The Unknown Man of Shandigor (1967 release, 2022 Blu-Ray)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: G.G. Graham is a cult film cryptid, horror hag, and exploitation film explorer of the dusty and disreputable corners of cinema history. The street preacher of Z-grade cinema can be found at Midnight Movie Monster, as well as writing for various genre sites and print publications, or on Twitter and Instagram @msmidnightmovie. Visit her blog at www.midnightmoviemonster.com and Twitter @msmidnightmovie.

The Unknown Man of Shandigor (L’Inconnu de Shandigor) was nearly one of the many films lost entirely to time. Director Jean-Louis Roy had had some sizable successes in Swiss television, including winning a prestigious Rose d’or award for the series Happy End in 1964. The Unknown Man Of Shandigor was his first fictional feature film, part of his goal to show that Swiss cinematography could hold its own on the world stage.

Despite respectable reviews of the film’s festival showings at Cannes and Locarno in the summer of 1967, Shandigor failed to garner wide distribution, vanishing into obscurity with little more availability than occasional poor quality copies pulled from European VHS. The film first reemerged at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival with a 4k restoration via the Cinémathèque suisse. Additional digital restoration work was done by boutique label Deaf Crocodile, who are also facilitating the film’s first United States/English language friendly release of any kind with a comprehensive Blu-Ray.

The Unknown Man of Shandigor opens with the biggest anxiety of its particular era, an atomic blast. The deadly blast is reversed, lethal force dissipated into a harmless bit of fog. Brilliant researcher Herbert Von Krantz (Daniel Emilfork, playing to type in a meatier than usual role) has invented a “canceller” formula, that can defuse all nuclear weaponry. 

Yet unlike most mad scientists, Von Krantz has no taste for fame, fortune or world domination. Instead, he offers the press flippant answers to their tedious questions, and retreats to his villa in the countryside. Keeping his secrets guarded are an impressive surveillance system, albino henchman Yvan (Marcel Imhoff), daughter Sylvaine (Marie-France Boyer), and the mysterious monster he keeps in the family pool. 

Dutiful Yvan is happy to assist his master in keeping the “canceller” hidden. Meanwhile, put upon Sylvanie pines for a normal life and Manual (Ben Carruthers), the handsome fiancee she was forced to leave behind in the resort town of Shandigor. Meanwhile, a massive influx of foreign agents is racing toward the villa, each group hoping to get their hands on the formula, and position their home country as the dominant power.

While the plot is firmly entrenched in B movie trappings, Jean-Louis Roy’s visual direction and Roger Bimpage’s stunning cinematography give the film a distinctly arthouse gloss. There are shades of Godard’s Alphaville in how the architecture of the film’s locations are used to create a unique aesthetic that feels like a distinct world of its own without any extravagant set dressing. Silent era referencing title cards and careful framing in static shots also recall the graphic geometry of Pop Art, rendered in crisp black and white. Alphonse Roy’s quirky scoring further supports the comic book tone. These varied points of reference blend better than one would expect, and overall effect is as if the luminaries of the French New Wave made a particularly delightful Saturday matinee serial.

This is not to say that Shandigor takes itself (or anything else) unduly seriously. There’s no artful dourness here, just a film drily spoofing the sort of international superspy cinema that was very popular at the time, while also mining the black comedy of Atomic Age anxieties. Not content to stop with monsters and mad scientists, all of the competing spy factions offer opportunities for even more layers of absurdity. 

In Shandigor‘s version of world espionage, rogue communist operatives that torture their captives with deadly soap foam and the decadence of capitalist rock music. Rogue divers are sent out a suicide mission that involves clothing that self destructs when pierced by bullets. A “master of disguise” gives a lecture on his many faces, which all just so happen to look like different actors. French music legend Serge Gainsbourg even pops up as the leader of a group of bald agents in matching turtlenecks, singing a delightfully daffy tribute to a fallen comrade called “Bye, Bye Mister Spy”. The fact that the film is so undeniably gorgeous helps the unapologetically silly comedy land via sheer contrast.

The Unknown Man of Shandigor is too niche to be properly called a lost masterpiece, as it is very specific to the era in which it was made, and is satirizing a subgenre that has long since fallen out of mainstream popularity. For viewers that have no fondness for any of the visual or contextual references at play here, Shandigor‘s over stuffed plot and off kilter humor will be more of a curio than a classic.

However, the work of boutique labels is often in service of films tailor made for niche audiences, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better match of careful restoration and cinematic chic than this particular movie. It’s also refreshing to see a secret agent parody that hasn’t ossified into kitsch, visually as dapper and debonair as its more serious counterparts. For the subset of eclectic souls (this reviewer included) who enjoy Jacques Demy and Danger: Diabolik, silent films and Serge Gainsbourg….The Unknown Man of Shandigor is a disc well worth seeking out.

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