It’s remarkable how The Fantastic Four, a comic book property that has generated so little interest in the general public that the comic book bearing its name would have been canceled years ago were it not for its venerable history, inspires such a protective instinct among fans. Take the Josh Trank directed Fantastic Four reboot, which was met with such tremendous resistance by the intenet before a single photo was even revealed. The basis of that resistance was (allegedly) the perception that the movie wasn’t faithful enough to the source material.
You know, that same source material that has been selling at close to cancellation numbers for a decade or more. The source material that spawned two uninspired blockbuster-by-numbers entries with 2005’s Fantastic Four and 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Those two movies, which were reasonably faithful to the comics, met with tepid critical and commercial success and stopped 20th Century Fox’s grand franchise plans for the FF dead in their tracks for nearly a decade.
But if you’re looking for a Fantastic Four movie that absolutely wants to do right by the brilliant work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and make no mistake, that creative partnership was never better than it was on the FF), one that makes sure that everything, right down to Sue Storm’s haircut is absolutely in line with the comics, one that gives you plenty of flame ons and no fewer than three it’s clobberin’ times then please direct your attention to 1994’s The Fantastic Four.
Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four was almost an urban legend in the pre-internet days. Made for an astonishingly low $2 million and shot on the cheap in a grueling 21 days, The Fantastic Four never saw any kind of official release, but circulated heavily on the comic convention bootleg circuit. If you look hard enough you might just be able to find yourself a decent looking version of it on the internet.
And you absolutely should.
Once upon a time, the film rights to Marvel Comics characters were in an even more fractured state than they are today. You think it’s bad sorting out Marvel Studios, 20th Century Fox, Sony, and maybe Universal? Yeah, forget it. Things were so weird back before our current golden age of superhero movies that a relatively small studio like Germany’s Neue Constantin (best known at the time for The NeverEnding Story and who later produced Downfall, the film that sparked countless Hitler memes) was able to secure the rights to the FF for approximately $250,000 in 1986.
It’s worth noting that Neue Constantin eventually became Constantin Film, and they still received credit on 20th Century Fox’s two Fantastic Four movies, so clearly there were still some legal matters that had to be sorted through. They don’t appear anywhere in the materials for Josh Trank’s film, but anyway, I digress.
Back to the story…
In the post Batman 1989 climate, superhero movies were looking more attractive to big studios. Marvel were hoping to land a substantial payday for an option from a larger studio once Constantin’s rights lapsed on December 31st, 1992. The thing is, Constantin had no intention of letting that option lapse, and as long as they were in production before the deadline, the FF rights would remain theirs. Constantin’s Bernd Eichlinger went to the one man they knew could make an ambitious sci-fi movie in a hurry and on a tiny budget for help: Roger Corman. Production began on December 28th, 1992, with just three days to spare before Marvel would get the rights back.
Corman didn’t direct The Fantastic Four, however. That unenviable task fell to Oley Sassone, who helped see the project through a whirlwind four week shoot on a budget that has been reported as low as $1 million to as high as…ummm…$2 million. Even the Dolph Lundgren Punisher flick had $11 million to work with, and that didn’t involve an orange rock monster or a guy who could stretch.
There’s an almost naive charm to this movie, one that’s driven home by the triumphant theme music by David and Eric Wurst (who coughed up six grand of their own cash for an orchestra), for one thing. But even had the budget and schedule been more forgiving (the script by Craig J. Nevius and Kevin Rock could have used another draft), The Fantastic Four would have felt like a movie out of time. Its tone is reminiscent of any number of mid-80s Spielberg knock-offs, even boasting an extended Superman: The Movie style extended opening credits sequence (only far less impressive) and even in 1994, it would have been a bit of an anachronism.
Kind of like the FF themselves, come to think of it…
The movie presents a pretty faithful origin story for both the team and Doctor Doom, updated only slightly to remove the early ’60s space race and Cold War concerns. To add a hint of authenticity from the team’s first adventure in Fantastic Four #1, the villainous Mole Man is replaced by “the Jeweler,” a skeevy subterranean thief with an army of misfits (instead of giant monsters) at his command and a creepy obsession with Ben Grimm’s love interest, Alicia Masters. Doom’s origin is intact, from his early friendship/rivalry with Reed Richards in college, to his disfigurement in a scientific accident, to his repeated moments of cackling madly on the throne of Latveria with an army (well, more like a gang) of Doombots to do his bidding.
To date, this is the most faithful version of Doctor Doom ever put in live action, and considering the liberties taken with the character for the new movie, it’s likely to remain that way for awhile. Doom certainly looks like his comic book counterpart, but perhaps some additional ADR would have helped make his dialogue more audible. To make up for the fact that you can’t see his face, Joseph Culp’s Doom gesticulates wildly, emphasizing every point with a wave of his hand or the point of a finger, like Darth Vader after some mime lessons and a few drinks.
The audio is one thing Culp wishes he could do again, and he explained what went wrong:
“The director, to his credit, wanted to keep as much of my actual performance as possible, so they only had me replace certain sections in post….what was re-recorded sounds clean and what was live sounds muffled and is just bad sound. I absolutely hated this and it broke my heart. I wished we would have gone back and replaced every single line and created more of a real effect for Doom’s “amplified” voice, which it certainly should’ve been.”
To keep the budget under control, Johnny Storm (Jay Underwood) doesn’t go full Human Torch until the film’s final moments, when crude animation is used to show him racing a laser beam into space (don’t ask). The Invisible Girl’s powers were certainly the easiest to do, but Rebecca Staab’s scenes are marred by the fact that Sue Storm is mostly busy being lovestruck with Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White), whose stretching is only deployed sparingly, and via endearingly crude practical effects.
I have to say, though…The Thing is a pretty impressive creation. Designed by John Vulich and Everett Burrell, who created the zombie effects for the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, they based Ben Grimm’s design off of the version John Byrne drew during his legendary run as writer and artist on the FF comics. “We asked for more time to sculpt the Thing suit, but it’s the best we could do on such short notice,” Vulich told Film Threat in 1993. They did a nice job with Dr. Doom’s armor, too.
Make no mistake, The Fantastic Four isn’t a very good movie. But it’s remarkable in, not only its fidelity to the source material, but the absolute sincerity with which it approaches such an impossible task considering its budget. The Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics that this tries so very hard to pay tribute to were time and dimension hopping stories of the highest adventure, and the only limit was whether or not Kirby’s drawing table would catch fire from the sheer volume of ideas per page. Sassone was determined to deliver a movie that would please comic scholars, and he studied the Lee/Kirby FF comics in the lead-up to production “to try and put some of those elements from the comic into the movie.” The movie may not succeed, but then again, other attempts with 50-100 times the budget fell short of the mark, too.
Things do flirt with unwatchability whenever secondary villain the Jeweler is on screen, as the already saccharine flick takes on an extraordinarily juvenile tone. On the other hand, if you watch it less as a feature film and more as a pilot for a syndicated kids’ TV series of the era, it comes off better, and I can almost imagine a parallel world where this version of the Fantastic Four occupied afternoon TV listings with something like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
As far as bad movies go, you have to give it up for The Fantastic Four for simply going for it in a way that its budget simply wouldn’t allow. While cable TV churns out unfunny “bad on purpose” fake b-movie garbage like Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus with terrifying regularity, The Fantastic Four is a more genuine cinematic curiosity. Were this a fan film done with practical effects in the modern internet age, it would probably become a viral sensation.
The Fantastic Four was scheduled to open on Labor Day weekend in 1993. It wasn’t to be. A January 1994 opening was floated, but never materialized, either. The curious could rent a VHS copy of another Corman production, Carnosaur (care to guess what movie that cheapie was looking to cash in on?) to see a trailer, which was allegedly shown in theaters, too.
And then it vanished, never to appear in any official capacity.
As recently as 2005, Roger Corman denied even owning a print of the movie. Reportedly, Marvel Studios founder Avi Arad purchased the film from Eichlinger “for a couple of million dollars in cash and burned it” (his own words, courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine). He clearly didn’t do a good enough job, because those who want to find this movie certainly can if they know where to look, and have been doing it quite often for the last two decades. Arad may not be the real supervillain here, though. There are those who believe Bernd Eichlinger made the movie strictly to hold on to the rights, and the idea of releasing it was never in the cards. Stan Lee himself said “it was never supposed to be seen by any living human beings,” something Eichlinger has repeatedly denied.
If what Lee said is true, they certainly didn’t tell the people actually making the movie. Oley Sassone, for one, was not amused, telling Los Angeles Magazine in 2005. “I wish these people would at least have had the fucking decency to say…let’s at least give this guy a decent copy of his work…Then…all the people who made this film…could show it proudly to their family and friends.” It’s tough to argue with that logic. Hopefully, somehow, Mr. Sassone will get his wish someday. He goes into more detail in the wonderful and remarkably touching documentary about this film, Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four, which you can read more about right here.
Something Oley Sassone told Film Threat back in ’93 now sounds prophetic, though. “I think [Marvel] has had problems with producers and their overall deals haven’t been good historically. I think they need to go to the big boys — to the studios.”
Or maybe just start their own.
Mike Cecchini has watched this movie more than anyone else you know. Point and laugh on Twitter.
* This article originally ran on June 26th, 2015 *