Skip to main content

I dreamt I tore all the skin off my face and was somebody else underneath.

The Shadow
(1994)

(SPOILERS) Another of the 1990s’ perverse attempts to fashion successful movies from superhero properties with little appeal to the general public. The Shadow, like the later The Phantom, is set in the 1930s, and like that movie, the period setting is ultimately a hindrance. Not because director Russell Mulcahy is unable to evoke a period sensibility – he’s actually one of the picture’s strengths – but because there’s a persistent sense that all that can be afforded is the art direction, leaving a rather barren New York. It’s thus a visual reflection of David Koepp’s screenplay, one that offers little in the way of a developed environment or dynamic sensibility.

Producer Martin Bregman, best known for his crime fare – Serpico, Scarface, Sea of Love – had optioned Walter B Gibson’s pulp fiction character in 1982. By which point the character was more than half a century old and most famous for being voiced by Orson Welles, of course. So the question with this sort of material always ought to be: if it no longer retains a foothold in the public imagination (in contrast to the DC stable’s best), what can be done to make it appeal to a modern audience? No one seems to have worked that out with The Shadow, relying instead on a vague “Well, it influenced Batman, so there’s that”.

Bregman was angling for Robert Zemeckis to direct, but the guy who really wanted it was Sam Raimi; eventually, he channelled his yen into his own character, Darkman. Which made about the same as The Shadow, but came in at about a third of the price tag, meaning it was regarded as an unabashed hit (and duly spawned two straight-to-video sequels). Raimi’s visually excitable style, along with a present-day setting and giddy comic-book allure arriving so soon after Batman, made its reception all-round appealing to both critics and audiences. The Shadow, though, had everyone rather scratching their heads and asking “Why?”

The premise of the character – who had various iterations, abilities and aliases in the stories, on the page, radio and screen – is distinctive enough; he’s able to read thoughts and cloud men’s minds. Koepp, as is the screenwriter’s wont, came up with the movie’s atonement backstory, which is at least a different furrow for the average superhero to plough, although possibly also a little facile (in answer to “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” it’s the Shadow, as he has been evil himself). Lamont Cranston was written with Alec Baldwin in mind, it seems, and he’s generally a good fit for a period setting, even if his wig in the first scene (where he’s a drug lord in Tibet) is fooling no one. Baldwin’s fine, but what’s needed here is to make something indelible of the role, and he can’t.

Cranston’s New York posturing as a playboy type, once he’s returned to old haunts, will be familiar to all, though, and he has an uncle (Jonathan Winters) bemoaning his slack ways. Indeed, Mulcahy and Koepp set Lamont/the Shadow up reasonably intriguingly via his abilities and his manner, from laughing sinisterly to hoodwinking his victims. In tandem with De Palma cinematographer Stephen H Burum (Mulcahy was likely thinking of his work on The Untouchables, at least in part), the visuals are frequently memorable and lustrous, from the chiaroscuro effect when The Shadow sets to work on someone – notably his uncle: “You know, I think they just made up the Shadow so people would listen to the radio more” – to the use of split diopter.

Mulcahy diplomatically suggested he didn’t quite get what he wanted onto the screen, that Bregman “had a slightly different vision of the film than I did. So, for example, with the knife. I wanted that to come to life and be animated. And there was a bit of a struggle in trying to make the film, maybe, a bit more fantastic. I think he wanted to make more of a 40s retro romantic film. And so we did have some discussions about ‘we should add more fantasy into this film, more effect’" and “Yeah. I guess I wanted to make it a bit stranger. And I think he had a different vision. So I think there’s sort of a crash of visions”.

Some of Mulchay’s vision makes it into the finished movie, notably the almost Raimi-esque dream sequence, where Cranston ends up tearing off his face, and the exploding mirrors finale. On the other hand, Mulcahy can’t really do much to beef up a strictly pulp peril sequence where Cranston is on the verge of drowning in a flooding silo and must psychically call to Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller)

Curious too is the way in which the Shadow’s network of agents is really rather sinister; anyone he saves is henceforth indebted to him. They must wear his ring at all times, and keep him informed in respect of anything he requests. It’s all a bit mafia/masonic, complete with code phrases (“When you hear one of my agents say ‘The Sun is shining’ you will respond ‘But the ice is slippery’”).

Something that also can’t be understated is that, in terms of would-be iconic heroes, The Shadow is a bust. He was very much designed for radio, as movies go, and no one, absolutely no one, is going to see this movie on the basis that the hero he looks cool. However character-accurate the Shadow persona’s look may be, it’s an aesthetic no-go, rather resembling Ash with his overstretched features in Army of Darkness. I like the idea conceptually, but at the same time you’re left asking “Why the long face?”

The relationship between Lamont and Margo is set up effectively – she has psychic abilities such that his spell has no effect on her – but Miller rather manages to make the character on the annoying side. Margo isn’t far off the Willie Scott scale, leaving me pondering that there may be a reason none of Miller’s leads are very memorable, at least not in a performance respect. In direct contrast, John Lone (The Last Emperor) makes for a decent villain, even if his beard is less than mighty (there’s a problem with hair in this movie); Shiwan Khan – a recurring baddie in the stories – claims to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Unfortunately, Lone can do nothing to ameliorate Khan’s evil plan being pants.

Mulcahy was right to point to a problem here, although suggesting blowing up New York with an atomic bomb didn’t work because “we knew New York [laughing] didn’t blow up in the 1930’s with an atomic bomb. So it was weird” is worryingly restrictive reasoning and seriously underestimates audience suspension of disbelief (although, anyone unwilling to throw the Highlander II screenplay in the nearest bin immediately on reading it clearly has issues when it comes to judging material). No, the problem is that the scheme is derivative and lazy, and enacted in a mechanical fashion shorn of any suspense or intrigue.

Which rather means that Ian McKellen (as the bomb maker) isn’t best used in one of his early Hollywood outings (well, early in terms of his ’90s breakout). Tim Curry is cowardly, sweaty and spineless, and gives it his all as ever, but he doesn’t have much of a part either. Indeed, the movie wastes a mostly strong supporting cast that includes Peter Boyle, Andre Gregory and James Hong (Ethan Phillips only gets one scene, so there’s an upside).

There are a few nice ideas are thrown in: a hotel disguised in plain sight through mass hypnosis; the final fate of Khan by way of the removal of a section of his frontal lobe: “It’s the part nobody ever uses – unless you believe in telepathy”. But The Shadow is mostly prevented from becoming a truly worthy cult because Koepp failed to deliver on the script front. That would be a problem with most of Mulcahy’s ’90s projects, but this one proved particularly crucial, as he stopped getting the calls about big studio fare soon thereafter. Instead, he drifted towards TV, as did many of his peer group (this included an impressive tally of forty episodes of Teen Wolf). I was firmly in Mulcahy’s corner ever since Highlander, no matter how many Highlander IIs he bloiked up; he was a former music video director who continued to attempt creative flourish, no matter how unimaginative his producers were. You can see that in The Shadow, even if the movie as a whole is a something of a disappointment.


Popular posts from this blog

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un