Every now and then, I watch a movie that makes me lament that I am no longer actively writing Vault of Secrets columns or working on another volume of Monsters from the VaultShanks is definitely one of those movies.

Some time ago, I decided to try to watch some of the other films of William Castle that I hadn’t yet seen, specifically the ones that come after those contained in Indicator’s brilliant twovolume William Castle at Columbia boxed sets.

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I started with Shanks, his final film as director, because I was fascinated by its logline. A showpiece for famed mime Marcel Marceau, Shanks sees Marceau playing dual roles – a deaf and unspeaking puppeteer, the eponymous Malcolm Shanks, and “Old Walker,” an eccentric scientist who invents a kind of galvanic machine to “puppeteer” dead bodies via remote control.

Old Walker hires Shanks as an assistant, only to die shortly after they have begun their experiments. After a nasty run-in with his wicked step-sister (Tsilla Chelton) and her alcoholic husband (Philippe Clay), Shanks decides to reanimate Old Walker using the same galvinic machine.

Because this is a borderline horror movie – the opening titles call it a “grim fairy tale,” and the film is heavily stylized, think Edward Scissorhands nearly two decades before – things go badly from there, and before long Shanks has a couple of other bodies to puppeteer around.

These bodies are, naturally, the centerpiece of the film, and the physical performances of Marceau and the other two actors playing puppeteered corpses is nothing short of mesmerizing. Their movements are played for comedy more often than not, but the sequence in which Shanks first reanimates Old Walker is a showstopper that reminds us of why horror films should – and often do – rely heavily on mimes, dancers, and the like.

In spite of this and a later sequence in which Old Walker comes out of the grave, Shanks is largely absent any of Castle’s “shock” scenes or usual gimmicks – but that isn’t to say that this is any less a Castle film. It just shares more in common with pictures like his version of The Old Dark House13 Frightened Girls, or Zotz! than House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler.

In fact, Castle does some genuinely impressive work here. Though it is a “talkie,” Shanks is built around Marceau’s silent performance as Malcolm Shanks – and the mummery of him and the other performers as animated corpses. As such, it is often filmed like a silent movie, complete with intertitles.

Though there isn’t a lot of dialogue, the use of sound is frequently incredible. The score by Alex North, was nominated for an Academy Award. It was also made up, partly, of his rejected score for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The music works like gangbusters, but it isn’t alone. All of the sound work is excellent. See a sequence in which the laugh track to a sitcom on TV is synced to the events in the film perfectly.

What prompted me to write this post about Shanks was that, when I posted briefly about it on social media, I was met with a litany of variations on “why have I never heard of this before?”

It isn’t exactly a lost gem, necessarily – it’s uneven and awkward and has a number of other problems that I’ll get into in a minute – but it is definitely a film that more people should have at least heard of. And, like most Castle films, in spite of its myriad problems, I loved it.

So, those problems. It’s uneven, like I said. The last reel of the film takes a hard left turn into some kind of PG-rated Last House on the Left territory, including an implied sexual assault on a young girl. Even before that, though, the semi-romantic relationship between fifty-something Marceau and said sixteen-year-old girl is already cringey in the extreme.

The magic of Shanks comes from its heavily stylized approach and from its incredible physical performances – and, yeah, a little bit from that macabre fairy dust that Castle seems able to sprinkle on even the most humdrum of his films.

As for why more people haven’t heard of Castle’s swan song, I couldn’t say. But they should. It’s a genuinely odd entry in an altogether odd canon. I watched it on VOD, but Olive Films apparently released a Blu-ray that I haven’t seen, so I can’t comment on. I would love it if Indicator decided to continue their run of Castle boxed sets with a few of these later films from his oeuvre.

(The quote that I used in the title of this post comes from William Makepeace Thackeray and is used as a coda to the film.)

 

As any attentive reader already knows, I got sick on my birthday, which was twelve days gone now. I’m still sick. Most of the other symptoms have lessened with time, but I am stuck with a persistent cough that is painful, frustrating, and exhausting. Worse still, it won’t let me sleep.

This sleep issue is, at present, my chief concern. I’m also supposed to record for a podcast early next week, which could be … interesting, given how much coughing I’m still doing.

My second greatest concern is that tonight is Analog Sunday. This may seem a small concern compared to not sleeping, and, indeed, it is. But at the same time … this cold already functionally robbed me of one Halloween; Analog was something of a second chance.

About a week ago, I attempted to reason with this illness, offering it whatever it is that colds want in exchange for being gone by today so that I could go watch a movie about killer scarecrows projected off of a VHS tape. I have my priorities, after all.

Sadly, the pestilence has proven obdurate, and so now we are at an impasse. At this point, if I go to Analog, it will be to spite the malady, and not because I actually feel well enough to do so.

Also, I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, apparently, though I don’t know how much my fellow Analog habitues would appreciate me coughing sporadically throughout the picture.

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A few years ago, I did a thing where I picked a movie that would make a good double-feature with one of the stories in my then-newest collection, Painted Monsters. This year, for the Countdown to Halloween, I thought it might be fun to do the same thing, but with my now-newest collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

The final story in Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales acts as a bookend with the first story. Here, another narrator who is a thinly fictionalized version of me goes on a trip that has to do with film. In this case, it’s a trip back to his home town, which is, of course, a thinly fictionalized version of my own home town. The Gorka Theatre was really called the Gregg Theater, and as far as I know it’s still there, though it’s probably less accursed than the one in this story.

Because the narrator of “When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars” is a film writer, he talks a lot about film in the course of the story, and even the title is lifted from a really good 2014 flick called Black Mountain Side, which I highly recommend, even if you don’t pair it with this story.

For all that there are several cinematic references in “When a Beast,” there is one that seems more obvious to pair with it than the others. I make a very specific reference to one particular scene in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, which is one of my favorite Hammer flicks.

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But even that’s not the film I’m actually going to suggest for tonight, Halloween night, to go along with the last story in Guignol. Instead, I’m going to suggest a movie that I hadn’t even seen when I wrote this story. Norman J. Warren’s 1976 film Satan’s Slave not only involves the kind of low-rent goat-headed black mass that these kinds of stories demand, but it has the added family Satanism angle to make it all the more apt a companion piece.

If you haven’t seen it or The Devil Rides Out, watch both and make it a double-feature!

As I write this, it’s my birthday, October 30, 2019. At least it is for another few hours. This year, I promised myself that I would do Halloween all the way to the hilt if it killed me in October. And I did. And it looks like maybe it did.

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Art by HamletMachine

No, it’s nowhere near that bad. I was hoping to have a few friends over and maybe watch a movie or two this evening, but unfortunately this morning I woke up with a sore throat and as the day wore on I began to feel more and more under the weather, so I just stayed in and drank tea and didn’t do much besides work today.

Which is okay, because I had a lot of work that needed to get done before the month was over and also because it started to snow today, anyway. Plus, if I’m going to get sick on Halloween, which is the pits, at least I didn’t get sick earlier in the month when I had ten thousand various social obligations to be met.

Knowing I was going to be exhausted, even if I was otherwise fine, I was already planning for a relatively low-key birthday/Halloween, so this works out, even if I’d still rather not get sick, thanks.

It’s been a good month. I had lots of work to do, some of it more fun than others. I saw a lot of movies in local theatres and even hosted a few of them.

I got to show two of my very favorite William Castle/Vincent Price flicks to packed houses, which was an absolute joy. I saw Goblin perform live not once but twice. I kept up my yearly tradition of going to the Nerdoween triple feature and even added in Dismember the Alamo for the first time. I went out to a local haunted house in Independence with my buddies from Magnetic Magic and Forever Bogus. I did a reading at Afterword Tavern & Shelves.

So far this month, I’ve only watched 28 movies. I’d have to watch three movies between now and midnight tomorrow to average out to a movie a day for all 31 days which is… unlikely, but not inconceivable. I guess we’ll just have to see.

It probably depends, more than anything, on how I feel when I wake up tomorrow. As of right now, though, if I’m too sick to do any Halloweening whatsoever tomorrow, I think I’ll still chalk this October up as a win. And I’ve learned some valuable lessons for next time…

A few years ago, I did a thing where I picked a movie that would make a good double-feature with one of the stories in my then-newest collection, Painted Monsters. This year, for the Countdown to Halloween, I thought it might be fun to do the same thing, but with my now-newest collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

“The Cult of Headless Men” is another story that has an obvious cinematic antecedent. The whole thing got started because of The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, a creaky 1959 favorite of mine.

To say how the two tie together would be to delve into spoilers for the weird flick that are perhaps better discovered on your own, if you haven’t already seen it, but suffice it to say that I borrowed the title wholesale from the movie.

Originally, this novelette was nothing more than a fragment that I had written for Michael Bukowski, who approached me and several other authors to contribute our own forms for Nyarlathotep. However, I liked the ideas present in the fragment, and eventually expanded it into an actual story.

To do so, I brought in Kirby Marsh, the film producer grandfather of the protagonist of the title story from Painted Monsters. Once I had a film producer, of course he needed to be working on some films, taking over an English manor house to produce some quick-to-market horror schlock to compete with the likes of Hammer.

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So, while The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake still may be the ideal pairing with “The Cult of Headless Men,” it could also be set alongside just about any British horror film of the era. Except that many of them, the Hammer films especially, might have a little too much class for a Kirby Marsh production. For that vibe, maybe try Norman J. Warren’s 1978 film Terror, in which a film production about witches in an English manor house is plagued by actual witchcraft.

A few years ago, I did a thing where I picked a movie that would make a good double-feature with one of the stories in my then-newest collection, Painted Monsters. This year, for the Countdown to Halloween, I thought it might be fun to do the same thing, but with my now-newest collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

This is a story that has an obvious cinematic counterpart, but that movie doesn’t actually exist. This story, which was written for Ross E. Lockhart’s Eternal Frankenstein anthology, owes its origins to Willis O’Brien’s failed attempts to make a King Kong vs. Frankenstein flick.

The sketches and such for that film served as the inspiration for this one’s aesthetic, though I obviously went pretty far afield with them before all was said and done. There are monsters in here from the lost spider pit sequence in the original King Kong as well as The Black Scorpion, which I believe, without evidence, borrowed some of those same models for its cave sequences.

Obviously, just about any stop-motion film can be paired with this story and you’ll get the right general idea, and for some of the kinds of sci-fi imagery that you’ll see on the Phantom Planet itself, try Harryhausen’s First Men in the Moon. If I had to pick one film to pair with “Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet,” though–one film that actually exists, that is–I’d probably have to go with The Son of Kong.

There’s a reason I credited O’Brien’s fictional protege from the story with having worked on this delightful and too-often-overlooked sequel that came out later the same year as its predecessor, after all.

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A few years ago, I did a thing where I picked a movie that would make a good double-feature with one of the stories in my then-newest collection, Painted Monsters. This year, for the Countdown to Halloween, I thought it might be fun to do the same thing, but with my now-newest collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

The obvious answer here is The Last Starfighter, right? But I’m gonna be honest and say that I haven’t seen The Last Starfighter in a very, very, very long time. For something kinda similar but more in my immediate memory, try Joe Dante’s Explorers from the following year.

You know a movie that probably doesn’t seem too obvious but that hangs over the writing of “Invaders of Gla’aki” as much as any other? The Dark Crystal. When I was the age of the protagonists, living in more-or-less the same trailer park they occupy, walking up the road to play Street Fighter II at the gas station, I had a copy not of the movie The Dark Crystal, but a floppy, illustrated book version with art by Bruce McNally.

I’m not necessarily saying that The Dark Crystal makes a good companion piece to the sci-fi tinged “Invaders of Gla’aki,” just kinda telling an anecdote. Here’s a better recommendation for a double-feature with this story: The Gate.

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Yeah, yeah, the video game stuff isn’t there, nor is the spaceship stuff, but I think the kid stuff is, and the desperation that comes with trying to deal with things that are way outside anything you’ve been emotionally prepared to handle. Plus, that sequence near the end of The Gate, when whatever-it-is gets into his hand, there’s a little bit of that in “Invaders,” right? Maybe?