Cast: Marcel Marceau, Philippe Clary, Cindy Eilbacher
Director William Castle will always be remembered more
for his gimmicks than his actual movies. The number of people who know
about his offering of life insurance for moviegoers who went to see Macabre
exceeds those who have actually seen the movie. People still chuckle
about the gimmick behind The Tingler - electric buzzers
placed under the theater seats and buzzed at the appropriate time - but
how many of them have actually taken the time to see the movie? The
is that if you put aside the gimmicks, most of William Castle's movies
were actually fairly entertaining little horror movies, and he was a
director. This is probably most evident in the last movie he directed,
The subject matter in this movie is so bizarre and unlike other
horror movies of its time (and now), that it's a real credit to him how
he manages to pull it off. The movie stumbles a few times because of
weaknesses in the script, but Castle makes the movie captivating
by exploiting its strangeness.
Famed French mime Marcel Marceau plays the title figure
Malcolm Shanks, a deaf mute who is mercilessly exploited by the
and brother-in-law he lives with. The only joy that seems to be in his
life comes with his skill at making and performing with puppets in
of the children in his small town. His skill at puppetry catches the
of the old and mysterious Mr. Walker (also Marceau), who one days
him a job in his laboratory.
With Shanks helping him with his experiments, Walker
is able to bring dead lab animals back to life. Well, not really alive
- through the use of electrical implants planted in key nerves of the
and with adjusting the dials on a remote control, Shanks and Walker can
get the animals to move around as if they were alive. One day, Shanks
to the lab and discovers Walker died during the night. Seeing his boss'
body, and remembering they were determining the key nerves of the human
body, Shanks starts getting ideas...
Shanks' further experiments (which you can probably
result in giving this movie some of the most bizarre and outlandish
in Hollywood history. The first such scene sets the mood for what's to
follow, by being funny, amazing, and creepy to watch - all at the same
time. After Shanks inserts the implants and starts fiddling with the
trying to make his new creation work, Marceau gets to show off his
at miming. I don't like mimes, but after seeing Marceau at work, I can
appreciate his art all the same. As the dead Walker, he slowly rises,
mechanically, and twisting his body into hilarious yet believable poses
for the situation. Some tricks he does, like leaning at what seems to
an impossible angle, have you wonder how he did it. Plus, the site of
this obviously dead man coming to life (sort of), and with the cracking
sounds of rigor mortis occasionally coming forth, it's also unsettling
to see at the same time.
Shanks' experiments don't end here with Walker. With the
knowledge he has, his subsequent actions become more twisted, and all
can do is sit and watch. It's no accident that we become so focused
what Shanks does. One reason why we have to keep watching is that
very little dialogue in the entire movie. Because of that, you have to
pay very close attention to the visual events if you want to know
going on. It's almost like a silent movie - in fact, every so often
is a caption card just like those silent movies, written in slightly
fashioned English like when, "The town drunk with a shrew for a wife
a deaf mute for a brother-in-law" appears just before we get to see
brother-in-law for the first time. The movie feels surreal at times,
just with these devices, but others, like some outdoor scenes that were
filmed on a soundstage. The movie announces itself as "A Grim Fairy
during the opening credits, and it's not that far off from that
As Shanks gets deeper and deeper into his activities in
raising the dead, you keep watching, not just to find out what he dares
to do next, but how everything will finish up when the movie ends.
are some things that are indeed hard to swallow along the way; I found
it hard to believe Shanks could make the bodies he controls make such
movements when there are only three dials on each remote control, the
of the town seem incredibly dense to not realize that people that they
know are moving very strangely, and the death by chicken (!) was too
for its own good.
These and a few other dubious questions come to mind on
occasion during Shanks, but questions of a different
come up that make us think deeply about them, rather than the movie's
Seeing Shanks up to his deeds, we wonder: Is what he's doing okay? Why
is he doing these things? Should we feel amusement or horror by what
doing? What's interesting is that the movie doesn't make is easy for us
to come up with answers to these questions; we can see more than one
answer for many of them. How we should feel by what we see Shanks doing
is completely up to us. I chose to admire the artistry in how these
are pulled off, while keeping those questions in the back of my mind so
I could think a little. It's a movie that's not only interesting to
about afterwards, but while you are watching it.
Still, I was a little unsatisfied with the last quarter
or so of the movie. During the course of the movie, there is a feeling
that the results of Shanks' experiments are building up slowly to a big
climax of some kind, tragic or not. But nothing of the sort happens.
as if the screenwriter had a great premise in mind, started writing
it, but couldn't think of a satisfactory way to tidy it up at the end.
Instead of having a climax centered more around the reanimation device,
the movie brings in a motorcycle gang. This is wrong on so many levels,
not just that it seems like a desperate device to try and bring in
so that there will be tension, but that the tone of this whole
thing is way off from the tone of what preceded it. That's bad enough,
but what's even worse is that the key moment in the climax centers
a fist fight, which is also wrong on those previously mentioned levels
as well. The whole last quarter of the movie takes the eerie, poetic
the movie has managed to generate, and destroys it piece by piece.
Shanks is still worth watching for the
three quarters, though. And though it is a flawed movie, it's one of
rare birds, a true original movie. I can't think of another
quite like it, and it was a nice way for an original like Castle to go
out. Who knows what he might have pulled out of his sleeve had he just
lived a few years longer?
for availability on Amazon.
Marcel Marceau speaks! Huh? Well, check out this CD!
Also: Didn't You Hear, Let My Puppets Come, The