Back in the late-'80s and early-'90s, when superhero films were more the cultish domain of B-movie studios than the stuff of summer blockbusters, Marvel wasn't exactly picky when it came to licensing out their properties. That's how we got Albert Pyun's 1990 Captain America and 1989's The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren, and why it was a genuine shock when it turned out that Roger Corman's buried Fantastic Four film was the victim of a rights-holding scam and not the real deal. Given this climate of B-level Marvel adaptations it is not at all surprising that at the beginning of the 1990s Charles Band was – allegedly – hard at work on an official adaptation of Doctor Strange. In the '80s Band's previous studio, Empire Pictures, had been developing an obvious Doctor Strange knockoff, called Doctor Mortalis, but the production fell apart when Empire declared bankruptcy. According to Hollywood legend, when Band started Full Moon Entertainment he returned to the idea, but decided that rather than simply making a knockoff, he could actually afford to license the franchise from Marvel and make it an official film version of the comic series. But somewhere along the way he lost the rights; allegedly in a similar situation to that which spawned the aborted Corman Fantastic Four, that he took too long to develop the project and the rights reverted to Marvel. Never one to avoid a loophole, Band simply went ahead with the project anyway, and changed the script just enough to make his Sorcerer Supreme – er, Master of the Unknown – legally distinct from the Marvel superhero. That's the legend, anyway; of course, there is little concrete proof to back this up, so it's just as possible that this film was a knockoff from the beginning, and the rumor that it started its life as an officially-sanctioned adaptation was only started to give the project more legitimacy.
At any rate, it's very obvious what Doctor Mordrid: Master of the Unknown is: a Doctor Strange movie in everything but name, with the superhero's backstory changed so it wouldn't quite seem like plagiarism. But here's the real twist: it's actually a good movie, and possibly even one of the better 1990s B-level superhero films (not that the bar is high). It certainly is one of Full Moon's more ambitious projects, with (for what it is) an unusually good script and high-quality production. At its center is a very strong performance from one of cult cinema's great leading men, Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, The Frighteners, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Enterprise), leaving his usual villainy behind to play the hero for once. While the film's origins are dubious at best – no matter which version of the behind-the-scenes story you believe – the end result is an overlooked superhero flick which is definitely worth a look for Doctor Strange fans, aficionados of '80s/'90s B-cinema, or anyone who likes their superhero movies with a heavy dose of nostalgia. So put on your red sorcerer's cape – oops, I'm sorry, your legally-distinct blue sorcerer's cape, and pendant with a slight different symbol – and step into this parallel Marvel universe that beat the official adaptation to the screen by fourteen years.
|Herbert West vs. Shao-Kahn... Fight!|
Dr. Anton Mordrid (Combs) is a criminologist and scholar of the occult (see – totally not a surgeon) who lives in a spectacular New York City loft filled with books and mystical artifacts. But beneath this facade Mordrid is actually a centuries-old sorcerer, standing guard against a powerful cosmic evil which has been prophesied to try and destroy the world. Now that evil has escaped its prison and come to our dimension – in the form of ubiquitous '90s bad-guy actor Brian Thompson (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer twice) – and Mordrid must find a way to stop him. The specifics are different, but we basically still end up with a good sorcerer protecting this dimension from a villainous one representing dark forces that lay beyond. How this story is executed, though, is decidedly different from what it looks like we are about to get with Marvel's Doctor Strange film. The tone and style are distinctly early-'90s, and despite the R-rating it actually feels quite similar to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, with its emphasis on the New York City locations, and the hero and villain's interactions with the various characters who live there. The film's supporting protagonist, a fellow criminologist (Yvette Nipar, RoboCop the TV series), is more than a bit reminiscent of the TMNT movie's April O'Neil, not least of all in her interactions with the buffoonish and clueless law enforcement officials who serve to make her and Mordrid's jobs more difficult. Thompson's villainous Kabal, meanwhile, finds a henchman in a metal-loving Satanist who could not be more of a tropey early-90s hooligan. Like that first Ninja Turtles movie, Doctor Mordrid also features a combination of fun and somewhat silly comic book elements and gritty on-location New York City ambiance; a juxtaposition which is both a lot of fun, and which thoroughly anchors the film in its time and place. For anyone who grew up enjoying movies like the original TMNT or Super Mario Bros, this is an extremely nostalgic experience; the sort of film that could only have come from that era, in the most charming way.
|Meanwhile, in some Magic The Gathering|
With all these parallels to films like those mentioned above, this feels like it should be a PG or PG-13 genre flick aimed at a wider audience... yet somewhat bizarrely, it definitely is not. For absolutely no reason except to earn an R-rating, director/producer Charles Band has filled the film with F-bombs and a bit of gratuitous nudity. It's bizarre – I can only imagine that he did this because Full Moon had a reputation for R-rated horror fare, but in this case the language and nudity feels not only gratuitous, but totally at odds with the sort of film Doctor Mordrid seems like it is trying to be. It really does feel as strange as if someone dubbed a bunch of F-bombs into Ninja Turtles, and the result is a very dissonant final product that seems totally unsure if it's supposed to be for older kids or adults. This is similar to the problem that The Guyver ran into, except in that film it was the opposite: distracting bits of silliness shoehorned into what felt like it should have been an R-rated movie. At the very least Doctor Mordrid avoids the worst of The Guyver's problems: its content feels out of place, but its tone is quite assured and consistent. It knows exactly what sort of a film it wants to be... it just isn't the sort of film that is conducive to Full Moon's R-rated ways.
At its core, beyond its '90s pop-culture trappings, this wants to be a classic supernatural comic-book yarn, full of magic and mythology, and centered around a compelling good-vs-evil story. When we get glimpses of the dimension of magic which Mordrid and Kabal call home, the art style looks exactly like something out of a classic comic: a Gothic citadel full of fire and monsters and blue light. While the low budget is evident, the art style looks great, and despite not technically being based on a specific series (well, you know...), the aesthetic firmly locates the film in the realm of comic-book movies. The same goes for the impressively baroque set for Mordrid's loft/base of operations. Outside of the gorgeously gothic Subspecies 2 and 3, this is among Full Moon's best-looking movies (even if Mordrid's superhero outfit is very campy indeed). Then there's the film's creature effects: while they are only used in a couple scenes, and only briefly, the movie boasts some very cool stop-motion animated creature work, in the tradition of Ray Harryhausen. These effects were done by David Allen of Industrial Light and Magic fame, whose credits include creatures in Ghostbusters II, Willow, and The Howling. The creatures have a deliberately retro feel to them, recalling more The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or King Kong than a typical '90s feature, but I think that's the point: that's the type of movie magic that Doctor Mordrid wants to capture, and it does it quite well.
|"You need proof I'm a good actor?|
Well, you're still taking me seriously in this
role, and look at this ridiculous outfit I'm stuck in!"
As always in Full Moon films, there is quite a mix of quality and cheesiness in all aspects of the production, including the acting. There are definitely some B-level performances here, from the maniacal metalhead to the buffoonish cops with their Brooklyn accents, and even Brian Thompson's one-dimensional heavy (which is pretty much the same characterization he used as Shao-Kahn in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Judge on Buffy). But Yvette Nipar gives a solid performance as Sam, Mordrid's ally, and makes her a strong protagonist. Of course, the performance which makes the movie is that of Jeffrey Combs, as the title character. Combs is best known for playing villains and crazy people, but he has proved many times that he is actually a very good actor who does not deserve to be pigeonholed in this way. Here he gets the chance to show off a very different side of himself, not only as a superhero, but as a very kind, soft-spoken, and sympathetic guy. He gets to show off his range pretty well, and strongly demonstrates that he really should have been given more chances to act outside the world of genre films. As so often happens with actors, a breakout role in a cult favorite horror film can be a difficult thing to escape, and the creepy Herbert West from Re-Animator proved just as hard for Combs to outrun as Alex DeLarge was for Malcolm McDowell (who also made a very charming and sympathetic leading man in a few films, yet still always gets cast as a psycho). As his performance as Anton Mordrid shows, he deserves better.
There is no mistaking Doctor Mordrid: Master of the Unknown for anything besides what it is: a low-budget, B-level superhero film very much of its era. The mere fact that it is an utterly shameless unlicensed Doctor Strange movie sets expectations fairly low. But, within the context of what it is, it genuinely is a pretty good movie which far exceeds those expectations. Its story works quite effectively, its lead actor gives a compelling central performance against type, the special effects are quite good (if charmingly retro), and the whole thing is genuinely a lot of fun. That's ultimately what makes up for its weaker points: it honestly is a fun movie, with an approach to the superhero genre that is infectious in its enthusiasm, and at its best is genuinely successful, despite the cheesiness along the way. In fact, with how quintessentially early-'90s the film is, its cheesiness has with time become a strength, as it functions very well as a piece of nostalgia, even for those who didn't see it when it was new. At a recent comic con I got the chance to ask Jeffrey Combs about the film. He still seemed to remember the experience fondly (and certainly as a memorably unusual role for him), although he said that since he wasn't a big comic book reader as a kid, he actually didn't realize just how much a rip-off of Doctor Strange it was until someone pointed it out to him after its release. He also remarked on how hilarious he has always found the subtitle, “Master of the Unknown,” since, as he said, “it basically just means, master of... something or another. We're not sure what he's a master of – no one knows.” Let's see you master that kind of ambiguity, Cumberbatch.
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- Christopher S. Jordan