Friday, 30 June 2017

Peculiar practice… Doctor Strange (1978)

The recent Marvel Extended Universe film of Ditko and Lee’s classic hero was one of the better recent films for a genre that’s dominated the last decade to the point of near exhaustion. You keep on thinking it’s all going to come a cropper and then along comes Ant Man (most of it), Logan and, especially Patty Jenkins’ triumphant Wonder Woman which successfully recaptures the feeling of Richard Donner’s Superman whilst moving the genre boldly in a new feminine direction: a hero becoming heroic and the impossible being achieved through kindness and spirit.

Around the time of that original comic-book blockbuster came many attempts to recreate this four-colour success on TV with Marvel trying their hand at Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk with varying degrees of success. Then came this oddity which four decades on I watched for the first time having bunked off school and paid to see Spidey on the big – disappointing – screen in the Liverpool Odeon – it was the TV pilot and not grand enough for the scale.

The Fourth Dimension in the Seventies...
Doctor Strange is mild and entertaining in a predictable way – just like a comic book that you’d keep as part of a series but one that wouldn’t get you started on a new one: comic fans will like it because of our addiction to continuity and the need to fill those holes in our collection. I have Green Lantern 1-300 and X-Men 1-300 but there are whole sequences I’d discard if only they wouldn’t leave things so incomplete.

As if to prove this very point, this film was a pilot produced with Stan Lee’s input that was designed to kick start the mage’s own series but it obviously didn’t quite hit all the buttons unlike Hulk and DC’s Wonder Woman (there she goes again… never underestimate Princess Diana of Themysciera!).

It’s only when you go back and read the early stories scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by the magnificent Steve Ditko – the co-inventor of Spiderman if you don’t know – that you realise just how odd Strange is. There are stories of astral flight, alternative universes of inexplicable dimensions and pure evil in continuous pursuit of our hero. This the recent film captured, along with a precious sequence in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor drives along to the sound of The Pink Floyd’s psychedelic classic Interstellar Overdrive (an early live favourite featuring Syd Barrett’s improvisations years before the Dark Side…).

Sexy sorceress Jessica Walter
But this film also kicks off in a strange dimension – the Fourth - as our rather sexy baddy, Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter) is given one last chance by the Demon Balzaroth (voiced by Ted Cassidy) to defeat the powers of good magic who oppose all Demons and users of the dark-side of the dark arts.

Morgan is convinced she’s the strength to beat the reigning Sorcerer Supreme, the aging Lindmer (played by a perfectly-healthy looking Sir John Mills), in spite of his always having beaten her in the past and his ever-present trainee Wong (Clyde Kusatsu).

Eddie Benton gives Sir John Mills the push
But Morgan is sneaky and she possesses the body of an attractive young student, Clea Lake (“Eddie” Benton whose actual name was Edmonda Benton, later Anne-Marie Martin and then Mrs Michael Crichton for a while…), and gets her to push Lindmer off a bridge. Morgan leaves Clea’s mind and the lass thinks she’s killed the old man but his powers are strong and he wanders off with nary a speck of dust…

Now things get complicated as Clea keeps on having bad dreams about the incident and the mysterious woman and ends up seeking help in a hospital in which a tall young psychiatrist with odd diction, Dr Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) takes an interest in her plight despite official disapproval… why is it the powers that be always fail to spot an interesting case when they see one.

Peter Hooten and June Barrett
The hospital is staffed not just by obstructive senior administrators but also a power-crazed jobs worth head nurse (Diana Webster) and very winsome blonde ones called Sarah (June Barrett) who has a flirty rapport with our hero-to-be, who already has the super-power of being very specifically 1970’s handsome (with a very West-coast moustache…). But professional determination makes Stephen is determined to find out what ails cute Clea…

Clea and the Doctor on the astral plane...
Now things get complicated as even Morgan gets distracted by the Strange good looks and, in a twist of (Doctor) fate his connection to Lindmer is revealed after he appears at the hospital… Of course, Stephen has the potential to be the next Sorcerer Supreme and Lindmer begins to help him along. At Lindmer’s iconic Bleeker Street base (I’ve been there a number of times and never seen it…) he enables Stephen to astrally project into the fourth dimension and bring Clea’s soul back despite demons and dark magics ranged against him.

But that’s not it and nothing will stop the increasingly desperate Morgan from a) trying to finish off old man Lindmer, b) lure Dr Strange into pervy fourth-dimensional love pact and c) use sweet Clea as bait and incentive.

Don't fall for her allure Doctor Strange!
Dusty verdict: A lot happens but there’s a strange (see what I did there…) absence of real peril even though there’s flash bang and wallop – even a genuinely creepy scene with Lindmer trapped, sunken-eyed in a mystical web of death… Philip DeGuere directs well but it’s just a little tame especially with the tell-tale backlot exteriors, yet it is still entertaining at a comic book level and there's nothing wrong with that! I also liked his TV reference to Abbot and Costello as well as the moment when Stephen picks up a copy of The Hulk!

Sir John in his study
The acting is good especially Mills who jogs through with comfortable conviction and Jessica Walter who was born to play sexy malevolence (swoon!). Peter Hooten has an odd intensity which doesn’t always ring true but his amiable screen presence does win you over whilst the disarmingly feminine “Eddie” Benton puts her heart into responding to the supernatural terrors of Le Fay and the romantic allure of her super-saviour.

Yep, she's called Eddie...
So, of its time and all the better for it, a bridging point between Steve and Stan’s masterwork and the MCU psychedelic revival and well worth seeking out.

By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth to the Vapors of Valtorr!
Bud and Lou on TV in Strange's office

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Blows against the empire…? THX 1138 (1971)

It’s hard to view George Lucas other than through the prism of the cinematic universe he created and ruled for forty years, and clearly George thinks the same which is why he recut both the Star Wars trilogy but also this film in 2004. I remember the film as claustrophobic and with an empty feel that the addition of computer generated special effects compromises: the dystopia of 1971 did not include such details.

With or without the superfluous explosions and mechanisms added to this antiseptic world, this film still packs a darker punch even than the Force used by Sith lords. It’s George’s first album and a full-scale remake of his 1967 University of Southern California's film school graduation film, produced by Francis Ford Coppola who clearly knew talent when he saw it.

Late sixties dystopian visions have a nostalgia all their own – the future isn’t what is used to be – but in other ways perhaps fifty years hasn’t changed our prospects that much. THX 1138’s vision of a 25th Century in which mankind is controlled by a metallic intelligence and medicated into compliance within an ordered society is a chilling one. We never see the actual rulers of this society only the robotic police force that keeps order on a physical level and the priests controlling the spiritual elements – the opiate of the masses is administered in confession booths featuring a projected image of a medieval Jesus and a calming robotic voice that probes the faithful for information as they confess…

But these machines still need people and even reproduction has been taken out of our hands as people are grown in laboratories and traditional methods are not only outlawed but desire is suppressed by prescribed chemicals. Men still make machines though and THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is one of those working on the dangerous assembly line producing the robo-cops who keep order.

Retro-fitted assembly line?
Every so often accidents happen and his team is congratulated on only losing 195 lives over the last period, far less than a neighbouring group. It’s not so much about safety as productivity.

Others work at the city’s CCTV control centre including THX’s roommate LUH 3417 played by Maggie McOmie who, in a cast of shaven heads, looks especially stark with her red suede head and bright orange eyebrows, her skin conveying the vulnerability of humans in this synthetic, sharp-edged environment.

Donald being pleasant?
SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence as quietly unsettling as always) also works in surveillance and as with LUH, has a mind that sees through the chemical constraints of their routines. In LUH’s case, she wants to free THX from his drug-induced submission and to make a real connection with a man she actually, despite all conditioning, loves. She substitutes placebos for his daily medication and before too long he is feeling something different for her too… one thing leads to another and in place of holographic porn he is soon far more concerned with his real woman.

SEN meanwhile has been playing the system and hacking into the city computers to get himself assigned as a replacement roommate for THX. Quite what his motivation is we can only guess but it’s not a move THX welcomes and he reports SEN for the breach even as his own transgressions are under investigation: namely illicit reproductive activity with LUH.

Maggie McOmie
THX is tried and sent to a prison resembling an antiseptic Todd Browning’s Freaks; the inmates all being marooned in beds amidst a seeming eternity of disorientating bright lights. SEN is here as well with more grand schemes of escape, when the time is right… THX can’t be doing with strangeness and prevarication and eventually heads off into the light with an increasingly timid SEN in tow. They encounter an escaped holograph named SRT (Don Pedro Colley) and soon find the crowded “real world” of the city; citizens being forced through corridors like blood through clotted veins.

From this point on it’s a race to avoid the robot coppers and to find their way out, if they have the courage and belief…

Robert Duvall
Dusty Verdict: THX 1138 is all a far cry from Star Wars swashbuckling but even this film begins with some footage from Buster Crabbe in Buck Rodgers, an influence on the later film and used here to show how the future of the Thirties has been replaced with darker possibilities. More time has passed between THX and the present day and the film looks far more likely than Flash Gordon and his ilk.

All credit for Lucas in what is essentially a stripped-down prison escape movie with sci-fi trimmings: THX must find himself through the truth of his and humanity’s existence and that’s a pretty timeless fable that’s little in need of CGI upgrading.

Robert Duvall, soon to feature in his producer’s Godfather, gives a superb performance, managing to convey vulnerability at the same time as the natural machismo of a hero. Our Donald Pleasence plays a more straightforward character, a schemer without THX’s ability to ultimately rise to the occasion: not everyone really wants to escape. Maggie McOmie’s LUH is the one who really sees what freedom could entail, almost a lone feminine voice in this film.

THX is, of course, readily available in its 2004 form on BluRay and DVD, it’s worth catching the original version if you can find it for purists and those who liked their vintage seventies future-scapes to be of their time.