in-law goes to Walker’s mansion to pick up Malcolm’s pay and further abuse him. Instead he finds that the playful Malcolm has reanimated Walker and the threatening Barton is attacked by a reanimated lab chicken and dies when he falls down the stairs. Malcolm brings the corpse of Barton back to life, but when he’s in traffic near his house his wife gets run over when going out to see what’s wrong with her zombie-like husband.

Malcolm takes Celia on a picnic with the reanimated Bartons, but when in Walker’s mansion to celebrate her birthday they are invaded by a gang of Hell’s Angels like bikers who bring with them a dead member to celebrate a wake. When the gang rapes and kills Celia (off-camera), the puppeteer gets his revenge on them.

Marceau’s friends and fellow French pantomime artists Philippe Clay and Tsilla Chelton considerably aid the mime in their roles of Mr. and Mrs. Barton, as they artistically play zombies on the move.

Though the reanimation concept was inventive, it soon became tiresome and the awkward acting became a chore to watch as the film veered between comedy, sentimentality and unease. Shanks just had too slight of a story and it was too poorly paced to be much more than a freaky chiller that held my attention because it was so genuinely goofy.

Alex North’s score received an Oscar nomination.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”