Watch this film twice and you’ll get two very different experiences.
See it the first time as a casual viewer and you’ll behold a low-budget movie with wobbly sets, cheap costumes, dodgy FX and hammy performances.
Watch it a second time having read up on it – or, better still, having seen Marty Langford and Mark Sikes’ excellent documentary Doomed! – and you’ll enjoy an heroic effort by a dedicated cast and crew to bring a beloved comic book to life on a pitiful budget and against an impossible deadline.
This is the legend that is the unreleased Roger Corman production of Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four, and it’s one of those rare movies in which the story that unfolded off the screen is even more bizarre and fantastical than the one that occurs on it.
In the mid-1980s the movie rights to Marvel’s Fantastic Four property were bought by Neue Constantin Film. Fast forward to the early-90s and there was still no sign of production commencing – and the clock was ticking. If Neue Constantin didn’t begin principal photography within ten years, the rights would revert to Marvel and they could auction them off again.
Enter legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures.
If anyone in Hollywood could turn a SFX movie around on a tight budget and in limited time, it was him. With the now unbelievably paltry sum of $2 million to play with, he assembled a cast and crew and got to work.
The movie was completed in 1994 but was never released. And, unbeknown by the aforementioned cast and crew, it was never intended to be.
We view superhero movies now through the prism of mega-budget Marvel Studios productions – epic running times, huge casts, vast concepts, astounding FX – which makes watching this version of the Fantastic Four a bit of an eye-popping experience.
The sets are small and claustrophobic, the FX basic and seen sparingly, the tone lurches uncomfortably from dramatic to just plain silly. At one point, my girlfriend asked me if we were watching a Mel Brooks movie. Jay Underwood, as the hot-headed Johnny Storm/Human Torch overdoes it so much he actually comes across as being a bit demented. Dr Doom spends so much time with his hands up in the air that you begin to suspect his gloves are too big and will fall off if he lowers them. In the all-action finale, Johnny Storm shouts “Flame on!” and basically turns into a cartoon. He then has a fist fight with a laser beam in a scene that I swear they cribbed from one of those old Max Fleischer Superman animations.
But after learning how the cast and crew, faced with producing a superhero spectacular with almost no money, put their hearts and souls into the production in order to make the very best movie possible, one can’t help but admire the end result.
In its favour, this is the only Fantastic Four adaption that even attempts to remain true to its comic book origins. We get to see vile villain Dr Doom ranting and raving in the throne room of his Latverian castle. We see the Fantasti-Car taking off from the roof of the Baxter Building. We see Rebecca Staab in her Invisible Girl costume. In all fairness, Ms Staab does bear a remarkable resemblance to the original comic book character.
Also, the matte paintings may be unconvincing but they are undoubtedly spectacular. The musical score is great. Alex Hyde-White is stoic and heroic as team leader Mr Fantastic. But best of all, the undisputed star of the show, is the team’s rocky mascot, The Thing. The costume guys, even with their tiny budget, did a great job on bringing him to life. His face is expressive enough for the actor behind the mask to give a nuanced performance, and as viewers we can’t help but punch a fist in the air every time he growls, “It’s clobberin’ time!”
But despite all it had going for it the movie was shelved and that was that. No one toiling away on it had any inkling that this was its intended fate all along. Neue Constantin Film were basically pulling a fast one so they could hang onto the movie rights a little longer and put out a big budget version further on down the line, when they were ready.
So the cast and crew were shafted good and proper, with nothing to show for all their hard work and tireless efforts. It’s not rare for Hollywood to throw out movies that come with shady behind-the-scenes tales of double dealing and underhandedness, but rarely are they as tragic and, yes, as downright nasty as this one.
In the documentary Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, a chap involved in the making of the film expresses his joy that someone somewhere managed to sneak a copy of it out, so that it could find its way into the hands of the very fans it was intended for. I too feel a debt of gratitude to that mysterious hero, because I love this movie, and without him or her I never would have got to see it. So, thank you, whoever you are.
NB. For further reading, I can heartily recommend tracking down a copy of the October 1993 issue of Film Threat magazine, which treats us to a behind-the-scenes peak at the movie in production, when the cast and crew were still under the impression they were making a film that would be seen in theatres. As I said, tragic.