Although it was never a box office hit, 'The Shadow' has built up a cult following over the years much in the same way that Disney's The Rocketeer has – although the story of Lamont Cranston is much darker in tone than that of Cliff Secord. This latest release of 'The Shadow' on Blu-ray – the second in less than a year – has been one fans of the film have been waiting for, primarily due to the fact that Universal delivered a seriously flawed transfer the first time around (the new and improved Shout! Factory transfer is detailed in our 'Video' section below). However, even though this proves to be a much better technical release of the movie, the fact remains that 'The Shadow' is not without its share of problems in terms of storytelling.
The movie is based on a character that made his first appearance on radio in 1930, as the narrator of 'The Detective Story Hour', a show that adapted stories from the pulp publication, 'Detective Story Magazine'. Listeners latched on to the character, and soon the magazine was publishing original stories featuring The Shadow, written by Walter B. Gibson. A popular radio series would follow in the late 1930s, featuring Orson Welles as Lamont Cranston, The Shadow's true identity (although other published stories and eventual comic books would have Cranston as just one of many of The Shadow's IDs).
Directed by Highlander's Russell Mulcahy and written by Jurassic Park's David Koepp, the 1994 film version of 'The Shadow' sticks primarily (although not exclusively) to the character as presented on the radio series. The major lift from the radio drama to the movie is The Shadow's (played, along with his alter-ego Cranston, by Alec Baldwin) ability to 'cloud' the minds of those around him. The movie also adds additional telekinetic powers to Cranston's abilities, such as being able to move objects with his mind – although we only really see that in the climax to the film.
The biggest addition to The Shadow's history in the 1994 film is Koepp giving him a backstory as to why he fights crime in the first place. Prior to the film, The Shadow's ability to cloud minds had been associated with his travels in the Far East, but never really expanded on. This film opens with a prologue that Cranston was actually a pretty evil warlord in Tibet until captured and turned over to a tulku (a Tibetan holy man), who informs Cranston he must spend the rest of his life fighting evil, and begins to train him in the methods that will result in him becoming 'The Shadow'.
The bulk of the film takes place in 1930s New York, where Shiwan Khan (the last descendant of Genghis, and played here by John Lone) has arrived and, armed with the same telekinetic powers as The Shadow, wants to fulfill his family's legacy of world domination by detonating a nuclear bomb in the city (no, the film never addresses the logic behind this – at least to my satisfaction). The movie is also peppered with a number of strong actors in supporting roles, including Penelope Ann Miller, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, Peter Boyle, and Jonathan Winters.
Visually speaking, 'The Shadow' is a treat for the eyes, filmed almost exclusively on Universal soundstages and using (again, almost exclusively) practical special effects and stunts. The actors are also well-cast, particularly Baldwin as Cranston/The Shadow, who brings both a boyish charm and a dark brooding to the role (it's hard not to watch him here and wonder how he might have tackled playing Bruce Wayne/Batman in an alternate career). Script-wise, however, 'The Shadow' is kind of all over the place, and while there are very good scenes spread out through the course of the movie, the sum is definitely less than its parts.
Still, despite the storytelling issues, there's a lot to like and admire about 'The Shadow', and it's not hard to understand why the film has retained a strong (albeit small) following over the years. Not long ago, Director Sam Raimi (who originally wanted to helm this 1994 version) planned to revive The Shadow with a brand-new movie, but nothing ever got off the ground, and in 2012, Raimi announced at the San Diego Comic Con that plans for a new movie were dead. So, who knows when we might see the character on the big screen again?
The Shadow knows….
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Shadow' appears on Blu-ray in a standard Elite keepcase, with no inserts. The reverse side of the box cover slick (seen from inside the case) features artwork from one of the movie posters used for promoting the film on the right side, with credits that appeared on that poster in larger print on the left side. The 50GB dual-layer disc is not front-loaded with any trailers and goes straight to the main menu after the Shout! Factory logo. The menu consists of a video montage of footage from the film, with selections along the bottom left corner of the screen. Some of Jerry Goldsmith's score plays over the main menu (along with Alec Baldwin's laughter as 'The Shadow').
Although I do not own (and therefore could not compare against) Universal's previous Blu-ray release of 'The Shadow', the prior HD version of the movie was apparently a huge mess, with over-sharpened footage, washed out colors, crushed blacks, and plenty of compression issues. That old Universal release was a VC-1 codec, no doubt prepped for the now-defunct HD-DVD format (although never released). Given that disappointing version, fans of the movie have been waiting to see if Shout! Factory's new MPEG-4 AVC transfer of the movie (which, like many Blu-ray releases, is listed as 1.85:1 on the box, but has actually been opened up to 1.78:1) would bring an improvement.
While far from perfect, I have the feeling that fans of 'The Shadow' are going to be quite pleased with this update. The new transfer does a decent job of retaining the look of the movie, while still providing the detail that one expects from HD. A healthy amount of grain is evident in every shot, so 'The Shadow' still maintains a very much film-like look to it. While the overall movie can appear soft in spots, fine details can also be seen, and viewers will be able to appreciate the lush backgrounds and production value that went into the making of the movie. Colors are well-balanced and retain the warm, slightly oversaturated look of the theatrical version. Skin tones are well-balanced throughout.
The biggest issue with the new transfer is that, while Shout! has improved the look of the movie, there's still noticeable dirt and defects on the print – most noticeable during daylight exteriors or well-lit scenes (which are actually few and far between in 'The Shadow', thankfully). While these print defects don't ever rise to the level of distraction, they are evident from time to time. Also, although the new transfer doesn't suffer from major crush issues, the overall softness of many scenes does lead to problems with shadow (pardon the pun!) delineation in some of the more dimly-lit sequences.
Overall, though – and again, without having actually seen the Universal release – this seems to be a big improvement over the last HD release of the movie, and certainly enough to warrant an upgrade for those who own the previous release.
I'm a sucker for 5.1 audio that has 'fun' with the track, and 'The Shadow's' English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track certainly provides a lot of that. In addition to being pretty immersive overall, the scenes that involve The Shadow talking to bad guys when they can't see him bounce around from speaker to speaker, so our hero sounds like he's in one part of the room, then another. The same can be said of gunshots in the film, which have a nice directionality to them, often ricocheting off a back speaker to a front one, or vice versa.
My only real issue with the audio is that sometimes the sound effects are a little louder than the spoken dialogue, causing the spoken word to come off as a little 'muddier' that it probably should be – or, at the very least, not being as crisp and clear as one might expect. However, that's my only minor complaint with an otherwise very-entertaining and rendered track.
In addition to the 5.1 track, Shout! has also provided an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track (although they failed to list it on the back box cover). English subtitles are also available.
Since both the prior Universal Blu-ray and the old DVD release of 'The Shadow' were bare bones, all the bonus materials on this set are exclusive to this version and are listed in our 'HD Bonus Content' section that follows.
Who knows if this new release of 'The Shadow' is worth adding to your home library? I know… and it certainly is. In addition to the transfer being a big improvement over Universal's lackluster Blu-ray release, viewers get a nice (albeit short) new featurette with brand-new interviews with the cast and crew. 'The Shadow' is still far from a perfect film, with its major faults being in the storytelling realm, but it looks like it has finally been given some justice in the HD format, which should please the fanbase. Recommended.