Marcel Marceau passed away on September 22, and since I have no great love for French mimes -- no matter how famous they are -- I figured I'd reprint my old review of his 1974 horror-movie fiasco SHANKS, from SHOCK CINEMA #4 (1992).
This barely distributed film was William Castle's last excursion into directing. Self-labeled a "grim fairy tale", it stars mime bigshot Marcel Marceau as a mad puppeteer. But don't go into it expected any of Castle's famed gimmicks like Emergo, for this is simply a creepy (or should that be crappy?) mess. So juvenile and crudely produced that it feels like a European AfterSchool Special instead of the twisted fable Castle was hoping for. And so filled with unintentional hilarity that it's simply embarrassing after a while.
Marcel, who can barely act in the first place, is saddled with a dual role. First, as the title character Malcolm Shanks, a deaf and dumb puppeteer (with tragically flaired pants) who's living in a hovel with his drunken, shrewish family and their outrageous foreign accents (if bad accents were a crime, the entire supporting cast would be in Attica). But one day Malcolm is hired by a rich old recluse (also poorly played by Marcel, under six pounds of cheap latex). You see, the old man is experimenting with reanimating the dead by stuffing electrodes into them, and he needs a "puppeteer" as talented as Shanks to make them walk about. After rehearsing on chickens, they move onto humans, which initiates some cheap slapstick at the expense of the dead.
It's admittedly bizarre to watch Shanks collect his deceased human puppets (though after a while I began to wonder why they never started to stink), and even more so when the corpses begin dancing and accidentally cutting off their own fingers at a li'l girl's birthday party. But for every offbeat moment, you get long boring scenes of Marcel pining for the jailbait girl of his dreams. Zzzzzz. And just when you thought it had hit its height of absurdity, a motorcycle gang suddenly roars onto the scene (with Don Calfa and Helena Kallicoates as a couple of the motorcycle sickos), as if they're escaped from some other movie! And suddenly Marceau turns into the most dubious action hero of all time! Hell, Mister Rogers has more macho charisma!
Castle takes a genuinely twisted concept and executes it with all the finesse of a Carol Burnett Show rerun. Sure, it's weird as hell, but it's also stunningingly inept most of the time. You can tell Castle was hoping to create a magical fable (similar to what Tim Burton accomplished with EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), but arrived only with a cosmic misjudgement, from its annoyingly cutsy credits/segues, to its interminably upbeat finale. I just kept shaking my head in utter disbelief, and the movie clocked a near record number of walk-outs at the Film Forum theatre...I often wondered why this movie hadn't been shown in over a decade. After grimacing through it, I now fully understand.