(1994, rated PG-13) Alec Baldwin (Lamont Cranston), John Lone (Shiwan Khan), Penelope Ann Miller (Margo Lane), Peter Boyle (Moses “Mo” Shrevniz), Ian McKellen (Dr. Reinhardt Lane), Tim Curry (Farley Claymore), Johnathan Winters (Wainright Barth), Sab Shimono (Dr. Roy Tam), James Hong (Li Peng), Ethan Phillips (Nelson). Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Screenplay: David Koepp. Director: Russell Mulcahy. 107 minutes.
Tags: Mystery, Golden Age Hero, Campy, Comic Book Character
Notable: Ethan Phillips, before he was Neelix on Star Trek: Voyager; Johnathan Winters in a non-comedic role (at least, not intentionally comedic).
From the old radio dramas of Orson Wells and the pulp fiction and comics of the Golden Age comes this popcorn treat of a guilty pleasure. Lamont Cranston, wealthy playboy-about-town, returns after a seven-year disappearance, now possessing the power to cloud men’s minds so that they cannot see anything but that which he cannot conceal: His shadow. Unknown to most, he was a ruthless ruler of an Eastern drug cartel, until he was called to redeem himself by learning to train his mind and use his knowledge of man’s darkness to capture and turn those who are yet redeemable.
This is the stuff of the old-style comic book hero, and the film is a faithful reproduction of that feel and sense. The CGI-produced backgrounds are terrible, as they’re meant to be: It’s like the background drawings in the old comics, when they had to be churned out hard and fast for the next story to be thrown to the howling demands of their readers. Some of the dialog goes a step beyond “corny” and into the realm of classic schlock. Some of the performances – nearly all, actually – go over the top in precisely the right way to maintain the sense that you’re watching a comic book that has come to life. Where else could you find that the last descendant of Genghis Kahn has survived into the 1930s, found a way to New York, and plans to take over the world?
The entire film is fabulously campy. Alec Baldwin lets fly with a demoniacal laugh that’s almost too good to be true; when you hear it, you know that the Shadow is about to hit the fan. Tim Curry is the perfect slick-haired lothario who lacks only a pencil-thin moustache to take the role completely out of the ballpark. Penelope Ann Miller makes the perfect cross between Damsel in Distress and the Hero’s Rock (the person to help him remember why he’s fighting the evil both within and without) and is a part-time sidekick besides. Ian McKellen’s role is so blank-faced that you wonder if he’s recreating his role as Ash in Alien, but that’s how the story’s written: He’s under Kahn’s control. And John Lone (his first role was as the title character of the movie Iceman) is brilliantly in control of his role from start to finish. Everyone is set to provide a wonderful schtick-filled romp through an entertaining story. All I was waiting for was for Alec Baldwin to screw up his face and scream a Shatnerian “KAAAAAAAHN!” In this, I was disappointed.
David Koepp is ranked as the “fifth most successful screenwriter of all time, in terms of box-office receipts,” says Box Office Mojo. Writer for films like Jurassic Park 1 & 2, Stir of Echoes, Spider-Man, and Mission: Impossible, he probably best prepared for this film with his background of having penned Death Becomes Her. The off-beat wit and completely taken-as-writ camp of the situation shows up here in mixed tribute to the original stories and productions that he was imitating. The story is his own, inspired primarily by the novels, but with the melodramatic tone of the old Orson Wells radio shows, which producer Martin Bregman remembered with great fondness. Director Russell Mulcahy kept this tone throughout, and it’s a wonderful indulgence. There are scenes that truly feel as if comic book panels have suddenly come to life.
Like The Rocketeer and The Phantom, this film has received mostly negative reviews, popularly (Rotten Tomatoes gave it a “36% fresh” aggregate rating). Some critics described it as “forgettable,” although Roger Ebert gave it a positive review. As might be expected, support and popularity of this film is most notable among its cult following, who have managed to keep it alive and kicking, first on VHS, then DVD. Playing all three of the aforementioned films would make a perfect night of True Schlock (are you reading, LeiLani?). Keep the popcorn flowing, kick back, and enjoy your guilty pleasure. It’s worth it.