The Lost "Fantastic Four" Movie
"The Fantastic Four" (1994)
Starring: Alex Hyde-White, Rebecca Staab, Jay Underwood, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp
Directed by: Oley Sasson
The super heroes of Marvel Studios are certainly sitting pretty atop the box office heap nowadays thanks to massively successful film franchises like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and of course The Avengers, but it certainly 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 languishig in development Hell and attempts to bring The Punisher (1989, starring Dolph Lundgren) and Captain America (1991, starring Matt Salinger) to the big screen 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 eventually go on to play the bloodsucking hottie "Harmony" in TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and its spinoff, "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 -- the villainous Doctor Doom (dun-dun-duuuuuun!), who captures them in order to study their amazing new powers.
From there... well, things certainly move quickly, even if they don't make a helluva lot of sense. 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 an 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 do what they can 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!"
Naturally, 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) is so poorly CGI'd that it looks like a cheap Saturday morning 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, updates appeared on the news pages in Marvel's monthly comics, 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, 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 something on their books in order to retain their movie rights. The problem was, they never told anyone in the cast and 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 on the comic book convention circuit. 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*).
We all know how the story ends. Constantin Film finally re-used their option on the characters a decade later and partnered with 20th Century Fox to produce the two big-budget "FF" films starring Jessica Alba et. al., both of which made a pile 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