What The Hell Is Shanks?

The movie Shanks answers the question of what Tim Burton would write if he were locked in a box for a couple of years and fed a diet of methamphetamine and fetid gruel laced with LSD. Shanks is a hard film to fathom let alone describe or critique. Halfway through I just couldn’t figure out how or why a film like this was made, and that was before the leatherman biker gang showed up.

Let’s try to take this slowly in stages so no one gets hurt. The film is about a mute, mime puppeteer. OK, take that in before moving on. His name is Malcolm Shanks and is played by the one and only Marcel Marceau. Malcolm Shanks or possibly Marcel Marceau is extremely creepy. Not creepy like Dracula creepy but something far worse. Something where you’re not sure if he is meant to be creepy or if he knows he is creepy, but you find yourself furrowing your eyebrows and leaning away from the screen whenever he appears.

Accompanying Monsieur Marceau on the screen is a wide-eyed, fair-skinned, freckle-faced, blonde girl named Celia. She is the saccharine quintessence of innocence. Picture the love child of Laura Ingalls and Beaver, maybe in a threesome with Jane Brady. Unfortunately, Celia who is maybe 13 has a big ol’ crush on Mr. Shanks who is in his 40’s. OK, deep breath. Marceau also plays a mad scientist who has found a way to reanimate the dead using electrodes to stimulate their muscles. He can control them remotely like a puppet. Do you see where this is going? You may want to stop here and forget you ever started this article.

Sooooooo Shanks throws Celia a birthday party. It starts with a picnic of sorts where Shanks puts on a puppet show featuring two people he has murdered. The two corpses are his landlady and her husband. He has them fumble around miming what they did in real life. It makes for a very disturbing parody of human existence. I blame Marceau and the French people as a whole for finding a way to take what is essentially a clown and turn it into something bleak and obnoxious. “Je suis une marionnette zombie existentielle, no?”

Yes, this is a science fiction movie, and no I should not nitpick the technical stuff but it was particularly irksome that Shanks was able to control all 600 muscles in the human body with 3 little knobs. He just fiddles with the controller and the corpses walk and dance and murder people without any trouble. I think it’s an insult to the motor cortex and the hypothalamus.

We watch these two dead people make fun of the living until they mime their own deaths. While watching them an unnerving symbolism starts to surface. Not only has the puppeteers made these unfortunate souls his puppet but he has made them mute like him. As a result, the film has very little dialogue, so little in fact that it uses silent movie-style inter-titles to keep things moving.

Depriving humanity of its words is to deprive it of its intellect. Without language, we are forced to see ourselves as animals. It prioritizes our bodies and makes us more aware of our mortality. Without words, it is more difficult to convince ourselves and each other that we have some special purpose or quality. We can’t avoid our identity as hairless apes or worse French.

Mimes and puppets along with clowns are all parodies of humans. They are grotesque exaggerations that often fall victim to slapstick violence and clumsy misfortune. Our tragedies are turned into comedies removing our sense of purpose and meaning. Shanks definitely intends to provoke these philosophical issues. Part of what makes the film so creepy is this undercurrent of seriousness.

Shanks has a carefully constructed atmosphere. It feels like a demented fairytale told by someone in a trance. Someone who is only partially present, who stares off into nothingness while they mumble out the story.

Once our two performing zombies pretend to say their prayers and die the party moves indoors. Celia is treated to cake and champagne served by the automated golems. One corpse unfortunately cuts off her own finger while serving Celia a slice. It’s around this time that I began to wonder what the pitch for this movie sounded like, and we still haven’t gotten to the leathermen bikers.

The party is crashed by leathermen bikers who rape and kill Celia, definitely didn’t see that coming. Then all hell breaks loose and it’s a free for all where humans fight remote control zombies, remote control zombies fight remote control zombies and humans fight humans, the mute fight the voiced, it’s anarchy.

Then, once everyone is dead except Marceau, everything turns a melancholy sepia as we watch the corpse of Celia rise and dance with her new puppet master Shanks. It’s creepy enough but while they dance Shankes stares intently into nothingness as if he himself were a bug-eyed zombie.

Shanks was written by Ranald Graham and directed by William Castle in 1974. It was Castle’s last film. Most of his filmography is pretty obscure but 13 Ghosts (1960) and The Tingler (1959) got some attention. He was also the producer for Rosemary’s Baby. If you are not familiar with the circumstances surrounding The Tingler it is worth noting that Castle installed a host of electrical devices in the movie theater seats to buzz or poke the audience at opportune times. Maybe that’s where he got the idea for Shanks.

Shanks defies classification and leaves you a bit stunned. You walk away unsure of what you just sat through, but apparently When Castle approached Marceau with the script Marceau said, that “it was exactly what I had been looking for.”

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