Producer-director William Castle may have too often been dismissed in critical circles as a Grade Z Hitchcock or for having been little more than a gimmick-laden showman during his peak years, but nobody could have sensibly predicted that he would eventually be saving his greatest trick for last; in fact, SHANKS was Castle's directorial swan-song and it might well be his best film as well!
The artform of the mime is one that, understandably perhaps, hasn't been treated much on the silver screen (in this way, it elicits comparison with the classic ballet-oriented THE RED SHOES  which, similarly, adopted a stylized look throughout mixed with an adroit sense of the macabre); the most famous example is, of course, Jean-Louis Barrault's unforgettable Baptiste in Marcel Carne's LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS (1945) and Marcel Marceau (who has died fairly recently) can be said to be the only mime artist that is renowned worldwide. Consequently, it comes as little surprise to see him feature in a couple of cult movies over the years Roger Vadim's BARBARELLA (1968) and Mel Brooks' all-star comedy SILENT MOVIE (1976), where his presence extended to just a cameo in which, ironically, he utters the only word of dialogue in the whole movie!
SHANKS is another thing entirely: Marceau not only has a dual role and does the choreography but, for the most part, is virtually the whole show. As on-screen support, he has three talented actors Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay (who are very adept at miming themselves) and the young Cindy Eilbacher. The film was produced by Steven North, son of composer Alex who received another Oscar nomination (his twelfth) for his brilliantly inventive score by turns playful, poignant and brooding which, in a film like this, with very little dialogue and the intermittent use of intertitles, is as important as the on-screen characters themselves. Castle (who even has an amusing, unbilled cameo as a storekeeper) also employed other renowned Hollywood veterans behind the camera here, namely cinematographer Joseph Biroc (their third collaboration) and production designer Boris Leven.
The film itself has rightly been described as one of the strangest ever made (the subtitle "A Grim Fairy Tale" is most apt!): it deals with a deaf-mute puppeteer (Marceau, naturally) who, abused by his harridan sister and her boozing partner, takes comfort in his friendship with a little girl he meets at the fair and an eccentric dying scientist (also Marceau, made up to look almost Caligari-like) who experiments with reanimating dead bodies (most notably a frog) via two portable electronic devices. After the scientist dies and is buried, the puppeteer takes possession of the re-animating devices himself and, inevitably, they come in handy when his relatives die (one he kills himself in self-defense at the scientist's mansion with the help of a re-animated rooster and the other when beside herself at Marceau's lateness is mowed down by a speeding car outside their house in the middle of the night!); he takes them shopping and has them wait on him and perform tricks when he invites the girl to the doctor's mansion! Their idyllic tryst is short-lived, however, when a gang of bikers burst in on them to treat a wounded member of their party
Watching SHANKS (which is the puppeteer's surname, by the way) right after Robert Hartford-Davis' CORRUPTION (1968), I couldn't help but be reminded of that film's analogous last segment (right down to the 'dreamy' coda); here, however, Castle has a trump card up his sleeve when a biker steals one of the doctor's electronic devices and fools around with the zombified 'servants' the puppeteer, on the other hand, re-animates the scientist who, together with the servants now back in his control, beat up the gang. The narrative seems simple enough on paper, but the film is very much a unique experience (albeit an acquired taste, given the occasional longueurs brought on by its deliberate pace) amusing, surreal, weird and disturbing. Certainly among the highlights is the puppeteer's re-animation of the scientist whose movements made me think of a Jekyll/Hyde transformation as performed by Jimmy Cagney!!
Unfortunately, the print quality left much to be desired: it seemed like a tenth-generation VHS copy, with the detail all soft and fuzzy and the picture excessively dark to boot; being a Paramount film, one hopes that Legend Films or, better still, Criterion will eventually get the opportunity to give this bizarre gem a decent release and, consequently, the exposure it greatly deserves
since Paramount themselves seem unwilling to do anything with it!