William Castle's final picture, 1974's Shanks, was made after a six year hiatus (his previous directorial effort was 1968's Project X and stands as what is arguably his most ambitious horror picture, if certainly not his most successful. It was also never released on home video in North America until Olive Films got their hands on it with this release. It was also a massive turning point for its leading man, Marcel Marceau, who up until this point was known for his work as a mime in which he appeared in face paint and did not speak, two traditions he broke for this role.
Marceau actually plays a duel role here. First we meet a man named Malcolm Shanks, a puppeteer who is both deaf and mute. He's employed by a scientist named Old Walker (also Marceau) who has tried tirelessly to perfect his device that reanimates the dead. Not too far into the feature, Old Walker passes away leaving Malcolm alone to carry on his experiments. So what does he do? Not surprisingly, he decides to try out Walker's device on his corpse, along with a few animals here and there.
Though it was obvious that Shanks had the best of intentions, he soon runs into trouble. Family members start treating him horribly and he and his girlfriend run afoul of some nefarious biker toughs. Shanks, however, has got the perfect way to get his revenge by combining his skills as a puppeteer with the newfound ability Malcolm's device his given himâ€¦
If this sounds like an amazing premise for a horror movie, and it is, well, don't get your hopes up. During the opening title and credits sequence we're told that this film is not a horror picture but a â€˜fairy tale' and to an extent, you could probably argue that it is. There are a lot of intertitles used throughout the movie, likely to play off of Marceau's fame as a mime and to keep things in line with the fairy tale angle we're told the movie is going to take, but none of this does the movie any favors. Likewise, the strange choice to use a lot of slow motion towards the end feels out of place and gimmicky (and not gimmicky in the grand Castle tradition of The Tingler or Mr. Sardonicus) and tacked on.
As to how much you'll get out of this, so much of this rides on Marceau's shoulders that it's tough to say. His performance is an interesting one, very atypical of horror pictures of the time and very physical. Given his background, that's probably not surprisingly to most but at times he as an actor almost seems at odds with the material he's working with here. The movie's timeline is also contradictory, and while coining it a â€˜fairy tale' (and therefor a fantasy) could allow for different aspects of different timelines to play with one another, the inclusion of a modern biker gang doesn't really jive with aged gothic house of horror in which our lead spends so much of his time. There's a whole lot of â€˜fish out of water' going on in the movie and rarely to its benefit.
Castle does, however, get interesting work out of Marceau. This isn't a picture heavy on dialogue and it lets the actor play to his strengths, that being body language and a very physical performance in the place of lengthy conversations or maniacal monologues. When he's playing Shanks and interacting with his undead puppets, the movie fires on all cylinders and offers up plenty of memorably bizarre imagery. There are great ideas at work here and some truly macabre scenes that will stick with you after the film is finished, but some pacing issues and haphazard jumping around in history hurts things. The movie is nice to look at and certainly an interesting and bizarre experiment but the fact that Castle is unable to be completely consistent in how to best take advantage of Marceau's strengths (he gets there at times but can't quite make him leading man material) hurt the picture. The end result is a strange mix of Castle's more traditional horror pictures and a misguided attempt at making some sort of art film. It's a shame that Castle couldn't make up his mind as to which way he really wanted to go.
Shanks arrives on Blu-ray in a nice looking AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen transfer from Olive Films. The picture looks as a bit grainy but there's virtually no print damage at all, the elements used for the transfer were obviously in excellent condition. Throughout playback he image is clean enough and quite stable showing good detail and strong texture in addition to impressive color reproduction. There aren't any edge enhancement issues nor are there any compression artifacts to note. Depth is good, if never mind blowing, and black levels are solid if just ever so slightly weaker than they maybe should be. Overall, however, the picture is quite good and frequently even impressive even if this one wasn't shot with as much style or panache as some of Castle's better regarded pictures.
The only audio option for the feature is an English language DTS-HD Mono track. For the most part the track sounds fine for what it is. Dialogue is clean and clear and well balanced and there are no issues with any noticeable hiss or distortion. The score sounds surprisingly good, sound effects are mixed in well and don't overpower the performers all come through clearly enough. This is an older mono mix and therefore a little limited in its range but it certainly sounds as good as you could realistically expect it to. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided.
Outside of a static menu and chapter selection, the disc is completely barebones, there isn't even a trailer here.
Fans of William Castle will absolutely want to check out Shanks, simply to see it in as nice a shape as it's presented on this Blu-ray disc from Olive. Presenting it barebones is a missed opportunity, as a documentary or commentary of some sort shedding some lights on its history and reception could have been quite interesting, but we didn't get that. As far as the film itself goes, it's a fascinating failure primarily because it can't seem to make up its mind in regards to just where it wants to take us. Despite some serious flaws, however, there's no denying the skill behind Marceau's performance or the creepiness inherent in some of the imagery. Recommended more as a curiosity item than anything else, but recommended nevertheless.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.