Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Random Movie Report #74: Shanks

Shanks poster and IMPAwards link
The early Seventies were a time when major Hollywood studios granted an unprecedented level of creative freedom to filmmakers. We primarily remember this period for the early masterworks of filmmakers like Coppola, Altman, Scorcese, and so on. What fewer people know is that the studios’ greater willingness to experiment also resulted in some really weird shit. There were films backed by the likes of Paramount, Universal, et. al. that would not be backed or released at any time before or probably since, and as a nice reminder of this period, TCM’s “Underground” recently broadcast SHANKS, legendary horror guru William Castle’s last film as director and a vehicle for famous mime Marcel Marceau.

I have seen many weird films. I take it as a point of pride. So when I say SHANKS is one of the very weirdest films I have ever seen, take a minute to contemplate what that means. We are in freaky-deaky territory. Part comedy, part horror film, part silent movie homage, part showcase for mime choreography, SHANKS is a film that fell behind the desk of the movie industry and has collected dust for some time. It is not on DVD, and I’m not even sure there ever was a VHS release either. There are many reasons for this- it’s a slow, quiet movie with all sorts of problems, but there’s something jaw dropping about it too. It’s just singular enough to be worth seeing, and it goes so far outside the bounds of normal filmmaking that it’s hard to judge by normal criteria. I've got this tagged for the Academy of the Underrated, but the heading is for Random Movie Report because brother, they don't get any more random than this.

Marceau plays two roles, that of Malcom Shanks, a deaf-mute puppetteer living on welfare with his awful relatives, and Old Walker, a scientist experimenting with reanimation. He sees Shanks’ skills controlling marionettes and employs him to work at mastering a form of remote-control involving electrodes placed in dead bodies- first frogs, then chickens, then people. Walker dies after several weeks, but Shanks is unable to convey this to his horrible drunk brother (Philippe Clay) and horrible shrewish sister-in-law (Tsilla Chelton), who send him back to work to get more money. So Shanks works on re-animating his old companion, taking him for walks and making his movements almost lifelike. When his brother tries to shake up Walker for the money he’s promised, Shanks kills him with a radio-controlled chicken, then adds him to his puppet ensemble- along with the wife when she gets hit by a car. Things are going well until Celia (Cindy Einbacher), a little girl who’s friends with Shanks, insists on going on a picnic with him and his housemates, during which she discovers what he’s been up to. Somehow this doesn’t bother her too much, and he takes her to an impromptu birthday party at Walker’s place, but then, as commonly happened in the Seventies, a biker gang shows up.

Presented as a “grim fairy tale”, SHANKS seems to primarily have been conceived as a vehicle not just for Marceau’s own miming skills, but those of the people he revives. (Marceau served as choreographer on the film as well.) It’s a classic low-budget, in which a producer looks at what resources he has available at the time and bases a film around them. If you know a guy who has a prop plane, you make a movie with lots of flying sequences; if you know a mime, make a movie about corpses being raised and turned into life-size puppets. The film has a weird, creaky stylization to it, complete with silent-movie-style intertitles that make some interesting comments on the action.

One doesn’t expect learning how to control corpses via electrodes to be an easy task (God knows the aliens in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE had their problems with it), but a good portion of the action is taken up with Shanks mastering his craft on Walker and others, and well, there’s no avoiding it- this is really goddamn slow. Judicious editing could easily have cut a lot out of the film, but I imagine the problem was that doing that would have left Castle without enough for a feature. That said, there is a certain fascination in it too- the agility displayed by the performers is amazing, to be sure, and they’re all very convincingly awkward and manipulated. It’s a bit like watching the dancing in an Astaire/Rogers movie- it doesn’t advance the plot much, but it’s meant to be compelling in and of itself.

This is a film that by all rights should be utterly awful. Shanks’ relatives are so authentically nasty that they become painful to watch, up until the point where they die and become lovable automatons. Appropriately for an early-Seventies film, the moral compass of the picture is all over the place- the climactic captions try to paint this as a struggle between good and evil, but Shanks did kill his brother, and is making a living of sorts off this bizarre practice. But Marceau does make the character work as an outcast antihero, and I have a weakness for those.

It’s a weird enough movie that I was surprised to see the Paramount imprimatur on it, because I’m trying to imagine how the Hell you pitch something like this. Maybe Castle was using his good will from ROSEMARY’S BABY. But something this odd, this inconceivable, takes on a life of its own. I can’t help but think it’s valuable in and of itself, independent of any objective aesthetics; it’s such a singular production that it must be preserved and treasured because nothing like it will ever slither out of the studio machinery again. So, Paramount, give us a DVD, if not for commerce, then for the ages.

Written by Ranald Graham
Directed by William Castle

Grade: B-

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