REEL RETRO CINEMA: New looks at old flicks — and their comic-book adaptations. Or at least old flicks with comics connections …
UPDATED 9/6/21: The CBS TV movie Dr. Strange debuted 43 years ago on Sept. 6, 1978 — perfect time to re-present this piece from 2016. Oh, and for Rob’s review of Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, click here. Dig it. — Dan
By ROB KELLY
With Dr. Stephen Strange joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s worth revisiting the first time the good doctor was attempted in live-action (though not in multi-media; you’d have to consult the late-’60s Dr. Strange radio show for that). So let’s grab our Eye of Agamotto and travel back to September 6, 1978.
Dr. Strange was part of a wave of live-action superhero adaptations airing on CBS that included The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Spider-Man. Each of those projects met with varying degrees of success, so I guess Marvel and/or Hollywood was feeling ambitious, and tried to adapt one of the company’s lesser-known, more fantastical properties.
Dr. Strange has a fairly intense opening — over still shots of various Satan-y looking places, people and drawings is some heavy music that would have fit perfectly in a 1970s Italian horror film. If you didn’t already know Dr. Strange was based on a comic book, you’d have no idea from the opening crawl.
We meet Morgan Le Fay (Arrested Development’s Mrs. Bluth herself, Jessica Walter) talking to some vague, sinister-sounding demon-y cloud thing about the fight between good and evil. Morgan is given her mission, one that involves destroying their mortal enemy –whom comic fans probably assumed was The Ancient One, the lord of mystic arts. Instead, in this movie it’s an old wizard named Lindmer (Oscar-winning actor John Mills) who is looking to pass his magic powers on to a successor. Morgan has three days to stop this, at all costs!
We are then introduced to Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) in the Sanctum Santorum, who is caring for the old man. Lindmer seems to know trouble’s a-brewin’, so he instructs Wong to track down Dr. Stephen Strange, who is the son of the man who was potentially the next Sorcerer Supreme (ah, nepotism).
When we first meet Dr. Strange (Peter Hooten), he is working at a psychiatric hospital, as well as working on some other things: With his ’70s ‘fro and ‘stache, he’s clearly the (ahem) cock of the walk in this particular hospital—he gives a nurse a quick little grope and they have a discussion about how he’s mostly interested in his female colleagues as sexual partners, and not much else. But that doesn’t keep him from being a good doctor: We see him comforting, and trying to care for, a patient who is slowly killing herself with booze, and he seems to be a skilled, kind physician.
Lindmer and LeFay have a showdown on the streets of NYC. Le Fay doesn’t seem to have a true corporeal form, so she takes over the body of a young student named Clea (Anne-Marie Martin) to get the drop on Lindmer and push him off a balcony. The young woman comes to, realizing what she’s done, and runs off screaming. Le Fay thinks she’s killed Lindmer, but he wakes up and wanders home, clearly the worse for wear. Le Fay continues to haunt Clea, causing her to run out into the street where she’s almost hit by a car. She’s taken to the hospital, where she is cared for by…you guessed it, Dr. Stephen Strange!
Dr. Strange, who has been having similar dreams, realizes something is amiss. Le Fay is there, too, watching Strange closely. Clea, suffering amnesia, is admitted to the psychiatric ward. Lindmer also shows up, and meets with Dr. Strange. Using Jedi-like powers on Strange’s fellow physicians, Lindmer introduces Strange to a, well, strange new world of things beyond science and medicine.
After Clea lapses into a coma, Dr. Strange goes to visit Lindmer at his mysterious home. It’s here where the movie breaks away from its earth-bound trappings, stuff you could see on any TV show, and tries to take us into a whole other world. Meanwhile, Morgan Le Fay’s master threatens her that if she does not kill Strange she will be confined to a life of eternal torment. It’s all sticks, no carrots in the underworld!
Understandably, Stephen Strange is scared of all this, so he rejects Lindmer’s offer to teach him more and leaves, taking up with Clea, who is now out of her coma and out back to normal (somewhat). Le Fay appears at the Sanctum and attacks Wong, who also has mystical powers. But he proves no match for Le Fay, allowing her to get to Lindmer once more. Le Fay then goes after Clea, putting her back into a coma. She tries to entrance Dr. Strange, taking him to her home dimension.
Le Fay promises him anything he wants—power, beauty, wealth–and it seems like Strange is going to follow the path of the Dark Arts! But when he sees what Le Fay has done to Lindmer, Strange rebels and uses his newfound powers against her, returning to his home dimension. The Dorammu-y bad guy does what he says he would do, turning Le Fay into an old hag and letting her rot alone in some corner of Hell, in a fairly intense scene.
Back home, Wong and Lindmer wake up, and the old wizard reveals that he wasn’t defeated by Le Fay at all, he was merely playing possum to test Strange. He wanted to see if the doctor would make the right decision — reject earthly pleasures, and take up the cause of defending mankind from evil via the Mystic Arts. It also comes with a snazzy robe!
Dr. Strange returns to his practice at the hospital, as well as picking back up with Clea. Via a TV report, we see that Morgan Le Fay is somehow back, too… this time as a sort of self-help guru (a nice gag), vowing to help young people since they, as she says ominously, “are the future.”
The movie ends with Dr. Strange impishly using his powers on a local street magician, who isn’t quite sure how he pulled off an impressive trick. Strange laughs, and then turns toward the sky, ready for the future, and more mystical adventures. Just the beginning!
Directed and written by Philip DeGuere, a television veteran (who would go on to work on the excellent mid-’80s Twilight Zone reboot), Dr. Strange is a movie I just can’t dislike. Sure, it has some major problems: the very limited budget, the loss of the character’s raison d’être (a vain, shallow doctor is wounded and learns to be a better person), and way too many boring hospital scenes that could have been lifted from any medical drama of the time (I kept waiting for Trapper John, M.D. to walk by). But it maintains a weird, slightly sinister tone that I think fits the characters perfectly.
Considering that magic and satanic cults were all the rage in late ’60s/’70s popular culture, you could see why Hollywood thought Dr. Strange might just work. They keep most of the otherworldly scenes hazy and draped in darkness, so it overall looks less ridiculous than the live-action Spider-Man or Captain America movies did. The whole final battle in the Netherworld is shot via a blood red filter, which reminded me (no, really) of Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria. Imagine seeing anything like that in between commercials for heartburn medicine and Bounty paper towels!
On the acting front, Peter Hooten is a perfectly fine Dr. Strange—he doesn’t have the pulpy gravitas of Bill Bixby as David Banner, but he acquits himself well, even in the film’s goofiest scenes. Jessica Walter is a little on the broad side, but you try and do scenes with a giant red cloud and see if you don’t end up chewing some scenery. (She does have a fun moment where she scares some kids off just with an icy stare, something that would come in handy when she did Arrested Development).
John Mills as Lindmer gets a little too much to do, but I guess that’s understandable if you assume this was meant as a pilot, and he’ll be handing over the action to Dr. Strange going forward. Clyde Kusatsu is solid as Wong, a serious man who doesn’t have a lot of time for folly, especially when it comes to training this new doctor. Anne-Marie Martin plays Clea only in name, but again I think it’s a safe bet, had this gone to series, she would have started dabbling in the Mystic Arts herself.
Obviously CBS had zero faith in Dr. Strange, deciding to air it up against the ratings blockbuster/cultural event known as Roots, where it of course failed to garner any ratings. Even though I watched Roots along with my family, I still remember taking the night off from it and catching Dr. Strange upstairs in my parents’ bedroom. Sure, it didn’t look all that much like the Dr. Strange I knew from the comics, but 1970s comics fans had to learn to manage expectations when it came to live-action adaptations.
Other than a standard VHS release in the ’80s, Universal and/or Marvel pretty much buried Dr. Strange and forgot about it. That unavailability I think helped garner it a reputation as a disaster, something to be ashamed of, which is truly not fair. Luckily, the cheeky folks at Shout! Factory have put it out on DVD this week, as the big-budget movie hits theaters.
Sure, I’m seeing the movie through some pretty thick-lensed rose-colored glasses, but there’s a lot to enjoy about the 1978 Dr. Strange. Like The Ancient One gave the comic-book Dr. Strange, it deserves a second chance.
— MARVEL to Publish Doctor Strange’s THE BOOK OF THE VISHANTI. Click here.
— 13 DOCTOR STRANGE Covers to Make You Feel Good. Click here.
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of The Fire and Water Podcast (and the host of its sister show, The Film and Water Podcast), the co-creator and writer of the award-winning webcomic Ace Kilroy, and the creator of the book Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From the Spinner Rack. He wouldn’t trade his Doctor Strange Marvel Treasury Edition for anything.