At time of writing (February 2011), the movie arm of Marvel Comics has three big budget summer blockbusters due out this year. Thor, starring Black Swan and Captain Kirk’s dad; Captain America: The First Avenger, starring Agent Smith and Johnny Storm; and X-Men: First Class, starring Mr. Tumnus and January Jones’s tits. Marvel has become quite the movie powerhouse since the first X-Men movie over a decade ago. This is all a far cry from back in the day, when Marvel was giving away the rights to their properties for the price of a deli sandwich, and not even a good deli either. This led to such classic fare as the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series, Albert Pyun’s unique take on Captain America and that Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four that was too awful to be released – of course the same could be said of the big-budget Tim Story version, but that didn’t stop them.
So no surprise then that Marvel saw fit to option their mystical superhero wizard Dr. Strange to an outfit like Full Moon Entertainment. Readers of this site doubtless have at least a passing familiarity with Full Moon and their head honcho Charles Band, but for any newcomers (and to pad out the review a little longer) I’ll recap. For Band the movie business ran in the family. When you’re the son of an independent writer/director/producer like Albert Band, it’s fairly likely you’d want to try out this filmmaking lark for yourself. When your dad is the auteur behind Zoltan: Hound of Dracula, it’s also reasonable to assume that a lot of your output will be utter crap. So it was with the younger Band.
But it’s not all bad. Band’s old company Empire Pictures produced some great Stuart Gordon films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dolls and… well, just those, though this writer has a lingering affection for Robot Jox as well. Empire also put out a number of other cult favourites including Zone Troopers, Trancers and Ghoulies (the latter two directed by Band). Empire eventually folded, and Charles started up Full Moon. And that’s when the floogdates of dreck really opened, because for every Re-Animator there are ten shitty Puppet Master films. In fact I think there actually are ten shitty Puppet Master films. And then there’s the Dollman series, the Demonic Toys series, the Witchouse series, the many Trancers sequels and that one where all of the Universal monsters are played by dwarves.
But even Full Moon couldn’t help but release the occasional decent movie. Subspecies is a highly-regarded take on the vampire mythos, while Stuart Gordon returned to make a couple of interesting flicks for the company (The Pit and the Pendulum, featuring some of Lance Henriksen’s finest scenery-chewing, and Castle Freak). Even more recent, deliberately tongue in cheek fare like The Gingerdead Man and Evil Bong show more imagination than the mockbusters and endless giant shark movies from The Asylum and Nu Image. And for that I have a certain admiration for Band. He’s definitely an innovator. The Video Zone featurettes that accompanied Full Moon releases on VHS were DVD extras before the invention of DVD extras, or for that matter DVDs. And hey, if you want a complete collection of puppet master or demonic toys figures of your own, Band’s Full Moon Toys has you covered.
So why aren’t you familiar with the Dr. Strange movie that Full Moon made? Because, er, they never made it. By the time the project was ready to go into production, the option on the character had lapsed. But that wasn’t going to stop Band, who by now had a perfectly good screenpla… a screenplay, and after the liberal application of Wite-Out (other correction fluids are available), Dr. Strange became Dr. Anton Mordrid, Master of the Unknown. In the starring role was Full Moon regular and B-movie fan favourite Jeffrey Combs.
Mordrid lives in an amazing New York apartment full of old books and maps and other things pertinent to his wizardly status, but also lots of NEON! Because THE FUTURE! When not hanging out among the books and the neon, Mordrid is on the astral plane talking to his boss, Monitor, a big disembodied pair of eyes. Monitor serves as an exposition-o-tron, usefully discussing with Mordrid things they both know for the benefit of the audience. Monitor is also kind of a dick. “Mordrid,” he’ll say, “the Death’s Head has escaped. You must fight him.” “But Monitor,” responds Mordrid, “I’m not powerful enough.” “Yes, I know. And first you must cross over to the Other Side.” “But Monitor, crossing over will make me even weaker.” “Oh, cry me a river. Are you still here?”
The Death’s Head is a guy called Kabal, played by Brian Thompson. I love Brian Thompson. In the 80s and 90s he was the action movie heavy called Brian you hired when you couldn’t get Brion James. In fact I’m still sad that Thompson and James never starred together in a movie I just wrote in my head called Brian and Brion Blow Shit up. Thompson fought and was ultimately defeated by everyone from Sylvester Stallone and Cynthia Rothrock to, um, the cast of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. With his Roxx Gang hair and spiffy 90’s shades, Thompson is the perfect guy to play an evil wizard in a movie like this. Kabal is using his alchemical powers of mind control to steal various elements he can use in his dastardly scheme; to unlock the cosmic prison where his demon buddies live to let them destroy the Earth.
Mordrid meanwhile is hanging out at the huge apartment in the building he owns, talking to his raven Edgar (yes, I know) and flirting with his neighbour/tenant Samantha (Yvette Nipar, Robocop: The Series). She’s a police researcher into ancient evil cults and whatnot, so she’s drawn to Mordrid as much for his knowledge as his easy charm and gold silk dressing gown. Mordrid is also a much better prospect than the other guy in Sam’s life, her police contact Det. Tony Gaudio (Jay Acovone), one of those NYC cop stereotypes who could be reading a treatise on nuclear physics and all you’d hear was “cannoli, Jersey, Brooklyn badabing mama mia!”
Mordrid, suspicious at the thefts of alchemical materials, goes to the cosmic prison to discover that yes indeed, Kabal has escaped. Apparently he killed everyone except Mordrid’s friend Gunner (Ritch Brinkley), a guard. Meanwhile on Earth, Kabal has enlisted the help of the kind of heavy metal hoodlums that only exist in movies, Adrian (Keith Coulouris, Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus) and Irene (Julie Michaels, Road House). In order for his spell to work, Kabal needs to drain all of Irene’s blood, which I personally think was a poor choice on his part. Adrian is far more annoying and Irene looks good naked, so unless the spell specifically calls for ‘blood of a rock chick’ I’d have gone with Adrian.
Det. Gaudio is assigned to the case when Irene’s body shows up. Sam recognizes a symbol burned into her forehead as one she saw on Mordrid’s amulet, so suggests the cops go to him for advice. Mordrid meanwhile is increasing his power by inserting a bunch of clear Perspex daggers into himself, when Kabal’s astral form drops by for a chat. “Ah,” sneers Kabal, “the Crystals of Endor!” Which suggests that the rebels must have given the Ewoks some advanced plastic-making technology before they left. Anyway, Kabal is interrupted by the cops, who rather than asking for information simply arrest Mordrid as the no. 1 suspect.
Sam is able to convince Gaudio to let her see Mordrid. She’s wary at first, wondering if maybe he is a murderous occultist whackjob. Mordrid however uses his powers to play an extended mental flashback. When they were kids, Kabal and Mordrid were schooled together in magic and the ‘Dark Arts’ and so forth. But Kabal was seduced by the lust for power etc. and so on, and turned evil. Mordrid defeated him, and has been standing watch on Earth for hundreds of years in case Kabal escaped. Now won over, Sam helps Mordrid escape using his nifty time-stopping amulet.
Kabal needs only one more artifact, a philosophers’ stone, which he finds in a museum. He’s on the verge of releasing all the demons when Mordrid astral-projects into the museum. How do ancient wizards fight to the death? They reanimate a couple of dinosaur skeletons to battle it out. Yes, you heard me, GIANT STOP-MOTION DINOSAUR SKELETON FIGHT! Which is another reason I like Charles Band; the dude needed very little excuse to throw in a bunch of stop motion monsters. Since he usually used stop-motion wiz Dave Allen, these sequences were generally pretty good, and this one is short but a lot of fun. Even Kabal is entertained: as the scenery scampers for cover, Brian Thompson declares “God! Our powers can be amusing!”
I’ve riffed pretty hard on this movie but it’s mostly affectionate, because I rather enjoy Dr. Mordrid. Partly I think it’s because it rips off so many elements from Highlander, which is one of my favourite movies. Partly it’s because I feel well-disposed to any film that throws in some stop motion dinosaurs, and a lot of it is watching Brian Thompson set to maximum Ham. But mostly it’s because of Jeffrey Combs. Combs is always a reliable performer and a welcome presence, but this is a bit of a departure for him. I can’t think of another movie where he plays a romantic lead, and he’s really quite good at it. Of course he’s still Jeffrey Combs, so there’s a slightly sinister, twitchy edge to the character, but since he’s a 400-year old inter-dimensional wizard it fits perfectly. I have one female friend who finds Combs extremely hot in this flick, and inasmuch as I can appreciate such things, I agree. It’s Combs that gets the movie through the rather too frequent dialogue scenes needed to pad out such a low budget film. So even without the qualifier ‘for a Full Moon movie’ I think Dr. Mordrid is well worth watching, if only for Combs and those battlin’ dinosaur bones.