Back from the dead in more ways than one, it’s time for the fourth installment in this feature, and I’m pleased to present the Great White Whale of unfindable zombie films. Back in the 1970s, the infamous B-movie master William Castle, whose long history of gimmicks included wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks, thought it would be a good idea to make a horror movie starring the world-famous mime Marcel Marceau as the protagonist Malcolm Shanks. The result was a 1974 film titled Shanks, and it achieved a legendary status, with partisan reviewers either praising it as an avant garde work of psychedelic genius or panning it as, well, an avant garde work of psychedelic genius. Peter Dendle’s masochistically comprehensive Zombie Movie Encyclopedia calls it “a dark vision… of how perverse innocence, left to its devices, really is.” A frequently-quoted review by Hal Erickson describes it as “not so much a movie as a hallucinatory experience.” The film’s reputation was probably helped more than hindered by the fact that THIRTY-NINE YEARS went by before its FIRST authorized video release. Armed with a copy of the authorized release that I received and viewed this weekend, I am prepared to wade into the fray.
The first thing I will say is that the authorized edition from Olive Films, is of excellent quality. Every scene is of very sharp quality. I mention this because more than one prior review made prominent mention of problems with image quality, particularly in the final scenes, due either to poor-quality bootlegs or poor lighting and camera work in the making of the films itself. The quality is, indeed, high enough almost to bely the film’s reputation. Apart from a few cuts to silent-film-style sepia, the film is marked by sharply-focused, even camera work, which offers a striking contrast both to the atmospheric blurs and shadows of established horror-film tradition and the jerky, choppy techniques that came into full flower in the 1970s. Even the finale is well-lit and shot almost to a fault (which I must regard as evidence of truly atrocious quality in prior bootleg copies). The workman-like photography serves to reinforce a decidedly un-psychedelic backdrop, where ’60s-’70s artifacts abound without a lava lamp or tie-dyed shirt in sight.
Then there is the story. Um. What is there to say about a story that centers on using human corpses as puppets? Shanks, a “deaf-mute” puppeteer picked on by his stepsister and her drunken husband, learns the secret from the scientist Walker (also played by Marceau), who demonstrates with dead animals in his castle/ lab. When Walker dies of natural causes, Shanks tries out his invention on his corpse. When the in-law and stepsister start asking questions, Shanks gets rid of them with an undead chicken and a GTO “Judge”, then uses their bodies for a show to entertain a teenish admirerer named Celia. His jailbait interest is alarmed on discovering Shanks’ secret, but soon accepts an invitation to the old castle. Shanks and Celia celebrate her birthday in Victorian dress, served and entertained by the in-laws, until a biker gang crashes the party. Stylized savagery ensues, culminating in a notorious scene in sepia of Shanks dancing with Celia before a jarring cut to a cop-out ending.
Shanks astonishes and apalls on amny levels. The horror/ zombie elements are usually passed over in commentary, yet the grue factor is fairly impressive: Walker looks none too fresh, especially after Shanks summons him back for revenge, and a sequence in which a pickled frog is reanimated is genuinely ghastly. The infamous chicken attack, on the other hand, is in my opinion a dud. The intended highlight, Shanks’ “shows” (carried our by two accomplished colleagues of Marceau), are about as problematic as they are unsettling. It is hard to watch without wondering first and foremost if we are actually expected to laugh. (I will admit to being amused by the deceased drunk pulling bottle after bottle off the shelf of a store, which presents a possible subtext of the “puppets” retaining its former personality.)
Finally, we are left with the matter of subtext. The corpse-puppets clearly represent one of the most overtly materialistic representations of the corporeal revenant, and can easily be regarded as further social commentary, but the film offers little to hang such an allegory on. Efforts to inject imagery of good and evil through recurring play cards (source of the opening quote) are, if not strictly ironic, then entirely unconvincing. Shanks is entirely too cunning to make a convincing “innocent”, and it is even more striking that the “evil” bikers come far closer to showing normal human emotional responses than he or Celia ever do. Ultimately, it is all too easy to regard the dynamic of Shanks and the puppets as a statement about the audience: That we, like too-wide-eyed Celia, are entirely at the mercy of the film’s weird and amoral vision.