Saturday, May 22, 2010

DR. STRANGE (1978, TVM) (shown February, 1993)

The Marvel Universe, as we know it today, is a fabulous thing. As I write this, IRON MAN 2 has just opened to (as Hollywood would say) boffo box office, and is another link in the puzzle to what many believe will be the ultimate superhero film: THE AVENGERS. Marvel Films are hot properties now, attracting A-list actors and directors. But it wasn't always that way ...

Let's set the Wayback Machine to 1978. A decade had gone by since the combined animated adventures of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, and CBS had already tried out (with mixed success) a live show called "The Amazing Spider-Man" (with Nicholas Hammond), as well as their smash-hit "The Incredible Hulk" (with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno). The network was willing to spend the money on other stars in the Marvel firmament, and pinned their hopes that the Next Big Thing would be the comic company's Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Stephen Strange.

They could not have been more wrong. Why? For what I call the Curse of Comics - let me explain. Most of the movers and shakers in Hollywood look down on comics, think of them as kid fare (and, to be fair, there has been a lot of that), ignoring the fact that comics as a whole have matured over the years, with intricate plots meant for a more grown-up audience ... an audience that wants to SEE these mature plots on the screen. Instead, we get screenwriters, producers and directors who think they know the characters ("oh, it's just another superhero who wears his underwear on the outside", etc). With their very basic "knowledge" of the character, rather than adapting a PERFECTLY GOOD STORY directly from the comics, they decide to "improve" on the character and story, totally destroying what made it good in the first place.

Case in point: in the comics, Dr. Stephen Strange is one of Marvel's most tragic and haunted characters. A brilliant, gifted neurosurgeon; a man brimming with hubris and ready for a fall. That comes with a car accident that leaves him alive, but permanently damages his hands, leaving him unable to operate. He travels the world seeking any and all cures, finally winding up in the Himalayas, where (through trials that would take too long to tell here) he is instead instructed in the Mystic Arts by an Ascended Master known as The Ancient One. Strange over many years becomes a Master himself and one of Earth's greatest guardians against all astral and supernatural threats.

Compare that description to this: Dr. Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) is a resident psychiatrist at a New York hospital who never seems to make the staff meetings on time. A young woman is admitted to his care as a Jane Doe, a woman he has seen in a strange (no pun intended) dream. In it, Stephen watched her push an old man over a rail, while another woman watched with intense glee. The patient is in shock and can't remember her name; she only insists that if she falls asleep she will die.

The back story to all this is that the gleeful creature is none other than Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter), exiled to Hell for her failure to defeat Merlin 500 years ago. The film opens with Satan (a well-done speaking stop-motion animated model) giving her another chance to roam the Earth and get the Infernal One his denied victory. Merlin (John Mills) is old and weary and now goes by the name of Lindmer. He has "worked his spells and calculations" and knows Morgan is about to return to strike at him. Satan warns her that she has "three days to bring me my victory ... and only three!" If she can't defeat Merlin/Lindmer, then she must strike at his successor ... guess who?

Morgan challenges Lindmer on a bridge and tricks him by temporarily possessing college student Clea Lake (Eddie Benton). [An interesting aside: the actress playing Clea later changed her stage name to Anne-Marie Martin and was married to famous (and recently deceased) author Michael Crichton]. Clea pushes Lindmer over the bridge rail, goes home, keeps seeing her deed over and over (as well as Morgan everywhere she looks) and runs off screaming into the night, where she becomes a ward of Dr. Strange. All clear? Good - moving on.

Lindmer has performed Healing Touch on himself and is only slightly worse for wear over the bridge episode, and sends his pupil and protege' Wong (prodigious character actor Clyde Kusatsu) to find both Clea and Strange. Upon hearing Wong's report, Lindmer pays Strange a visit at the hospital, explaining that he (Strange) and Clea have a psychic bond, and that Clea's brush with evil is something that traditional medicine alone will not be able to cure. He leaves his card with Strange, asking him to stop by, but warning the doctor that there is danger in it for him, as well.

Meanwhile, Dr. Taylor, the Chief of Psychiatry at the hospital, has overridden Strange's orders to let Clea stay awake and has given her a tranquilizer, which immediately sends her into a coma. Strange realizes now his only hope of saving Clea lies with Lindmer. Upon arriving at Lindmer's home, Strange is told of his inherent power, a rare gift that few have. Lindmer knows that Strange is the next in line for the position of Sorcerer Supreme, but he has to come by it willingly. Strange is a rationalist, however, and rejects anything magickal or supernatural. He is only there to help save Clea.

Fair enough - Lindmer explains that to save her he must send Strange on an astral journey to reclaim Clea's soul. Here we get the highlight of the film - Strange's journey and astral projection flight is a mixture of the opening of THE TIME TUNNEL and the old ABC Movie of the Week, with him and Clea tumbling and flying through otherworldly realms. Morgan, however, is not going to be that easily defeated, and sends lesser demon Balzeroth to stop Strange. Lindmer had provided for this by giving Strange a spell to say, stopping the demon in his tracks and defeating Morgan. Clea is returned safely to her body, Strange to his, and Satan is pissed. He shows Morgan the horrible fate he has in store for her if she fails him again ... burning in oil? On the rack for all eternity? No, even worse ... the loss of her good looks! Yes, wrinkled crone-dom in Hell is the worst punishment of them all, judging by her horror.

Clea, cured and no longer a patient of Strange, agrees to go on a date with him. He stops by Lindmer's house to politely decline the job offer of Sorcerer Supreme and wishes Lindmer and Wong well. On the way out, it begins to rain. As he exits, he notices a black cat crying by the door. Good-hearted soul (and naive magickal simp) that he is, he carries it across the threshold and goes on his way, completely negating Lindmer's protective barriers around his house. Wong is the first to discover the cat, who slowly transforms into Morgan. They face off for a magickal battle, with energy bolts flying, but Wong is no match for her and goes down. Morgan proceeds to Lindmer's study and the battle is renewed, with her power too much for the old man, as well. Finding that his guards are still in place, she calls upon the demon Asmodeus to transport him to her realm, where she can destroy him at her leisure.

Strange's date quickly goes south when Clea sees Morgan in her mirror and slips into an unconscious relapse. Morgan promises to leave Clea alone if Strange will come with her. In her cozy corner of Hell, Morgan tempts Stephen with all the powers he could have; gold, sex, lightning bolts from the fingertips ... the usual. All he has to do is take off his Ring of Power (a ring Stephen's father gave him with an Ancient Symbol - seems Dad and Lindmer knew each other and Stephen has been watched over his whole life until the time was right - shades of Harry Potter). To boast of her triumph, she even takes Stephen to see Lindmer - blank-eyed and tangled in a mess of gnarled limbs. Demanding he choose and join her, he finally (FINALLY!) gets a clue and snaps out of his reverie, shouts "NO!" and joins her in battle. Lindmer was correct - the boy IS a natural and defeats Morgan.

Stephen astrally brings Lindmer back to his house, and finally agrees to take on the role he was destined for. He does ask one last question, "What will I be called upon to do?" Lindmer's response: "Become more than a man. And renounce such Earthly pleasures as are given to men who are only mortal: the pleasure of ignorance, or offspring, or an easy death." Strange: Will I be asked to give up even love?"
Lindmer: "The universe is love. That you shall have."

And what, you ask, about Morgan? Well, true to his word, Ol' Scratch has sent her on a one-way ticket to Crone-ville, where she screams her lungs out in impotent fury until Beelzebub's Bovines come home ... or does she? Why, what's this? In the coda to the film, Strange is late to the hospital meeting (again), has a date with Clea (again), but this time as they pass an electronics store, all the TV's are focused on a reporter interviewing the newest self-help guru, the author of the "LeFay Method", Morgan herself. Can you say setting up for the eventual series?

Clea has no memory of Morgan or what happened, and Stephen sees her home. Walking through Central Park, he comes upon a street magician (Larry Anderson) and messes with him, turning his bouquet of flowers into a dove, surprising both the magician and the audience! With a knowing smile, Stephen faces the future, we freeze-frame to the credits, and in his last bit of magick, disappears into obscurity.

DR. STRANGE certainly had the potential to continue as a series. Peter Hooten looked the part (aside from the unfortunate choice of curly hair and porn 'stache (see above) which was the fashion of the time) and did a good job selling some pretty unbelievable scenarios. All of the other actors perform admirably, with John Mills particularly outstanding as Lindmer. The special effects choices were ingenious for what they accomplished on a TV-budget (TV Guide at the time ran a two-page spread on the sets, costumes and effects), and a special mention should be made to composer Paul Chihara, whose score for this TVM went above and beyond the call of duty, especially for the rockin' fuzz guitar theme for Morgan. In a Six Degrees of Conjure Cinema bit of synchronicity, in this same year (1978), he would also compose the music for the TV miniseries THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME, one of our future shows and the topic of a blog entry to come.

Finally, let me leave you with one last question: when is a DR. STRANGE movie NOT a DR. STRANGE movie? Answer - when you try to get the rights to make one, are turned down by Marvel because your price was too low, and you go ahead and make one anyway, in all but name. It happened in 1992 and was released as DOCTOR MORDRID - and that's a story I'll tell you all about another time.

DR. STRANGE had a VHS release, but as of this date there is no official DVD release. If you know black magic (or the grey market), I'm sure you could conjure up a copy from the lesser demons eBay or - but on your own head be it!

Next Time: Will we be talking about THE LUCK OF THE IRISH or THE VIKING QUEEN? Begorra, me lads, we'll be talking about both! Join me and see why!

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