Dr. Strange (1978) – By Jonathon Pernisek

 My DVD and VHS collection is separated into the usual film categories, such as action, science-fiction, documentary, and so on. One of the more fleshed out genres in my grab bag, however, is that of the comic book adaptation. It’s not complete by any means, but I pride myself on having a good selection of truly rare superhero titles. These more obscure picks include the Roger Corman edition of The Fantastic Four, a made-for-TV flick based on Justice League of America, and the entire Toei Spider-Man series, which was, of course, the Japanese equivalent to our Web Slinger only with giant robots and a flying car with a puma head.

Now another title has been added to this genre, although I’m sad to say it’s easily one of the lamest. Someone must have thought turning the Marvel property known as Dr. Strange would be a success, and so this ninety-minute pilot was made for television. It really is too bad Dr. Strange is one of the blandest and unmotivated characters in the Marvel universe, because this movie is just plain tiring. Of course, this could be the fault of the film, and the Dr. Strange comics could be fascinating, but watching this limp and unenthusiastic movie doesn’t motivate me to find out.

With absolutely no budget on hand it’s obvious the team behind Dr. Strange decided to avoid the superhero angle of their story as much as possible, so I had to spend the first hour watching its “hero,” Dr. Stephen Strange, do absolutely nothing of any real importance. The film is essentially a medical drama, with Dr. Strange dealing with his patients in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. We see him tango with the ward’s leader, the ever-grumpy and rules-oriented Dr. Taylor, because as we’re shown time and time again, Dr. Strange is a hip, sensitive doctor of today. He’s also a suave, insanely sexy playboy…or so the plot states. Just look at the hotpot nurse he flirts with, exchanging clever banter about their various hook-ups and whatnot. Yep, Dr. Strange is one cool cat. He’s the bee’s knees, if you will.

But Dr. Strange is obviously not cool in any capacity, at least as played by Peter Hooten. No sane person would audition this man and think he could play anything other than a really sleazy barfly who is out of league with every woman on earth. With his laughable afro-style haircut, weasly porno mustache, and a face only a mother could love, Hooten is a black hole of an actor, having absolutely no presence on camera. What’s worse, the man apparently has two glass eyes, which stare straight ahead catatonically and emit no emotion whatsoever. Hooten is able to express himself through his voice fine enough, but I defy anyone to not be distracted by his glazy stare.

When we’re not being subjected to the mind-numbing antics of the hospital world the film tries to set up an alternate realm of fantasy where…well, nothing really happens. At least not anything original. See, there are good people, and there are bad people, and they fight a lot. You understand, right? Well, Thomas Lindmer (played by John Mills) is this really old guy who’s been fighting the baddies for a good 500 years now, so he enlists Dr. Strange to become his youthful successor. At the same time, a particularly witchay woman named Morgan is trying to kill the old son-of-a-gun so her master, a mysterious cone-headed chicken bathed in red light, can finally take over the world. I guess. Anyway, she does this by possessing a pretty young blonde and forcing her to push Thomas off of a bridge (ooh, how evil and magical). Due to her possession the blonde, come to be known as Clea, winds up in the psychiatric ward of you-know-who. From there things progress, although I hesitate to go on any further.

Everyone else seems to be hesitating too, as there isn’t a single actor in Dr. Strange who doesn’t seem interminably bored out of their skulls. John Mills looks embarrassed to be waving his hands around spooky pentagrams and wearing cheap sorcerer robes, and Jessica Walter, who plays the villainous Morgan, looks straight ahead with so much intensity it’s like she can see the paycheck at the end of the road. All of them realize how the script is hopelessly silly and contrived, so they are always moving on auto-pilot. Which is unfortunate, as even hammy performances would have easily lifted this material to cheesy status instead of vanilla.

And again, a tight budget means almost no actual superhero stuff, unless you count people shooting goofy cartoon rays at each other as something epic. Strange doesn’t even take on his heroic persona until the last ten minutes of the film, so the movie ends up being this overlong origin story with no payoff whatsoever. The film tries to incorporate the idea of demons into this hullabaloo as well, a desperate move to add more fantasy elements I suppose, but whenever these beasts do appear it’s as a silhouette or someone in a novelty store costume. It makes me wonder why they bothered at all, seeing as how the demons are only onscreen for, oh, about five seconds at a time.

Look, if you can’t make a comic book work on camera, don’t serve up something watered down just for the sake of a quick buck. But most of all, do not antagonize the viewer further by tacking on an open-ended conclusion, thus making it seem as if your film is good enough to warrant a sequel. This is exactly the tactic Dr. Strange tries to employ, and it made me want to lay down and take a nap. I don’t care about Stephen Strange, or his silly robes and his dumb magic powers. Give me Roger Corman or a Japanese Spider-Man any day of the week above this junk.