Dr. Strange – USA, 1978

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Dr. Strange is a 1978 supernatural fantasy television feature film based on the Marvel Comics fictional character of the same name, created by Steve Ditko. It was written and directed by Philip DeGuere. Stan Lee served as a consultant on the film, which was created as a pilot for a proposed TV series.

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Hell: The Nameless One (David Hooks) discusses with Morgan le Fay (Jessica Walter) her failure to overcome a wizard to allow the demon access to our world.

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The demon tells le Fay that the wizard is now old and weak, and must transfer his position and powers to his successor. Le Fay has three days either to defeat the wizard or kill his successor. That successor is psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten)…

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Review:

To many, this production of Dr. Strange is the lop-headed child of too-closely related parents, superheroes and horror. The anomalous offspring (now, ironically, the progenitor) is usually thought of as a failure because of the hesitance over this perceived muddled lineage and befuddled critics offering up little more than foamy quips in place of real scrutiny. A closer viewing of the telefilm, however, highlights the competence, earnestness, and (in some cases) elevated skill that went into its making.

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This odd film was born into a heady stew of recently prioritised metropolitan realism (due to the “Great TV Rural Purge” earlier in the decade), occult detectives pursuing the latest ghoul of the week, and CBS’s whiplash embracing of four-color mayhem. In September of 1977, the network not only launched The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, but felt so strongly about the genre, they took over production of ABC’s live-action cartoon, Wonder Woman. Their relative success with these programs encouraged the network to take a massive leap sideways into a netherworld of supernatural heroics with the release of this satisfactory, if not luminous, production.

For Dr. Strange‘s musical score, Paul Chihara (Death Race 2000; Death Moon), displays his impeccable skill at setting psychological place through mood; he starts the film off with the right touch of unease, his music exploding to life with grinding, metallic notes plucked from an electronic instrument preposterously named the “Blaster Beam” (later used by Jerry Goldsmith for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and by Chihara’s student, James Horner, in several of his scores); at the opening, a blood-red text appears over a blackened screen, accompanied by shivering violins and subtle brass undertones which well up underneath the repeated molten electronic accents of the aforementioned Blaster Beam; sprinkled after slower scenes, Chihara wisely uses this disquieting motif throughout the rest of the film in order to revive a regularly lost tension.

The chilly opening text admirably opens up the otherworldly plot of the movie, referring forebodingly to the “known” and “unknown,” the battle between good and evil taking place “beyond the threshold” that separates the two, and how certain people through time are called on to take part in that battle; in this case, that certain someone is, of course, Dr. Stephen Strange (played sincerely by Peter Hooten).

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After the opening credit sequences, which are eerily enriched by ominous shots of burning candles, occult iconography, and faux grimoires, the film opens up onto an infernal region of cosmic vistas, deep shadows, and blood-red landscapes.

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In workmanlike fashion, the rest of the plot is fleshed out as council between a chesty Morgan La Fey (portrayed with gusto by the always admirable Jessica Walter) and what appears to be a very large, very moist demon created by the special effects team of Thomas J. Wright (a prolific TV hired gun, directing several episodes of NCIS, Castle, and Supernatural) and Mark Wolf; with the exception of an odd trapdoor mouth, the demon is convincing, yet wisely obscured by clouds of billowing smoke.

La Fey is charged by the demon with eliminating his centuries-old enemy, sorcerer Thomas Lindmer (imbued with appropriate weariness by John Mills, probably best known to genre fans as the titular character in ITV’s Quatermass, 1979), and his successor, Dr. Strange, identifiable by a ring he wears displaying the ancient symbol of light.

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Art director William Tuntke applies skills developed on such films The Andromeda Strain (1971) to ambitiously depict this dark realm “beyond the threshold”; in a Baroque attempt to elevate a subdued script, he expertly uses free-floating planetoids, star clusters, gaseous landscapes, and canal-lined, bloated orbs to deliver a wonderfully dark, empyreal world which is obviously an attempt to pay homage more to the 1974 Frank Brunner comic book run than to Dr. Strange creator Steve Ditko’s original material.

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Equally impressive is Tuntke’s inspired vision, in the following scene, of the elder wizard’s Sanctum Sanctorum; claustrophobic and subterranean in feel, the sanctum is composed of a tangle of cramped and stuccoed passageways linking Hobbity chambers which are archaically cluttered with set decorator Marc E. Meyer, Jr’s inspired choice of antiquarian bric-a-brac and Yarek Alfer’s emulated occult props; such design also smartly points up the symbolism of the dwelling as a desiccated heart in hibernation, waiting for the new blood of new sorcerer, Stephen Strange, to bring it back to life.

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Lindmer tasks his assistant Wong (executed with subtle aplomb by Clyde Kusatsu) with finding Strange and prepping him for the forthcoming battle against La Fey. Shortly after, the battle begins in earnest when La Fey takes possession of Clea Lake (played thoughtfully by Eddie Benton aka Anne-Marie Martin) and uses her to attack Lindmer. The attack fails, but sets up the expected thrusts and parries that draw the film to its anticipated conclusion.

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Although dominated by traditional two-shots and close-ups, the cinematography by Enzo Martinelli (The Sixth Sense, 1972) is nicely enhanced by high-angle shots in Lindmer’s sanctum, and cleverly used bridging shots of the sun, fire, and candles, playing up the symbolism of light that runs throughout the film; to maintain momentum, several tracking shots are effectively used, and moodiness is bolstered through murky darks and ominous establishing shots. However, a few low-angle shots, pans, subtle tilts, and the occasional hand-held, over-the-shoulder shots could have drastically bumped up the unease quite a bit.

Though a respectable and enjoyable production, it does have its drawbacks, most notably in fledgling writer/director Philip DeGuere’s earnest, but wobbly, attempt at counterpoint; it shows the uncertain hand of an inexperienced director being overwhelmed by the necessity of telling a linear narrative while, at the same time, having to create the oblique sense of disquiet that supernatural horror requires.

In his attempt to make the unreal seem more concrete, he made the narrative stronger in the occult sequences, and the more mundane settings of the normal world are infused with opaque disjointedness, as if strangeness were breaking through into reality. This only results in a muting of the whole affair and a dampening of the already limp suspense.

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This early experiment in cross-genre pollination is well worth anyone’s time, especially when compared to similar, weaker entries from the same time period.

Ben Spurling, HORRORPEDIA

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Other reviews:

“With absolutely no budget on hand it’s obvious the team behind Dr. Strange decided to avoid the superhero angle of their story as much as possible, so I had to spend the first hour watching its “hero,” Dr. Stephen Strange, do absolutely nothing of any real importance […] Dr. Strange is obviously not cool in any capacity, at least as played by Peter Hooten.” CineBomb

Cast and characters:

  • Peter Hooten as Dr. Stephen Strange
  • Clyde Kusatsu as Wong
  • Jessica Walter as Morgan Le Fay
  • Anne-Marie Martin (credited as “Eddie Benton”) as Clea Lake
  • Philip Sterling as Dr. Frank Taylor
  • John Mills as Thomas Lindmer
  • June Barrett as Sarah
  • Sarah Rush as Nurse
  • Diana Webster as Head Nurse
  • Bob Delegall as Intern
  • Larry Anderson as Magician
  • Blake Marion as Department Chief
  • Lady Rowlands as Mrs. Sullivan
  • Inez Pedroza as Announcer
  • Michael Clark as Taxi Driver
  • Frank Catalano as Orderly
  • Michael Ansara as Ancient One (voice, uncredited)
  • Ted Cassidy as Demon Balzaroth (voice, uncredited)
  • David Hooks as The Nameless One (uncredited)

Choice dialogue:

Dr. Strange: “You haven’t seen my face, it makes this look like Heaven.”

Release:

The film was released twice on VHS in the United States, in 1987 and 1995, and also had multiple foreign releases. As of June 2016, the film has not been officially released on DVD.

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