I have a weakness for cheesy, "so bad they're good" low budget horror, sci-fi or action movies. I watch'em so you don't have to!
"The Fantastic Four" (1994)
Starring: Alex Hyde-White, Rebecca Staab, Jay Underwood, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp
Directed by: Oley Sasson
The heroes of Marvel Studios are sitting pretty atop the box office heap nowadays thanks to massively successful film franchises like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, but it wasn't an easy road to cinematic glory for the House of Ideas. Marvel spent most of the '80s and early '90s watching from the sidelines while their rivals at DC Comics turned Superman and Batman into successful film franchises. Spider-Man and X-Men enjoyed successful runs as animated TV shows, but a proposed live-action Spider-Man film (which, legend has it, might have starred a young Charlie Sheen as the web slinger!) was languishing in Development Hell and attempts at The Punisher (1989, starring Dolph Lundgren) and Captain America (1991, starring Matt Salinger) resulted in low budget turkeys that went quietly (and deservedly) to home video.
Unbeknownst to many True Believers, there was one Marvel Movie that didn't even make it THAT far.
I'm sure that most of us are familiar with the pair of mega-budget "Fantastic Four" films that starred Jessica Alba and Chris Evans (2005's Fantastic Four and 2007's Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), or 2015's disastrous attempt at an FF "reboot," but an earlier attempt at bringing "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine" to film was doomed to failure before the cameras ever rolled.
The Strange Saga
As the 1990s dawned, the German production company Constantin Film had been sitting on the movie rights to Fantastic Four for a number of years, and they realized that their option on the characters was set to expire unless they started shooting something - anything - right away. Constantin had envisioned The Fantastic Four as a big budget film, with a heavy reliance on eye-popping special effects, but they were unable to secure enough financing to begin the project. With their expiration date looming, Constantin knocked on the door of New Horizons Productions, home of B-Movie legend Roger Corman - a man who knew a thing or two about makin' movies quick and makin' em cheap. Corman and Constantin shook hands and before long The Fantastic Four had a cast, a director, a shooting schedule (of less than a month), and a budget of just $1.5 million to make it all happen. Yeah, that's Roger Corman all over.
Befitting its minuscule budget and pared-down presentation, The Fantastic Four plays like an ambitious fan film, or a pilot for an extremely cheap television series. When we first meet scientific genius Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and his close friend, athlete and tough guy Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) they're college students living at Mrs. Storm's off campus Boarding House, where they're idolized by their landlady's two young children, Sue and Johnny. (Geek trivia note: the pint-sized Sue Storm is played by a young Mercedes McNab, who would grow up to play the bloodsucking hottie "Harmony" in TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel.") Reed and his lab partner Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) are working on an experiment that will harness the energy from a passing comet called "Colossus." Naturally, something goes horribly wrong, Victor is believed killed in the ensuing explosion, and only the timely intervention of Ben saves Reed from the same fate.
Ten years later, a guilt-ridden Reed is still working on perfecting the experiment that he and Victor had started together. Colossus is due for another pass by Earth and he's built a rocket to intercept it. Ben is going to fly the ship and they recruit the now-grown Sue (Rebecca Staab) and Johnny (Jay Underwood) to fill out their crew...by simply showing up at their house and asking their Mom if they can come along. Yes, really! The centerpiece of the new and improved experiment is a gigantic diamond, which unfortunately is stolen and replaced with a fake prior to the mission by a subterranean villain named "The Jeweler" (a low rent version of the long time FF villain "Mole Man"). Once again, the mission goes horribly wrong, the ship crashes to Earth, and our four heroes quickly discover that the "cosmic rays" from Colossus have bestowed each of them with strange new abilities -- Reed can stretch his body to absurd lengths, Sue can turn invisible and project force fields, Johnny can throw fireballs, and Ben has transformed into a rock-like, super-strong gorilla with a bad skin condition. Though I'm sure that a good chunk of the film's minuscule budget was spent on Grimm's "Thing" costume, it never looks like anything more than a guy in an ill-fitting rubber suit.
As fate would have it, our heroes have crash landed on the island nation of Latveria, home of -- wait for it -- Doctor Doom (dun-dun-duuuuuun!), who captures them in order to study their amazing new powers.
Things move quickly from here. The newly christened Fantastic Four escape from Doom's castle and return to New York, where Ben Grimm quits the team... till the Jeweler reappears and puts Ben's beloved Alicia Masters (Kat Green) - who is a major player in the comic books, but who seems shoehorned into this film as an afterthought - in peril. Doctor Doom is revealed to be Reed's old friend Victor, now crazed and seeking revenge for the experiment that horribly scarred him a decade before. Doom makes short work of the traitorous Jeweler and his minions and steals back Reed's massive diamond, to use in his ultimate laser-beam weapon. Stuff gets blown up, Grimm sez "It's clobberin' time" a lot, Johnny "Human Torch" Blaze has to save New York City from destruction by turning into a cartoon character....and somewhere along the way, of course, Reed and Susan fall in love.
Yeah, I know, this sounds like a train wreck. But believe it or not, despite all of its flaws, The Fantastic Four was actually a lot of fun to watch. I have to give the actors credit, they all do a nice job with the ridiculous dialogue they're forced to spout. Culp in particular is a hoot as Doctor Doom, mincing around his Evil Headquarters, punctuating everything he says with wild hand gestures and lots of "MWA-HA-HA-HA's!"
Obviously the special effects are where the film suffers the most. Reed's "stretching" powers look ridiculous, and the sequence where Johnny finally does a full body "flame on" to stop Dr. Doom's laser beam (till then, he's only shown tossing fireballs from one hand) looks like a cheap cartoon. Other than the Fantastic Four's costumes (which neatly copy the FF's late '80s/early '90s look), the sets and other decorations look like yard-sale castoffs or leftovers from previous Corman sci-fi productions. I suppose that with the money they had to work with, it's a miracle that the film looks as good as it does. Overall, this Fantastic Four looks like it was a labor of love for the cast and crew, who were obviously trying to create something really cool under near-impossible conditions.
So Where Can I See It?
The Fantastic Four was slated to be released in the Summer of 1994. The cast members made comic-book convention appearances to promote the film, the news pages in Marvel's monthly comics provided updates on its production, and trailers appeared on some of Corman's home video releases. Just as the movie was due for its big gala premiere at the Mall of America in Minnesota, however, its plug was suddenly pulled.
In the cruelest cut of all, it turned out that Constantin never intended to actually release The Fantastic Four -- they just needed to show that they'd filmed something in order to retain their movie rights. Amazingly, they never told anyone in the cast or crew that the film was simply going to go on the shelf, which understandably caused much heartbreak for all involved. (Legend has it that even Roger Corman himself was blindsided by Constantin's underhanded move!) The Fantastic Four vanished, until a few screener copies found their way out of the vaults and became hot selling bootlegs at comic conventions. Now, of course, the film can be found easily on the Internet for those of you who know where to look (*cough cough YOUTUBE cough cough*).
Constantin Film finally re-used their option on the characters a decade later to produce the two big-budget "FF" films starring Jessica Alba et. al., both of which made a respectable amount of money but weren't particularly embraced by fans. 2015's rebooted version of Fantastic Four was one of that year's biggest flops. Even while their more expensive counterparts were in theaters, there was still no quickie cash-in DVD release of the "original" FF film. It's become the red headed step kid of the Marvel filmography, which is a shame because it's simply a fun B-Movie.
In my book, it certainly was a lot more fun than the dreary Punisher and Captain America films from the same period, and those at least were given a dignified, straight-to-video burial!! All members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society need to see this film at least once; as long as you don't compare it to the 21st Century "FF" movies you should have a fun, cheesy, clobberin' good time.
© 2012 Keith Abt
mrober92 on April 19, 2016:
I fing love this movie
Mr Showbiz on June 06, 2015:
Finally managed to see this movie yesterday morning via Youtube (it has its uses) and I was pleasantly surprised how good it is. Minor quibble about The Jeweller sub plot but that aside it really is..dare I say it...Fantastic. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on January 30, 2015:
I feel the same way, Thief... the trailer for the new film doesn't even look like an "F4" movie, it looks like just another generic sci-fi/action pic.
Carlo Giovannetti from Puerto Rico on January 30, 2015:
FFC, the trailer wasn't bad, but I wasn't impressed either. Seems like more of the same "new, gritty" approach to superhero films. Then again, I haven't been that big on recent superhero films, other than the Dark Knight ones, and I'm not even a huge fan of those, so I'm not necessarily the target audience.
M. T. Dremer from United States on January 29, 2015:
The thing looks like the stuff of 90's kids' nightmares. Also, based on the trailer, Sue Storm can become immaterial as well as invisible, otherwise those goons would have still run into her. (Maybe she just stepped out of the way.) I completely agree that this should get some kind of dvd release, or maybe put it as a special feature on the inevitable blue ray of the reboot. It's old enough that it can't tarnish the image of the brand now, so it would be a fun easter egg for long time fans.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on January 28, 2015:
Have you seen the trailer for the "new" F4 movie yet, Thief? I wasn't impressed, I think I'd rather watch the 1994 version again. Haha!
Carlo Giovannetti from Puerto Rico on January 28, 2015:
Oh my Gawd, that trailer! LOL. Interesting hub. Voted UP!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on December 03, 2012:
Yeah, Warners has owned DC since the '70s, so they had a head start.
Geekdom on December 03, 2012:
Before DC had Warner Brothers. Not Marvel has Disney. It is a battle of the titans. :)
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on December 03, 2012:
Very true... it took Marvel a while to catch up to DC in terms of film quality but I think they're definitely the front runners nowadays.
Geekdom on December 02, 2012:
Those direct to video movies like Dolph Lundgren's Punisher and Matt Salinger Captain America were truly awful. At least now we are getting a lot of great superhero films.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on September 14, 2012:
Cool, Domenick. Hope you get a kick out of this long lost cheesy gem.
Domenick Dicce on September 13, 2012:
I have seen bits and pieces of this awful film a few years ago and completely forgot about it. I am going to have to go on youtube and finally get around to watching the whole thing.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 25, 2012:
Awesome, Freedom! Yeah, I agree, for a movie made in the 90s it definitely had more of a 60s/70s feel. If they'd released this as a live action kids' film ala "Power Rangers," who knows, it could've actually been a hit!
FreedomMetal from Somewhere In Time on July 25, 2012:
Forgot to mention that I did finally watch it last weekend. Wow, it's bad, really really bad. Like USA Up All Night bad. In fact, it reminded me of those cheesy 70's B movies that they would play. Still, they should have allowed it to go to video - it would have survived as a camp classic!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 25, 2012:
Hi dblyn - yeah, it certainly disappeared without a trace, which is a shame cuz at the time a lot of fans were looking forward to it. You can watch the entire film on YouTube now (gotta love the internet!), if you check it out please feel free to come back and let me know what you thought of it!
dblyn from Staten Island, NY on July 25, 2012:
This is a great hub. I used to work in a comic book store at the time and I remember this getting pulled very fast and the rumors were that it was so bad, Marvel didn't want to release it. That was the story anyway. I knew a few artists at Marvel at the time and they didn't want to talk about it either. I can't wait to watch some of this on YouTube...
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 16, 2012:
Thanx for your responses, fellas!
@ A.A. - I was a big time comic geek when this film was in the works and before its plug was pulled, it got its fair share of press in the comic-industry/fan news grapevine, so I was aware of it (and wondered where it disappeared to!) back then...
@ Freedom - it's worth 90 minutes of your life on YouTube for sure, haha. Back in the day bootleg VHS tapes of this flick were going for $40 and up at comic book conventions, which was a little rich for my blood, that's why I never got around to seeing it till now.
FreedomMetal from Somewhere In Time on July 16, 2012:
Nice hub!!! I will have to hit Youtube when I have a chance to check it out!!!! I remember hearing about about this back in the day and sadly was never able to secure a copy on VHS. I did see The Punisher and Capt America, which were low budget and cheesy yet fun.
Augustine A Zavala from Texas on July 15, 2012:
I had no idea this film existed. How did you know?
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 15, 2012:
Cool man, glad you enjoyed it. To find this flick just go to YouTube and search for "Fantastic Four 1994" -- you should be able to find it easily. Enjoy!
CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on July 15, 2012:
Awesome hub! I will have to make a point of watching it. B-movies can be a lot of campy fun.