SHANKS (1974) (Blu-ray)
Director: William Castle
Olive Films

The last motion picture directed by master schlock showman William Castle and the first lead feature film role for the world renowned pantomime artist Marcel Marceau, the rarely seen SHANKS is rescued from Paramount’s film vaults by Olive Films for this Blu-ray release (which is also being offered on DVD at the same time).

A poor, middle-aged deaf-mute named Malcolm Shanks (Marcel Marceau, BARBARELLA) creates marionettes and puts on fairy tale shows for the local children. Especially smitten with his talented charms is young Celia (familiar 1970s TV child actress Cindy Eilbacher) and Shanks promises to do something special for her upcoming birthday celebration. Shanks lives with his shrewd step sister Mrs. Barton (Tsilla Chelton) and her hopelessly drunk and cruel husband Mr. Barton (Philippe Clay), and when he’s hired by Old Walker (also Marceau), the useless couple plan to nab his generous wages. Old Walker, who lives in a 19th century-style castle, is an eccentric professor experimenting with the rejuvenation and re-animation of dead animals. With Shanks as his assistant, he succeeds in bringing a frog and a rooster back from the dead through electrodes targeted at specific nerve points, and then activated by a palm-sized, dial-turning remote control.

One morning when Shanks arrives at the castle, he discovers Walker dead and uses what his kindly mentor taught him (as well as his knack for puppetry) to bring him back, albeit in a remote-controlled, zombified manner (he soon buries him in an act of respect). When Mr. and Mrs. Barton realize they’re not getting paid and that Shanks isn’t going to work, they too end up dead (he’s attacked by the automated rooster and she’s the victim of a hit and run driver) and are brought back using the same rejuvenation techniques, though mostly for Shanks’ amusement. Celia learns the secret of the Bartons’ undead state, but quickly accepts the morbid reality when Shanks makes due on that birthday promise, giving her a party at the gothic Walker abode (where the Bartons acts as the servants). The odd party is broken up when “evil” enters the house in the form of an intruding biker gang with such names as Napoleon (Larry Bishop, who had already played bikers in such AIP films as THE SAVAGE SEVEN and CHROME AND HOT LEATHER), Einstein (Don Calfa, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD), Goliath (Biff Manard, ZONE TROOPERS) and Mata Hari (Helena Kallianiotes, KANSAS CITY BOMBER). The savage cyclists take control of the Bartons and tie up Shanks, who breaks free and retaliates by rising Old Walker out of his burial spot for revenge.

In 1973 when SHANKS was in pre-production, William Castle was still riding high as producer of ROSEMARY’S BABY, as well as the recent hit anthology series “Ghost Story” (“Circle of Fear”). Marceau came up with the basic premise for the film (though the script would be written by Ranald Graham), and he was a fan of Castle’s work (especially ROSEMARY), handpicking him to produce, and wanting Roman Polanski to direct. When Castle informed him that Polanksi was off making CHINATOWN (and he was too expensive anyway), he suggested another director who Marceau had reservations about, but Castle eventually ended up in the driver’s seat, though reluctantly (he hadn’t directed a feature since 1968’s underrated science fiction opus PROJECT X). SHANKS would be Castle’s last film as a director (he would produce one more, BUG, and act in several others before his death in 1977), and arguably, this and PROJECT X (also recently rescued on Blu-ray and DVD through Olive Films) are his most original and imaginative efforts as a director, even though he’s best known for his gimmicky shockers of the late 1950 and 1960s.

Like your typical William Castle venture (ROSEMARY’S BABY aside), SHANKS is a B-movie with a very limited budget, but the combination of the macabre specialist and the premier pantomime artiste actually makes for an intriguing and very strange genre film with a good amount of black comedy and dark side which shows itself more and more as the climax is reached. Introduced as “Grim Fairy Tale”, the film intermittently uses “silent film” type narration cards to spin its tale, and since Marceau’s Shanks character never talks (his heavily-made up Walker has only several lines) the film keeps true to his well-known non-speaking mime persona (although the opposite side of the coin was lampooned in a cameo in Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE several years later). Marceau is very watchable and makes the film work, and one can only picture it as a total disaster if anyone else was in the lead. His Shanks is a well conceived character, with his lack of speech and hearing conveyed through expression, and his crusty Walker is also a quirky persona, especially when he’s brought back to life and has to motion about awkwardly like a puppet (making Marceau possibly the best actor to portray a zombie, at least in terms of physicality). As the Bartons, Chelton and Clay (like Marceau, both were French) are perfectly cast as the grotesque in-laws, and they’re able to pull off their remote controlled, zombified state (at times moving in unison) that they can be hypnotizing to look at (there’s a great bit where Chelton slices the tips of her fingers while carving a hunk of birthday cake). The expressive score by Alex North was nominated for an Academy Award, and Castle himself makes a cameo as a grocer who’s all smiles when a charge account is paid up.

A box office failure at the time of its release, SHANKS was rarely seen on television (The Sci-Fi Channel aired it back in its infancy) and was never released on home video (it was essentially a “lost” film), that is until now. The film’s low budget and at times television production quality (some parts resemble an episode of Castle’s own “Ghost Story” series) is still unmistakable, but Olive Films has done an overall terrific job with the new HD presentation. The film has an AVC encoded 1080p transfer, and is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. Detail is sharp throughout (with close-ups all too much revealing the limitations of the make-up, especially when Marceau is in old man mode) and colors are especially vivid. The original elements display some very minor imperfections and some natural film grain, but the end results are spectacular especially when all we had to judge from in the past were those horrid-looking VHS bootlegs. The English language audio is offered through a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono track. The film is definitely void of excessive dialog, but the track sounds perfect, with North’s score, sound effects and the scattered dialog all coming through nicely in the mix. Very recommended. (George R. Reis)