Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shanks; The Magician

Two movies I have waited literally decades to see played on TCM last weekend, and the wait was worth it. While one was worth watching, though a tad disappointing, the other turned out to be on the strangest movies I’ve ever seen.


The latter is “Shanks” (1974) the final directorial effort of William Castle. Truly one of the oddest and most unsettling films I’ve ever seen. It’s not for all tastes, but you can’t say it’s not unique. I found it fascinating.

Paramount distributed it back in the early 1970s, when they were living high off the hog on critical and commercial hits like “The Godfather” (1972) and “Chinatown” (1974). No way would any major studio release or distribute a film like “Shanks” today; they wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. The movie is virtually dialogue free, interspersed with intertitles like a silent movie introducing each act. There’s also a daring, almost avant garde musical score which would also never pass muster with today’s “let’s play it safe” studio mindset.

There’s only about 30 lines of dialogue in the film, not too surprising when the star is the famed mime Marcel Marceau. He has two roles, one of Malcolm Shanks, a puppeteer in a local carnival, and Old Walker, an eccentric inventor who invents a machine which can make inanimate objects move like a puppet. When Walker dies, Shanks takes the invention and uses it to animate corpses to make them move like real people – not realistically, but like puppets minus the strings.

Most of the movie is dialogue free, save for Shanks’ landlord relatives (who become test subjects for Shanks) and a budding romance between Shanks and a young local girl named Celia (Cindy Eilbacher). Celia looks to be all of about 13, which makes her relationship with the adult Shanks even more unsettling, and more than a little creepy..

The actors playing the corpses look to be professional mimes and their herky jerky movements are oddly beautiful and compelling. There is a violent third act, involving a motorcycle gang who home invades Shanks’ mansion while Shanks and Celia are having dinner. One anticipates Shanks using his animated corpses against the gang, and this occurs, though not in ways one expects. There is also an implied fate for Celia. I won’t spoil it, except to ask myself, “This got a PG rating?”

A huge plus is the aforementioned musical score by Alex North. North’s score earned an Oscar nomination for Best Score of 1974 and it is full of North’s trademarks: dissonant harmonies, haunting melodies, jazz elements and some Americana for the carnival scenes. Because so much of the film is silent, North’s score is responsible for carrying much of the action, and this it does brilliantly. So prominent is the music, that Paramount could have advertised it as a concert of Alex North’s music, and that wouldn’t be off the mark at all.

Never released on DVD, and I don’t think ever released on VHS, “Shanks” has been very hard to see since its debut. It was well worth watching.

The Magician

The other title was a silent horror film from 1926 called “The Magician.” I’ve been waiting to see this since the early 1970s, when I received as a birthday gift one of my first film books, “An Illustrated History of the Horror Film” by Carlos Clarens. The book contained several mouth watering stills from “The Magician”, including one of star Paul Wagener pouring from a laboratory beaker in a massive laboratory set, and a scene set in Hell with a young woman facing a bowing, near naked satyr while a leering Wagener looks on. What an impression those scenes made. Alas, the film was considered lost at the time.

A few years later I picked up at a local garage sale, a book called “The Ghouls” an anthology of short horror fiction and excerpts of novels that received cinematic treatment. (edited by Peter Haining, Stein and Day, 1971). The book contained an except from the novel “The Magician” by Somerset Maugham. Haining’s introduction to an excerpt from Maugham’s novel served to whet my appetite even further. Here’s what Haining had to say:

The history of the horror film is sadly dotted with examples of “lost” films – pictures which were made and then for some reason disappeared or were destroyed. Probably the most famous of these is The Magician, which was produced in 1926 by Rex Ingram, creator of such distinguished films as The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and Scaramouche.

The film of The Magician was based on the work of the same name by Somerset Maugham, which dealt in a thinly disguised fictional form with the activities of the notorious Black Magician Aleister Crowley, who performed ritual magic and animal sacrifice, indulged in drug taking and sex orgies and lived a life devoted to the premise of “evil for evil’s sake.” In Maugham’s story, Oliver Haddo – as Crowley is called – has “magical powers of extraordinary character” and frequently conducts “the blasphemous ceremonies of the Black Mass.” He is also said to be “attempting to create human beings” (shades of Frankenstein, no less).

Ingram had read the story shortly after its publication in 1908 and nurtured it in his mind for a film which he made in France in 1925-1926. So much of the plot rang true for Ingram (Crowley was still active at this time and often made newspaper headlines) that he was able to bring a vivid realism to the finished picture, introducing some fine episodes of Satanism and necromancy. However, these very elements caused the critics, almost to a man, to condemn the film as tasteless and vulgar. In a matter of a few years the three existing prints had disappeared and Ingram’s career was on the decline.

Reports of the picture which still exist (plus a pathetic handful of stills) indicate that the high point of the film was the mesmeric sequence in which Haddo introduces a young girl to the “delight” of devil worship through

Three existing prints had disappeared? Aargh! I figured it was another lost silent film I would never see. The lost status, however, was premature, and in the age of home video, the title began popping up in catalogs. Copies were also for sale at horror conventions, but word was the quality was lacking. Despite my interest in early horror films, I took a pass on this title, as I didn’t want to see it in a poor quality copy.

Imagine my delight when TCM posted it on their schedule, with the news it would have a newly commissioned score by Robert Israel.

Was the wait worth it? For the most part yes, though this is not a lost masterpiece. The film only runs about 76 minutes and it moves along pretty fast. Israel’s score uses familiar classical music, some which were also heard in “The Black Cat” (1934) and the Hades sequence is scored with “A Night on Bald Mountain.”

Oliver Haddo (Wagener) is obsessed with creating life. He finds a forbidden book with the successful formula for same, and said formula requires the blood of a maiden, preferably with blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes. Pretty Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry, wife of director Rex Ingram) fits the bill admirably. Haddo does hypnotize her and shows her visions of Hell in a short dream sequence. Tinted red, this is a pretty impressive sequence and Haddo looks like he’s wearing horns as the watches the hellish frivolity.

Haddo hypnotizes her to be his wife and takes her to his castle outside Monte Carlo, an elongated vertical structure which resembles the castle in James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). I won’t be giving anything but Haddo’s castle even explodes the same way it does in the Whale movie. Haddo even has a dwarf-like assistant. Some speculate that Whale must have been familiar with Ingram’s film as some of the laboratory scenes in Whale’s two Frankenstein movies echo those in “The Magician.”

Wagener is best known for playing the title role in “The Golem” (1920), and his oddly proportioned visage is a perfect fit for horror films.

In his introduction to the film, TCM host Robert Osborne says everyone assumed Maugham based Haddo on Crowley and Crowley thought the same thing. Crowley penned a letter to Vanity Fair Magazine decrying this notion, saying he should not be considered the Haddo character. How bizarre is that? Can you imagine an avowed Satanist today penning a letter to a magazine like Vanity Fair? Why, traditionalists would likely wail at the decline of morality. Back then, Jazz Age audiences were probably thrilled by it all.


Rick29 said...

Kevin, I really enjoyed these reviews (especially since I missed SHANKS). You know, William Castle made some pretty ho-hum movies (e.g., MACABRE), but also produced his fair share of very interesting ones like HOMICIDAL and, apparently, SHANKS.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Rick. I tend to enjoy William Castle movies, but I've never seen "Macabre." I'll take your word for it.

I did love John Goodman's director, obviously based on Castle, in Joe Dante's underrated "Matinee."

Rick29 said...

MACABRE isn't a bad movie...just not as good as others. But it had a fun gimmick: during its origina theatrical run, viewers received a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case they died of fright watching the pic.