Throughout his lengthy career, William Castle’s cinematic efforts ranged from the sublime (producing 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) to the ridiculous (equipping theater seats with electronic buzzers in order to jolt viewers during screenings of 1959’s The Tingler). Much of his work fell between these extremes, because even though Castle’s hucksterism often outpaced his artistry, there’s no denying the simple pleasures of, say, 1959’s House on Haunted Hill. Yet the last film that Castle directed, Shanks, exists in a weird little universe all its own. By any reasonable critical estimation, it’s an utter disaster, because it’s predicated on so many strange contrivances that it crumbles under the weight of its own silliness. Furthermore, the use of family-friendly storytelling devices to communicate a tale about reanimated corpses is as creepy as the movie’s implied romance between a man in his 50s and a adolescent girl. Atop all that, the movie’s leading performance—by famed French mime Marcel Marceau—is ridiculous. Thing is, using reasonable critical estimations in order to appraise Shanks is beside the point. One can only revel in the peculiarity of the thing, and marvel that Castle got someone to fund such a deeply misguided enterprise.
First off, Shanks is a silent film. Except when it isn’t. After a title card announces that “William Castle Presents a Grim Fairy Tale,” an opening scene drenched with optical effects and syrupy music introduces viewers to Malcolm Shanks (Marceau). A deaf and mute puppeteer who wants only to fill the world with joy, Malcolm lives with his beastly sister, Mrs. Barton (Tsilla Chelton), and her drunken husband, Mr. Barton (Philippe Clay). Inexplicably, the Bartons live off money that Malcolm makes as a laborer, even though he seems to spend most of time entertaining local children with puppet shows.
In the first of many confusing plot twists, Malcolm answers a call to work for a man named Walker (also played by Marceau), who is some sort of Dr. Frankenstein-like mad scientist living in a castle near Malcolm’s village. (Never mind that Malcolm’s “village” looks suspiciously like an American suburb.) Walker has concocted a means of reviving dead animals, so when Walker dies, Malcolm reanimates his friend. Then Malcolm goes on a killing spree, eventually reanimating several corpses—which he controls through the use of a tiny electronic device—in order to cover his tracks. Until a biker gang shows up at the castle. During all of this nonsense, Malcolm woos a wholesome young girl named Celia (Cindy Eibacher), though Castle is cryptic about whether Malcolm wants to be Celia’s guardian or her lover.
Long stretches of Shanks pass without dialogue (Castle even uses old-timey title cards), but then full-dialogue scenes intrude periodically. If there’s a consistent aesthetic at work, it’s hard to recognize. Additionally, the plotting gets so laborious that at one point, Castle uses a title card to plug a narrative hole: “Old Walker cannot attend Celia’s birthday party this evening because Malcolm (in a gesture of mercy) buried his friend several days ago.” Huh? Never the most visually sophisticated filmmaker, Castle enters the realm of outright incompetence at regular intervals, sometimes employing the old Ed Wood trick of cutting to inanimate objects in order to bridge jumps in camera coverage. Dreary, dull, morbid, sloppy, and tasteless, Shanks is unquestionably one of the oddest movies ever released by a major American studio, in this case Paramount Pictures.