Movie Review: Dr. Strange (1978)

dr strange 1978

Chris: So Pete had a cool idea. Make that a “cool” idea: that we should watch the original Dr. Strange movie and do a joint review. Yup, in 1978 Marvel teamed up with Universal to make a made-for-TV movie based on the Dr. Strange comics. Loosely. Pete, what’s your background with Dr. Strange?

Pete: I think inherited a couple of issues when my cousin got me started on comics as a kid, but that’s basically always where Dr. Strange has been for me–on the periphery. I was aware of him and what he did, I knew some of his standards, like his artifacts or catchphrases, but he wasn’t a mutant, so at that age I really didn’t care. Later I read Fraction’s Defenders, and that was a pretty funny book.

Chris: Yeah, I began reading Marvel pretty hardcore in 1987 but Dr. Strange was someone I only pecked at intermittently. I have gone back and read the original Steve Ditko stuff and that’s fun. And Strange has been good in stories here and there – the one where he teams up with Dr. Doom to save Doom’s mother’s soul in Hell is pretty great. But I can’t claim to be the biggest fan. Still, I was kind of excited to see this movie when you told me about it.

Pete: Hey, I was too! Whether or not you’ve read him heavily, Dr. Strange is a character that evokes a certain idea, one that definitely doesn’t seem like it fits within the typical TV movie budget, especially for 1978. I think that’s the appeal, honestly; can the movie hit the mark with characters and plotting, given what they were working with?

The Story

Chris: We sat through this long, long movie. I figure the least we can do is write about each big story beat so that our readers can enjoy our witticisms and skip this snoozefest if they so desire. Fortunately, almost nothing important happens throughout the middle of the movie. It’s all pointless filler that does little to advance the plot.

the nameless one

Pete: The middle, no, but the beginning and end are actually weirdly solid! The opening credits are very brief, which I appreciated because there’s some awfully dissonant backing music accompanying them. After that we get our chief antagonists, Morgan LeFay and what Google/IMDB tells me is ‘The Nameless One.’ Google also tells me that even if I’d been familiar with the Nameless One from the comics, I wouldn’t have recognized him here, since in the comics he has a couple of lizard heads and wings. Anyway, he tells Morgan to find a man in New York wearing a ring, which really narrows things down.

Chris: This is fairly low budget but that said, they did spend their money in some smart places. They hired quality actors and had great sets. Dr. Strange actually working in a hospital surprised me, for instance. Although they felt the need to insert calls for doctors over the speakers CONSTANTLY.

Also, the Sanctum Sanctorum (I don’t think it’s called that in the movie, but the house that the Sorcerer Supreme lives in) actually has that iconic Seal of the Vishanti window. Where they seemed to cheap out was on stuff like lighting, music and stunts.

dr strange and clea

Pete: The Vishanti window was a great touch. It’s a really recognizable bit of iconography, and including it was smart, especially the way they did it, with it glowing against an otherwise dark sky. You’re right that the hospital calls were weird, although I have to admit I really want to know more about Dr. Larry Ferrari.

Chris: I want Marvel to do a Dr. Larry Ferrari TV show on Netflix. I thought we’d need to break the plot down when we first planned on doing this but the story is actually really light. Morgan LeFey used to be an evil sorceress given power by an other-dimensional demon. I think it’s sort of implied she fought in the Medieval ages, like in the legend of Merlin and Arthur. Anyway, she is sent from the demonic dimension to kill the current Sorcerer Supreme, some random old guy named Lindmer, because he’s getting old. I think if they kill him, the demon can invade our world?

Pete: I actually had to look up Lindmer’s name because it is not used AT ALL until he introduces himself to Dr. Strange, somewhere around the halfway point of the movie. The Nameless One calls him “old man,” and I don’t think Morgan uses a name for him at all, just personal pronouns. So between him and The Nameless One, that’s two characters I had to look up!

Chris: I originally assumed Lindmer was The Ancient One, the guy who trains Dr. Strange. But no, he’s just… Lindmer. The current Sorcerer Supreme. That is not from the comics at all.

Morgan doesn’t use anything expensive for the movie like an energy bolt. She just possesses a young lady named Clea and has her push Lindmer off a bridge into traffic. Which traumatises Clea and pretty much does jack shit to harm Lindmer. But Clea’s confusion over what happened sends her to the hospital where her psychiatrist is Dr. Strange. Personally, I did not care for Morgan’s single trick of possession, Clea as a random college student or Dr. Strange as a successful shrink instead of an arrogant surgeon.

Pete: I can take the possession idea, given the budget for a TV movie in the late 70s, but relegating Clea to a hapless college student was pretty ridiculous. I guess they thought the movie needed a damsel. Dr. Strange being a psychiatrist is so odd. It completely strips him of the entire impetus to actually become the Sorcerer Supreme! It removes all of his personal character motivations, and that shows in the plot; he’s very grudging about accepting the role, and won’t train until Clea’s life is in danger. Also, can we talk about that final costume for Dr. Strange toward the end there? What was even going on there?

Chris: First of all, Dr. Strange has a unique comic book origin. He doesn’t lose his parents or something and decide to fight crime. He is an arrogant surgeon and a car accident ruins his hands and takes away his self identity. Then he travels the world desperate for a cure and instead learns about magic and a larger world. It’s a really good story that is replaced with some backstory about Dr. Strange’s dad having been a former student of sorcery who gave Dr. Strange a ring that somehow entitles his son to learn the magical arts?

Anyway, in the end Dr. Strange and Morgan have their fight in the dark dimension and he’s in spandex with a big starburst on it. Instead of the Eye of Agamotto as a clasp around his cloak, he’s just loaded up with gold chains like Mr. T. Combined with his big, bushy pornstache, the superhero version of Dr. Strange looks, for all the world, like a sassy pimp.

Did you like how Morgan finally FINALLY got the drop on the good guys? She possesses a cat and Dr. Strange just makes a weird assumption that it’s Lindmer’s cat and brings it into the house, thereby bypassing the enchanted barrier. Who just picks up a cat and puts it in someone else’s house?!

Pete: Cat people. You can never trust them.

Chris: I have four cats, Pete.

dr strange final costume

Pete: The weirdest thing about that outfit for me is that the clothes that Morgan gave him were pretty close to an accurate costume for the character, so why deviate from that with some sort of weird starburst pattern? It’s the same sort of logo used by the various Captains Marvel, and I think Quasar, too. It’s got a very specific tie to cosmic Marvel. The colors don’t make any sense, either, unless Stephen Strange is an LA Lakers fan, which I’m pretty sure might be a form of heresy in New York.
Morgan’s plan for getting into Casa De Lindmer was honestly a pretty smooth move. It’s too bad that it was basically entirely ruined by her declaration that she wants to bone the good doctor. Honestly, that entire angle just really felt forced and strange (pun very intended); of the two named women in the cast, both of them have the hots for the main character. Actually, touching on that point, I’m pretty sure there are some ethical issues between Stephen and Clea.

Chris: Yup. If it wasn’t for him saving the world, Dr. Strange is a bit of a sleaze, sleeping with both his nursing staff and his patients. Oh well!

The Acting

Chris: While I thought the movie was slowly paced and eliminated some of the most interesting elements from the original comic book stories, I don’t actually think the acting was bad. It’s of its era and the movie doesn’t have a massive budget but people were committed and believable in their roles, I thought. John Mills won an Academy Award back in 1970, Clyde Kusatsu has been on everything from Magnum, P.I. to Family Matters and Jessica Walter is very well known for Arrested Development and Archer. This is a strong cast.

jessica walter as morgan la fey

Pete: I won’t lie, half the reason I got through this movie was Jessica Walter vamping around late ‘70s New York in black dresses. It really spoke to the teen goth in me. You’re right, though, the cast itself was honestly pretty strong, they worked well with what they had. I did a lot of double-checking the internet while I watched it, because I kept recognizing faces without names to put to them, but it really was sort of a who’s who of talent from that era.

Chris: I thought Wong was a small role but well done by Clyde Kusatsu and treated with actual dignity. He’s not a houseboy or anything racist like that. He’s not a servant of any kind, just a student of Lindmer, the Sorcerer Supreme. I thought Jessica Walter was fantastic but was weirded out by how she was so beautiful back then because I just have the version of her as the mom in Arrested Development seared into my brain. What did you think of Peter Hooten as the lead?

Pete: As a man well-versed in how silly the name Peter sounds, ‘Peter Hooten’ is about ten times more ridiculous, and I feel sorry for him. I thought he delivered a fine performance, but honestly the character he portrayed was so far removed from the Dr. Strange we know that there’s really no basis for comparison. This is just a guy with an entirely different background, who happened to have the same name. Nothing about him really rang true as Stephen Strange for me, but I don’t think that’s the fault of the actor.

Chris: I agree. He wasn’t a bad actor but he didn’t have any of the personal tragedy inherent to Dr. Strange. Instead he’s just this swinging bachelor who has nurses and students cozying up to him. And he irritates his bosses but he’s just so dang good at his job. He’s not quiiiite smug, but it’s close. He goes around town with a lopsided grin and doesn’t believe in magic until he’s thrown into another dimension.

Pete: Even on that point, he took it really well. I mean, maybe it’s just me, but I think if I just got tossed into another dimension, I might need a few minutes to adjust, you know?

Chris: I think the weakest link is Anne-Marie Martin as Clea Lake. In fact, she credits herself as Eddie Benton so maybe even she was trying to not get noticed for this movie. She’s just kind of flat and dull.

Pete: I looked her up, actually, and from what I can tell, it was a name change–she was Eddie Benton in everything until a point in the early 80s, and then she was Anne-Marie Martin. You’re right, though, there was almost nothing to the character, although I’m not sure how much of that is the actress, and how much is the script. The director clearly designated her as the movie’s damsel and never bothered developing her beyond that.

The Verdict

wong and lindmer

Chris: Overall, I was impressed with the effort put forth by the actors and the set designers. But the script sags big time in the middle, probably mostly because they dump the whole angle of Dr. Strange being humbled and remaking himself as a sorceror. I’d generously give this thing one thumb out of three thumbs. It’d be one and a half thumbs if you watched just the beginning and end.

Pete: One-and-a-half is where I was leaning, but I think that’s just because my expectations were so low going in. I really expected this thing to be a complete and utter trainwreck, and the fact that it was a passable take on the character was a pleasant surprise. I’ve honestly never seen any of the other Marvel TV movies from this time period, and I’m sort of tempted to watch the rest of them now.

Chris: Passable. But very, very boring.

1.5 thumbs

Chris: Holy crap. Pete, I feel like a moron. I just uploaded the images for the article and while typing “Lindmer” for the hundredth time I realized it’s a loose anagram for Merlin. As in, Lindmer is Merlin still alive in modern day and that’s why he battled Morgan La Fey back in the day. Did you pick up on that?

Pete: Holy crap, I did not! Quick, let’s pretend like we did.

Chris: I have too much respect for our readers, Pete.

  • pjperez

    I am so glad you guys came to the Lindmer-Merlin realization at the end of this post, because I was about to leave something akin to an “um, actually” comment, and you SAVED ME.