Do what you have to do to find a copy of DR. STRANGE and watch it.
While not at the level of the “Hulk” pilot, DR. STRANGE is easily the second-best Marvel-based property to hit the small screen in the late ’70s. In fact, while I was watching, I seriously wondered if they could bring this entire script back and re-film it for a second shot at turning this pilot into a series.
It’s really that good.
Part of what makes DR. STRANGE so good, though, is how it so wonderfully an attempt to do a 1970s horror movie on TV. It’s a very dark film, full of night scenes and creepy basements, and it’s the only Marvel TV movie of this era that feels like an uncompromising vision of the writer and director. This is not a straight adaptation of the comics, but I never felt like this film was being altered to make it palatable to a mass television audience. I was hooked on DR. STRANGE within the first five or ten minutes, as the demon Balzaroth (a stand-in for Dormammu and voiced by Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch on “The Addams Family” orders Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter) to go after the Sorcerer Supreme, Thomas Lindmer (John Mills), and if she can’t stop him, to kill the heir apparent.
Look, if the idea of a demon ordering a witch to go to Earth and kill the Sorcerer Supreme and his apprentice doesn’t turn your crank, you’re probably hopeless, but let me give it one more crack:
Morgan goes to Earth and uses her magic to get psych student Clea Lake (Anne-Marie Martin, acting here under her real name, Eddie Benton, and not her future name, Mrs. Michael Crichton) to push Lindmer off of a walking bridge and down into traffic. Yeah, that happens. What makes the scene really work, too, is the steely disdain Morgan has for Lindmer, and that their conversation takes place half in their minds and half out loud. DR. STRANGE doesn’t apologize for any of this, either, and by reveling in what they’re attempting, writer/director Philip DeGuere sets a convincing mood by sheer force of will.
Also, the very John Carpenter-esque score from Paul Chihara doesn’t hurt, either. DR. STRANGE works as an origin story because it doesn’t focus on Strange’s rise to Sorcerer as its man plot. Instead, there are three equal plots at play: Morgan’s attempt to defeat Lindmer; Stephen’s concern for Clea, who checks herself into the hospital after she’s possessed by Morgan a second time; and Linder and Wong’s (Clyde Kusatsu) search for, and recruitment of, Stephen Strange.
Peter Hooten plays the titular doctor of medicine turned magician, and he was totally unfamiliar to me, but he’s straight out of the Tom Selleck, Lee Horsley, Brawny Paper Towel Man school of curly locks and porn ‘staches. He’s not an arrogant doctor as in the comics, either, but a decent guy who’s only fault is that he likes to bed lots of women. When we’re introduced to him, he’s walking down the hallway of the hospital and conversing with his favorite nurse (Sarah Rush). She chides him for being late and remarks that his latest conquest wears cheap perfume.
“That’s because I bought it for her,” he smiles.
The start of the film is mostly concerned with Morgan and Lindmer, and Jessica Walter is absolutely on fire here. When she fixes Lindmer with a glare or focuses in on Clea, there’s no doubt in my mind that she can perform magic even without the film’s special effects budget. Balzaroth gives her three days to complete her task because that makes the most narrative sense. At first, Stephen isn’t even on her radar because if she kills Lindmer that’s mission accomplished. After Clea shoves Lindmer off the bridge and into traffic, Lindmer lays there for a dramatic pause and then gets up, asks if anyone has seen the young woman, and then walks away. He’s a bit shaken by the fact that Morgan used a human slave to do her bidding, and so it becomes imperative that he and Wong track down Strange.
Wong is handled in a rather PC manner in the film. Played by Clyde Kusatsu – one of those actors whose face you instantly recognize and whose name you never will – Wong is scolded by Lindmer when he refers to him as, “Master.” That word, though, plays a big role in the film. When Stephen finally meets Lindmer, he admits he can never fulfill his destiny and become Lindmer’s student because he will never be able to call anyone, “Master.” At the climax of the film, it’s Stephen’s ability to call the trapped Lindmer, “Master,” that saves the day.
John Mills is outstanding as Lindmer, the current Sorcerer Supreme. He’s got this wonderful, grandfatherly way about him and he doesn’t lord his power over anyone. He’s smart and he knows Stephen is needed to take his place (thanks to some destiny mumbo jumbo), but he lets everyone make up their own mind. He has a few good lines, too, such as when he tells Wong to study the 500-year old image of Morgan Le Fay and Wong remarks, “She hasn’t aged a day.”
“Working evil has a few advantages,” Lindmer says wryly.
The three plots keep weaving in and away from each other. Clea has eventually served her purpose of revealing Stephen to Morgan and when Stephen pops by Clea’s place to pick her up for a date, she sees Morgan’s reflection and freaks, and Stephen is off for his final showdown with Morgan on the astral plane.
But not before a seduction scene that has Morgan promising him wealth and power to turn away from Lindmer, which is really code for, “sex.” Morgan is an old woman and it’s the demon’s threats to take away her youthful body and replace it with an old hag version that keeps her in line. When Balzaroth wonders why she didn’t kill Strange, Morgan admits it’s because she’s still a woman and he’s an attractive man. Balzaroth tells her she can keep him as a plaything as long as she completes his mission for her, and Morgan does her best to offer the pleasures of life up to Stephen to get him to turn.
He doesn’t, of course, as he finally accepts Lindmer as his magical Master, and together they defeat her. Returning to the Sanctum, Stephen and Lindmer complete a ritual that sees the old magician giving a part of himself to the new magician.
Also, Stephen gets a dorky costume.
It’s only at the end where DR. STRANGE feels like a superhero show. Stephen doesn’t get his comic book costume, but rather a shirt that looks like it’s got Mar-Vell’s star on it, and a silly cape. The really shouldn’t have bothered. The whole film is this wonderfully dark, magic-based drama, and then at the end, it’s like, “Oh hey, he’s a superhero now!” Throughout most of the film he’s wearing a simple black shirt and there’s no reason for them to have altered that at the end.
I really can’t recommend DR. STRANGE enough. No, it’s not going to supplant “Homicide: Life on the Street” or “Deadwood” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as the Greatest Television Show Ever or anything, but if you love yourself some 1970s Satanic horror and want to see how that would play on TV, or if you want to see a superhero movie that stretches the genre in an interesting way, then check out DR. STRANGE.
And be warned, if you talk to me about Marvel movies long enough, you’re going to hear me talk up this largely forgotten classic. It’s finding unexpected treasures like DR. STRANGE that always reaffirms my decision to delve deeply into a particular genre. If I hadn’t decided to do Superhero Month, I would never have bothered to look for this hard-to-find film. I’m glad I did.