However, some bad movies aren't really all that bad. They just have a bad rap (and rep) due to the untold number of poor reviews by others (who either are looking at it too critically, or plain just don't "get it").
Some bad movies are so bad that the develop a core fan-base and cult following.
Some bad movies are so bad that people come up with rules for drinking games to better facilitate their enjoyment of the film.*
Some bad movies are so bad that they're... well,... good!
The 1978 made-for-TV pilot movie of DR. STRANGE is ALL of these things.
It's a bad movie from the respect that it's not a polished feature film, with the budget and all the perks that might permit.
However, it's a great movie when seen in comparison to it's contemporary "made-for-tv" films of the 1970's. Especially when you single out the various super-hero / sci-fi / fantasy offerings of which this is a genre-mate.
Compare this to the TV versions of Captain America or Captain Marvel.
Heck, even compare this to the pilot film for the Wonder Woman series.
While Wonder Woman's series was all kinds of wonderful (although Lynda Carter certainly helped. Nuff said!), it was only after it became a full-fledged series. The pilot movie? Not so much.
This, Dr. Strange flick, was of a different breed altogether; dealing with subjects and calling for effects that the average television film hardly dared approach (and the average television viewer most likely would hardly understand).
Viewed, in that light; while this film is indeed cheesy... it's a well-made cheese.
Neither stinky nor runny, instead fairly tasty and well formed (and perfect with a glass of wine - so sit back and enjoy).
What follows is more than a review, but less than a breakdown of the entire film.
I try to point out things that fellow fans might appreciate, and draw attention to elements that casual viewers would find of interest.
It's recommended that you'll also read the supplemental information provided in my previous posts HERE (the swag) and HERE (the film itself).
From the opening sequence and the discordant strings playing ominously in the background I got an overall sense for the b-movie about to play before my eyes.
I must confess, that as the Dr. Strange window design and specially designed logo light up the screen, I always get a charge of mild excitement.
As the opening credits and their assorted backdrop images come into and out of focus, one gets the sensibility of hackneyed mysticism and horror that was at work, like whomever set forth the design specs for every seance-room, or curio shoppe, was at work.
Needless to say, I have a deep affection and affinity for such places, and as such, was ready to soak in the cheesy goodness.
Director Philip DeGuere had me held; a willing captive.
The movie's opening scene is, for lack of another name, the "Dark Dimension" and the floating island landscape where the villainous Morgan Le Fay dwells.
The broken pathways and islands are akin to Steve Ditko's original designs for the otherworldly planes of existence where many of Doctor Strange's nemeses rule.
The demonic entity who reigns supreme in this otherworld is left nameless.
I will say that as opposed to many other reviewers, I have always found this baddie, a bit of stop motion puppetry, to be nothing short of awesome.
This creature, bathed in mists and smoke and red hues has several sets of eyes (at times, 4 separate pairs of eyes are shown,) glowing and glowering from his/it's shadowy countenance. Burning with baleful brilliance.
The thin slit of a mouth barely moves, but the commanding words (voiced by David Hooks) that emanate from it are enough to give pause to any who hear.
With rough and textured flesh and a head that appears to emit smoke and fire, this entity seems more like a smouldering volcano ready to erupt; a mountain given animus.
Perhaps, it is in this method, that the producers were trying to emulate the basic "feel" of the comic-version of same; Dormammu.
I've read reviews wherein he is likened to being one of the worst special effects ever set to film. To those people I say: "You have no joy in your heart."
The exposition comes pretty fast as we discover that Morgan (played as a sexy succubus, by Jessica Walter) is given a chance to redeem herself, from a failure she suffered 500 years prior, when she could not defeat the primary earthly sorcerer (the "Sorcerer Supreme"?) in order to pave the way for the "Nameless One".
Now, charged with the task of defeating that centuries-old sorcerer (named Lindmer) or destroying his chosen successor (Dr. Stephen Strange) she is once again to usher in the age of darkness so that her master can feast upon the souls of man.
However, due to constraints of cosmic alignments (or simply to make it fit within a 95 minute movie) she has only three days in which to do so.
Luckily, the "nameless one" gives her everything but a roadmap in order to locate the old man and his erstwhile disciple.
The rest is up to her to try to succeed, and the "Ancient One" and Dr. Strange to try to defeat her.
There are several divergent aspects to this film from it's 4-color source material;
WONG (played by Clyde Kusatsu):
Wong is an Americanized "Asian-American". Suit-wearing, and well-spoken, without a hint of accent or Chinese cliche. Gone are the green and gold comic-style kung-fu type garments. Also gone is the "man-servant" aspect of the character, with this Wong being a "student and a friend" to the Sorcerer Supreme, not a servant.
That's a good step in the right direction.
Even though I would appreciate having a man-servant, as any good academia-oriented (absent minded professor) type would almost require someone to keep them fed and brought forth from the texts and studies every now and again, there's nothing keeping a "friend and student" from doing those things, avoiding the pitfalls of indentured servitude.
If addressed in an adult manner, it can easily be explained that oftentimes acolytes choose to serve great and holy men, and as such, follow a higher calling.
However, the 1970's, the plight of rights (civil and equal) in the country were an evolving-topic, so the producers (rightly) sidestepped that subject altogether.
The reasoning for which Wongs calls The Ancient One; "Master" is made clear: a sign of respect and deference for what the old sorcerer has taught and shown to him.
Oftentimes, (in times past) a pupil or apprentice would call his superior; "Master".
Another divergent aspect for Wong in this adaptation is that, as a student, he seems to have learned some spells, as he is shown casting spells defending against and attacking Morgan Le Fay.
That he isn't powerful enough to do much against her is proper.
Perhaps, it is here that recent comic writers found inspiration for giving Wong minor spell-casting abilities.
Either way, it's a logical manifestation that a character who serves a Sorcerer would in time learn a thing or two in his service.
Oh... one other minor note; this Wong has a full head of hair and a pencil mustache.
"ANCIENT ONE" aka; Lindmer (masterfully portrayed by Sir John Mills):
The "americanizing" of characters didn't stop at Wong, for here, the "Ancient One" (named Thomas Lindmer in the film) is a British-American (or at least Britisher-living-in-the-US).
This move strikes me as unnecessary, as in the 1970's, with the success of shows like "Kung Fu", the Martial Art's infusion of pop culture and the advent of Yoga being a phenomenon, the Eastern ways and beliefs were all the rage.
Was it seen that American audiences would be more likely to accept a wise old "Merlin"-type, than a yogi? Had the Eastern-fad begun to run it's course by 1978? Might that be why an Anglo-saxon angle was chosen with the film's villainess as well?
Whether or not that is true, the name "Lindmer" is easily seen as a rearrangement of the name "Merlin". Lin [d] Mer / Mer - Lin.
Still, this Ancient One is much the same as the comic-version in that his powers are on the wane, he needs to find a successor and that he is a repository for soft-spoken wisdom.
STEPHEN STRANGE (swaggeringly acted by Peter Hooten):
This Stephen Strange is a slacker, horn-dog. But a caring, slacker, horn-dog. Constantly on the make, perpetually late, and smooth-talkin', these traits could theoretically be seen as consistent with the pre-Mystic Strange, however the caring aspect is different. Instead of an egotistical, avaricious son-of-a-bitch, this Strange actually cares for the lower-margin patients that he treats in a county hospital.
The biggest change from the comic roots is that in this, Dr. Strange's origin is not hinged upon his having an accident that robs him of his surgeon's skills, forcing him to trek to the mountains of Tibet for a mystic healer.
Neither is he forced to redeem himself in order to become a mystic pupil. Instead, here, he encounters his destiny while chasing down a way to actually help one of the patients (Clea) in his care.
Another obvious divergence is that he is not a surgeon (neuro, brain, general or other such attributed specialty from the comics). In this film he's a Psychiatrist.
Perhaps that is also a by-product of the times, as "shrinks" were far more prominent at the time, with the loosening of society's stigma against any "weak-minded" who might seek out a "head-shrinker", than they had been in prior decades.
One might wonder, like the supposition with Wong's spell-casting, that this film might be where Brian Bendis found the choice of specialty for Stephen for the "recent" House-of-M storyline.
Facially; general bone-structure as well as mustache accoutrement, Hooten looks a bit like his character's comic-book namesake. The mild man-fro he sports, on the other hand... not so much. Hooten also carries the role with a wink and a nod, half cockiness / half 70's tv movie cheesiness.
One thing that he does have going for him is the deep baritone timbre of his voice.
I can certainly imagine his using it to call forth the cosmic entities for power... or hittin' on the ladies.
CLEA LAKE (played by the beautiful Eddie Benton [later Anne-Marie Martin]):
This is the biggest alteration from the comic origins. As opposed to the complicated "princess of another Dimension", Clea is now a normal human young woman. A college student who falls victim to the powers of Morgan Le Fay and is used as a pawn in the battle against Earth's mystic protectors.
The plot, such as it is, is the usual basic "mystical barriers are crumbling and the ancient evils are about to cross over" that has been a staple for many mystic-oriented films as well as many Doctor Strange comics.
It's hardly original or thought-provoking, but it gets the general audiences on board fairly easily.
One of my personal gripes with this film, is the oft-repeated "Stephen Strange as the 'Chosen One' ".
As far as I can recall, this film is the first instance of such an origin alteration.
Perhaps, like the Wong-as-magic-user and Doc-as-Psychiatrist aspects, this "chosen one" angle was taken from this film by modern comic writers.
It's unknown if this film is or isn't the direct source for such reinterpretations, and without interviewing many such writers as to the source of their inspiration for said origin, it will most likely remain so.
One of the drawbacks to the film is that the majority of it is "talky" and less action-oriented than a "super-hero" movie would be expected to be. It is heavy on the dialogue to progress the story and reliant upon settings to give any sense of progression of narrative, but that is primarily due to the fact that Universal was trying to produce a Dr. Strange movie with neither the budget nor the state of special effects at the time anywhere near where they would have to be to do it right.
How ironic, that in the medium of comic books, in the 1970's Dr. Strange was at his most phantasmagorical, but his film was stagnant, while today, with all the digital wonders of coloring and art enhancements, the writing of nearly ALL comics (including some where Dr. Strange features) are all too "talky" and less action-oriented (and hopefully, any new film treatment should be a visual treat).
Could this be another case of today's comic writers following this film's lead?
(OK. I doubt it, too. But it is a striking series of similarities, is it not?)
All of the actors turn in believable performances, with veterans John Mills and Jessica Walter setting the bar. Eddie Benton as Clea does an excellent job with her wide range of complex mental states and the various moods, emotions and responses that they entail. Peter Hooten, sadly, is the weakest performer of the cast, as he fluctuates from swaggering and smirking Doctor to wooden and stiff Sorcerer. The worst part of his performance (and it is most likely partially Director Philip DeGuere's fault) is that on several occasions, Strange stares with a manic intensity when there's really no cause for him to do so.
The supporting actors do their jobs admirably.
Most especially Philip Sterling as Dr. Frank Taylor and Diana Webster as the Head Nurse. You're not supposed to like these characters, and most assuredly, the performances by these actors made me loathe them.
Dr. Taylor is the prototypical "out-of touch" Department-Head. The boss you have who you know has no business being in charge of anything.
Nurse Webster is that mid-level Administrator every office-environment has, who lords what little power they have over others, and wields it like a barbed-wire garrote.
Both of them, smarmy and disdainful of the plebs subservient to them... pitch perfect performances.
I always feel badly for an actor whose job it is to make the audience despise them.
Hopefully, they can take comfort that my hatred for their characters is a testament to their performances.
Special note should be given to the voice-actors who portray the demons and gods of the film's mythology:
David Hooks as the evil "Nameless One".
Ted Cassidy (most famously known as "Lurch" on the Addams Family) as the Demon Balzaroth.
Michael Ansara as the good godlike entity; "Rael" (although the unofficial credits have him listed as "Ancient One").
One of the real stars of this film is the Sanctum Sanctorum!
Having a very prominent place as a primary setting, both the interior and exterior are shown to great effect and detail.
With all the bells, books and candles expected of such a mystic's refuge, it had many bold and interesting design choices.
The organic-looking freeform stone archways and wall surfaces, as well as the (quite literally) odd pieces of decor, as if the prop department threw everything they had in their inventory into the place (including the kitchen-cauldron), the Sanctum was a character unto itself.
One of the boldest design elements is the large wood-carving adorning the mantle-piece.
Whether it was intended to be so recognizable as Blake's work, or the set designers didn't think anyone would be able to place it is unknown.
It smacked this viewer upside the head with its obvious Blake influence (along with one of the credit-title boards from the opening sequence).
However, since Blake usually portrayed scenes of a magical, mystical or mythological nature, it felt a perfect fit for the film.
It's number had changed, however, from # 177A of the comics to a simple # 22.
Also, the cross-street has been altered from the fictional Fenno Place to the very real Greenwich Street (perhaps as a tip of the hat to the comic book setting of Greenwich Village) which is indeed a street in Greenwich Village.
Interestingly enough, in the real world, Greenwich Street and Bleecker Street never meet.
For awhile, they run parallel to each other, gradually coming closer together. However, just before where they would possibly meet, Bleecker ends and merges with Hudson Street, which continues running parallel to Greenwich.
Eventually, Greenwhich turns into 9th Avenue, as does Hudson, right where they eventually unite.
I think it needless to say that if you're a fan of Doctor Strange, you'd love to live in (or at least pay a visit to) this house.
The other interior settings are "dated" and yet not. With beaded curtains and bold patterned prints and ubiquitous beige, brown and blue color schemes (not that the hospital appears dated as even today, every hospital decor I've seen seems to be perpetually frozen in that timeframe), those "classic" touches do nothing to reduce the believability of the settings, as many such design flourishes have returned. Clea's college apartment looks like any college student's apartment today.
Some of the winding back streets that surround the Sanctum Sanctorum are very much like a few in the deeper parts of the Greenwich Village / Bowery area, where the older streets are not strictly set in grid-like perfection, but have some twisting and turning to them.
The ending sequence takes place in Washington Square park, which is merely a few blocks away from the supposed location of the Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village.
One of the film's plot points is the ring of which Strange is the bearer.
The overall representations of magic in this film are fairly low-end, with one or two possible exceptions.
Besides some colorful (and color coded, as RED = EVIL and GOLD = GOOD) mystic bolts, consuming fire, teleportation and transmogrification, most of the so-called magic is spoken word only. The primary one being;
"In the Name of Rael, Scourge of Demons, I command you, Begone!"
This, being quite literal, causes the offending demon to retreat.
The other, more subtle vocal magic, is Lindmer's "Obi-Wan Kenobi"-like "Jedi-mind tricks", wherein he softly speaks, with a minor hand gesture added, what he wants his target to say and do, and they, in turn, say and do it.
It's a minor thing, but, much like Sir Alec Guinness the year prior to him, Mills pulls it off with aplomb. It must be an English "Sir" thing.
The exception to the mystic zaps and basic incantations are the transportation spells; one for teleportation and the other for astral travel and the aforementioned transmogrification.
The one example of transmogrification is a scene wherein Morgan Le Fay, having taken the form of a black cat in order to infiltrate her enemy's place of power, changes back into a woman.
There was a scene in one of the Harry Potter films where a female Professor (McGonagall) transforms via magic into her Animagus form of a cat.
That recent scene had the benefit of enhanced digital effects wizardry.
Morgan Le Fay's transformation here is of a much more basic variety.
Starting off with the cat deeply shrouded in a darkened corner, the camera moved away for a split second, and then back again, so that the cat can be replaced by a shadowy (stuffed animal?) head with glowing eyes on a pole. The pole with the eyes and head are then gradually raised higher and higher into the air, with some kind of drapery flowing behind it, to show that now it is a mixture of cat and woman. Finally the head with the glowing eyes, having been raised up to full height, and as the camera switches it's focus again, when it returns we see the glowing eyes are now Morgan's as she stands before us all in full (and foxy) female form.
A cheesy effect, and one that could have been done better, even for a made-for-tv film on a strict budget.
The transportation spell effects are as diametrically opposed to each other as can be, with the "special" effect for each being on the far sides of the budgetary yardstick.
Teleportation is achieved simply by filming a character standing before a backdrop, stopping film, letting the actor walk off screen, and then resuming filming of the backdrop. In effect, one second they're on-screen, then the next, "poof", they're not. Not even a puff of smoke or lighting change accompanies the "vanishing". Just a quick "shwoosh" of sound.
Astral travel is a much more ambitious visual treat, with a swirling miasma of shadows, lights and colors in a tunnel. The effect that one is traveling down a narrow wormhole between dimensions.
The positioning of the astral traveler on a wire harness in the center of the backlit screen allows for tumbling somersaults to add a sense of falling through space.
The additional 1970's funkadelic, synthesizer music that accompanies the effect adds to the overall sense of high-adventure and high-drama (emphasis on "high").
It should be said that the music, by Paul Chihara, is one that adds to the overall mood and tension of the war between the forces of good and evil.
Some of the music does get a bit annoying at times, but it is very much likened to other soundtracks of some shows of the time.
Lastly, something should be said of the costuming.
The everyday street clothes are, obviously, average daily clothing for the late 1970's. Nothing out of the ordinary or worth noting here.
The men's suits are all prime examples of their kind for the era, and Clea's flimsy blouses and tight jeans are what I remember many young women wearing back then.
The garb worn by sorcerers (and demonic costuming) on the other hand... are far from run of the mill.
The rubber bodysuits and costumes for the demons; Balzeroth and Azmodeus, however, are less than stellar.
Balzeroth is able to pass by on having his scenes filmed heavily draped in shadow and his being armed with red glowsticks - obfuscating the piecemeal nature of his found-object armor.
Azmodeus isn't so lucky. While his gargoyle-like appearance itself is excellent, sadly, it's the utter lack of mobility with which it (ill) affords that is it's undoing.
The scene wherein he is called forth from the fires of hell is excellent. The bit where he has to bend over to pick up Morgan's fallen foe is laughable. I don't think the director's choice of having it filmed in silhouette helped in any way.
Morgan Le Fay's every outfit is sexy and she wears them well.
Lindmer's sorcerer's cloak is nice, but with the hood up looks a bit ridiculous.
Dr. Strange wears two different examples of mystic raiment in the film;
-The first; a lush, black cloak with red accents over a deep red (so dark it's almost black) turtleneck shirt/ pants with gold accessories and adornment. However, it is given to him by Morgan and is much more "regal" than what a humble servant of mankind would wear (instead looking to all like the garb of a ruler of all he surveys) and as such is not something that he'd be permitted to retain.
However, I wonder why, with all of the costume changes that Strange has undergone in the comics, no one has tried to replicate this one. It's a dynamite look! Although, without any definitive chest-symbol could be considered less "super-hero" and more generic mystic.
- His final costume is, sadly, lame.
A purple tunic with a metallic silver "star-burst" emblem on the chest, over bright blue baggie pants and a yellow, mid-length cape, replete with "runes" appliqued along the edging.
Each garment - by themselves - are cool. But, as an ensemble are a fashion disaster.
Except for that belt. It's perfect!
Except for that belt. It's perfect!
The best part of the costume is the belt; a complexly designed series of gold interlocking shapes with the "ancient symbol of light" as the buckle.
Needless to say; I want that belt and would wear it daily.
I'll readily admit; it's far from a perfect film. It'll never win any awards (unless they're ironic in nature). It's not without a few forced-looking, oddly staged scenes and a couple of plot-holes (which would most likely have been addressed if it were made into a series), but it holds it's own against much of it's contemporaries.
Sadly, it never made it to series, and I can only be saddened that a world wherein a special television event (or even an episode of "Battle of the Network Stars") where Dr. Strange could team up with the TV Hulk, Wonder Woman, Six-Million Dollar Man and "The Greatest American Hero" will never be.
All in all, I find the film to be fun and thoroughly enjoyable as light-hearted fare.
Young kiddies might find the "Nameless One" to be a bit scary (and his talk of torture and wishing to devour the souls of men certainly gives him some beefing-up in the scary department), but overall it's an all-ages bit of escapism.
As I said; it's cheese. But it's good cheese.
If interested, original VHS tapes can be obtained HERE.
Join me NEXT TIME as I wrap up my series on the TV movie AND start an ALL-NEW direction at the same time with some very special pieces from my Sanctum Sanctorum collection!