The last film directed by the man who made movies and the hulabaloo around them into magic, William Castle, Shanks is also the first major film role for Marcel Marceau. So already you know that it’s not going to be normal. At all.
Castle wanted to work with the mime after watching him perform “Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death” and approached him with this script, which he said dealt with similar themes. Marceau would say that the script was exactly what he had been looking for.
Malcolm Shanks (Marceau) is a deaf and mute puppeteer who lives a horrible existence with his briue of a sister and her alcoholic husband. To deal with his tragic existence, he makes puppet shows about his few friends, like Celia, and enacts them for the people in his hometown.
His skills earn him a job with Old Walker (also Marceau), who brings him to his gothic mansion to be a lab assistant as he learns to control the dead as if they were, well, puppets. However, when Walker dies, his family is enraged that they’ve lost the money that Shanks was making and Barton smashes the puppet of Walker.
Soon, he’s killed his brother-in-law by sending a reanimated chicken after him and forced his sister into traffic. They soon become his marionettes, who he uses to buy groceries and have ornate picnics for Celia, who is vaguely disturbed by the fact that her friend has killed two people and brought them back to some form of life.
Then, as happens in 1970s movies, a biker gang attacks and forces Shanks to make the puppets do things he’d never want them to do as one of their members assaults and kills Celia. The gang includes Don Calfa (the mortician from Return of the Living Dead), Larry Bishop (Wild in the Streets), Biff Manard (Hap from Trancers and Playgirl‘s 1975 Man of the Year) and Helena Kallianiotes (Kansas City Bomber).
After being forced to deal with the machinations of others so long, the puppeteer rises and decimates everyone in his path, bringing his love back to life for one more dance before awakening from his dream.
Shanks is a strange film that may not always work, but you have to admire the fact that it seems like Castle was trying to close out his career with as close to an art film as he would ever get.