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


  1. Is the Liverpool Odeon the one on London Road (just up from Chapter One Comics) or the one by Renshaw Street (just down from World's Apart Comics) .. I fondly recall going to see the wonderfully crap KISS PHANTOM OF THE PARK in the London Road cinema.

    1. It was the London Road one - saw so many films there! There's a nice article on Star Wars 1977 here:

      I was in that audience too!!

      Thanks for reading! Paul