The Fantastic Four

US (1994) Dir. Oley Sassone

The subject of this review is one of the more unique titles to be featured on this site, a film both notorious and celebrated for a number of reasons that have seen it earn its place in movie folklore despite it never actually being released! How is it possible to review an unreleased film? We’ll get to that another time, but first we’ll take a look at the film in question, the legendary original big screen outing for Marvel’s Fantastic Four, produced by the King of Cheap, Roger Corman!

In the early 80’s college science students Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) plan to harness the cosmic rays from a rare passing comet for an experiment. However, the comet is too powerful and their equipment explodes, leaving Victor so badly burned he is later pronounced dead. A decade later, Reed is asked to pilot a spacecraft powered by a special diamond as the comet is again in orbit.

He forms a crew of college friend Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) and siblings Sue (Rebecca Staab) and Johnny Storm (Jay Underwood). Before the mission, the diamond had been switched by master criminal The Jeweller (Ian Trigger), the faux version causing the cosmic rays from the comet to explode and send the ship crashing back down to earth. When the crew awake, they each discover they now have unique super powers.

There is so much to discuss about this film, we should be grateful that a documentary Doomed – The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four was made to provide the answers. If you’ve never heard of this version of The Fantastic Four that is forgivable since the decision not to release it is a vital part of its legend. In many ways, this decision probably did it a favour since it was made in a rush and on a shoestring budget for a comic book film.

A little context – production began in late 1992, during which time Terminator 2: Judgment Day had already set a new benchmark for SFX and the release of Jurassic Park was a few months way and was about to do the same. The total budget for this film was $1 million, probably the same as the catering bills for the aforementioned two films, and every single cent of it is on the screen, good or bad.

On the “good” side, the suit for The Thing (the mutated Ben Grimm) is actually pretty cool, especially the face mask which moves and reacts according to the facial movement of the actor (stuntman Carl Ciarfalio), so whether he’s happy, angry, or sad, we get the full range. The music soundtrack from David and Eric Wurst is stirring and suitably symphonic, though they funded this themselves, saving the producers a further $6000.

Generally the story isn’t that bad either, but at only 90 minutes long (surprisingly, even with is meagre budget) liberties and shortcuts had to be taken, for an origin story. This means the final showdown between our heroes and Dr. Doom is short and anti-climactic and some of the points along the away are simply thrown into the discussion rather than occur naturally. But, it’s easy to follow and is in the spirit of the comics.

Unfortunately, this poses other problems, such as explaining who The Jeweller is and the implausibly romance between Ben and blind sculptor Alicia Masters (Kat Green), who declares her love for after one brief meeting! Dr. Doom’s anger at the world is less justified than his anger at Reed, and let’s not even wonder how Sue was able to make costumes to accommodate Johnny’s flames, Reed’s elasticity, and her own invisibility.

Ah, yes the costumes. This was before the days of making them credible for the live action medium, instead aping the comic book designs to a T, something even the cast admit were horrible to wear. But, they had little money to work and this was just one casualty of that. Had this been made a decade earlier it might have been passable, but in 1993 even its best effects were sorely dated.

From Reed’s hose pipe-esque extendable arms, to the Human Torch being animated via late 80’s style CG, it is easy to see why the lack of funding was a monumental mistake though one can’t fault the effort and earnestness of the cast and crew in working under such restrictive conditions. Elsewhere, it was things like not doing ay ADR for Dr. Doom’s dialogue, so despite Joseph Culp possessing a suitably sonorous and mellifluous voice, it is obscured by the mask and the acoustics of his cavernous surroundings.

Despite believing in themselves and the film, the acting ranges from competent to awful with the odd flash of acceptable. I’d argue the best performer was from George Gaynes (of Police Academy fame) whose cameo at the start of the film as a science professor is the best turn of the whole thing! But they tried, and with no table read or rehearsals, they did as best they could.

From the perspective of being a film that is so bad it is entertaining, their efforts were probably enough and the good intentions permeate through its major production shortcomings; as a film expecting to sit alongside the standard bearers of the time (Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman), being honest, this version of The Fantastic Four would have died a death from the onset.

So, is this why it wasn’t released after all the time, effort, and even months of major publicity by the cast? Not exactly, the answers to which are found in Doomed – The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.