A puppeteer (Marcel Marceau) is entertaining a group of smalltown children with his marionettes, but as he does so he gets a faraway look in his eye and we see what he is thinking. A narrative about Malcolm Shanks (also Marceau) who is a deaf mute living with his shrewish sister (Tsilla Chelton) and her boorish, alcoholic brother-in-law (Philippe Clay), until she gets a call from the local inventor Old Walker (Marceau again), an elderly boffin who is conducting experiments in electricity. The sister is delighted to get Shanks out of the house, but there are unforseen consequences...
Nothing to do with bathroom fittings, this was actually the final film directed by William Castle, that master of the gimmicky horror or thriller who by this stage in his career was getting a bit past it in the entertainment world. However, Shanks represented a swan song of sorts, as it was unlike anything he had tried before; yes, it was a horror movie, but in its way it was in a style all its own, though it's true a more imaginative director than Castle could have made it all the more striking. Nevertheless, this was a seriously odd endeavour, and he was to be applauded for at least trying something this out there when he could have played it safe and rested on his laurels.
Safe like one of his contemporary productions Bug, which he didn't direct but did hit the publicity trail with a large cockroach for, so he continued to have one eye on the moneymaking possibilities of showmanship when combined with the cinema industry. And in his way, Marceau was Castle's final gimmick in that his Shanks character spoke nary a word, though the scientist muttered a few lines, but it was the art of mime which was being brought to the fore here, of which his star was the world's most famous exponent. This was Marceau's first film since his appearance in Barbarella, and he was a truly remarkable man, with a great humanitarian depth of feeling combined with an excellent talent for his chosen art.
But did that come across here? Marceau was well known to have saved many children from the Nazis in World War II, so it's no surprise to see Shanks's best friend here be a young teenage girl, Celia (ex-child star Cindy Eilbacher) whose relationship is entirely wholesome yet off kilter when he is so much older than she is: some viewers can find this offputting. Though not as offputting as what Shanks gets up to after Old Walker dies having taught him the secrets of his research. The elderly man had graduated from animating frogs with electrodes to remote controlling a chicken and when the brother-in-law arrives to give Shanks trouble, he sets the chicken on him which bloodily pecks him to death.
What? It only gets more strange, with the sister expiring too and Shanks re-animating both their corpses to do his bidding thanks to little gizmos to direct them. He invites Celia out for a picnic, and she is charmed at the jerky antics of the husband and wife (Chelton and Clay were professional mimes choreographed by Marceau) - or she is until she gets a good look at their glassy eyes and twigs that they're dead. Bizarrely (as if this could be anything else), she then is won over to the idea and accepts an invitation to go visit the scientist's mansion house for a party (of two people and two corpses) where the cutting of the birthday cake results in the cutting off of the sister's finger, triggering the most nightmarish part of the tale. This means the Hell's Angels basically, and the tone grows yet darker with the opening title card's promise this would be a "Grim Fairy Tale" being lived up to with deliberate dedication. Is this enjoyable? It's more interesting really, with its twisted Gothic Americana tone, but Marceau's fans would doubtless be intrigued. Music by Oscar-nominated Alex North.