Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Dr. Strange
Marvel, in its various manifestations since settling on that name in the 1960s, has always been quite canny about bringing its superheroes to other formats. Within a few years of Spider-Man, Thor, and Iron Man debuting in the pages of various comics, they appeared on TV screens with limited animation and stunningly memorable theme songs. The Spider-Man theme is probably playing in your mind right this second. And just as with the swiftness which Superman debuted in an animated form a generation earlier, Marvel’s quick-footedness with bringing their characters to television made them enduring facets of the pop culture landscape. The success of the Marvel Studios pictures is due in some small part to the way the Marvel Comics leveraged its IP outside of comics almost as soon as it had IP to leverage.
But long before Marvel came to dominate box office records and the imaginations of fans eager for stinger scenes, it started a mini empire on the CBS broadcast network in the late 1970s. Buoyed by the success of The Incredible Hulk TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno as the two aspects of Dr. David Bruce Banner, the network took a chance on a second show, Spider-Man. The series is not as creatively fulfilling as Hulk — indeed, it aged terribly in comparison — but it was successful enough to earn a second season and convince the network to commission a pilot based on another Marvel superhero. The result was Dr. Strange, this weekend’s cheesy movie.
The plot concerns, eventually, Dr. Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), a caring resident in a New York hospital psych ward. He battles bean-counting hospital administrators and the ward’s distant department head to ensure his patients get the best medical aid available. And he lets a local drunk sleep off a night of boozing in one of the ward’s otherwise empty beds. Meanwhile, in another part of New York which looks uncannily like Los Angeles, a seemingly supreme sorcerer named Lindmer (John Mills) and his disciple, Wong (Clyde Kustatsu), become aware of a plot against Strange orchestrated by the demon Balzaroth (voiced by Ted Cassidy of Addams Family fame). Wong has just three days to track down Strange so Lindmer can begin his training in the Mystic Arts. If he fails to do so, Morgan La Fey (Jessica Walters) will have the opportunity to kill Strange (or turn him to evil) and end the chain of sorcerers dedicated to keeping the world safe from demons like Balzaroth.
But if it sounds like Strange is more at home on an episode of Medical Center or Marcus Welby, M.D., that’s part of the charm. Despite the lofty aspirations of writer/producer/director Philip DeGuere, Dr. Strange is never more comfortable with itself than when it is firmly set in the muted brown walls of the psych ward. The very standard look and feel of its medical scenes indicate an uneasy relationship with the character’s key appeal: his use of magic. Indeed, Strange doesn’t even become aware of the Mystic Arts until half-way through the telefilm. In the interim, he appears in a standard medical drama pilot while Lindmer and Morgan trade some low key magic attacks in a stunningly slow game of cat and magician.
Despite DeGuere’s obvious ease with conventional television formats — and the difficulty with which he realizes the Mystic Arts — cast members Walters and Kustatsu told The Hollywood Reporter many years later than he had a genuine interest in bring the magical aspects of Strange to the television screen. And while the site argues that the effects might’ve been impressive when the movie aired in 1978, I think it’s safe to say they would’ve been lackluster in any era. But at least DeGuere and his team tried with crossfades, effects animation, and a surprisingly fun wizard’s duel between Wong and Morgan in which the two become the first of the film’s characters to fire lightning bolts from their hands. After a very long time in that conventional medical drama pilot, even the goofiest looking energy bolts are welcome relief.
In fact, any display of magic breaks up the film’s slow pace. Strange first enters the Astral Plane in a scene eerily reminiscent of the one in the feature film Doctor Strange. Sure, it’s mostly smoke, a slit-scan effect a la 2001: a space odyssey, and poor Peter Hooten on wires, but it also indicates the kind of ambition DeGuere had for the film and the hoped-for Strange series. Little by little, the conventional medical drama antics — including an apparently OK in the 1970s subplot in which Strange starts dating a patient — would give way to scenes more befitting a Dio album cover than a CBS drama.
The film’s final act takes place in the Astral Plane and its a wild mix of heavy metal imagery, Walters acting her ass off, and even a bit of Ed Wood style gumption. It might be hard to parse as all the reds used in the lighting and the sets bleed into one another, but even that gives the Astral Plane sequences a certain other-worldliness it might not be able to accomplish in any other manner. It is doubtful a weekly series could spend this much time in the environment, but it offers an idea of what a DeGuere thought he could do with the resources available.
Is it successful? Hardly. By virtue of production realities, Dr. Strange never gets comfortable with its comic book trappings. But more than that, the film fails conventional metrics of quality for one simple reason: the guy playing Stephen Strange. Hooten — who appeared in previous Weekend Cheesy Movie selection Orca and, oddly enough, an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. — always seems lost throughout the film. He’s appealing enough that the romantic thread with his patient doesn’t come off as entirely creepy, but he is clearly uncomfortable with the magic and robes aspect of the role. Now, that should be an asset within the story as Strange himself is coming to this world for the first time. But the performance never really suggests that it is the character who is learning these things for the first time; Hooten seems surprised to learn that he is in a Marvel movie at almost every turn.
At the same time, he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast including Kusatsu, Walters and Mills. Even Strange’s patient-turned-romantic interest Clea Lake (Eddie Benton) turns in a strong enough performance that you might expect her to be a series regular had Dr. Strange continued. If the film more successfully mixed the Mystic Arts with its confidence in the hospital drama (and picked up the pace a little) it might’ve joined The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman on the CBS schedule. Alas, it aired against a rerun of ABC’s Roots adaptation and fell under the might of one of television true ratings juggernauts. But even if it hadn’t, the film as it stands is just too slow, too weird and too goofy for CBS — even a CBS airing The Incredible Hulk. It also would have balked at paying for stop-motion creatures, old age makeups, and wizard lightning for a weekly show.
And yet, that’s where the cheese comes from. Thanks to DeGuere’s conviction in the material, Dr. Strange is the spot where wild comic book images collide with a filmmaking apparatus not yet ready to realize them in a convincing way. At least, not on a television budget. But even without comparing it to shows like Legends of Tomorrow or the Doctor Strange theatrical film, the attempt to bring something as wild as Dr. Strange to television at the time generates a lot of cheesy goodness. But just make sure you are well-rested when you try to watch this. The standard soft focus of 1970s television, the bleeding of reds in the Astral Plane, and the overall pace will put you in a very tranquil mood.
Dr. Strange is available for rent on Amazon Video. Disc versions also proliferate from somewhat dodgy vendors, but we’re fairly certain the one available on Amazon is a legit release.