One of the most notorious films to “never happen” would be Roger Corman’s low-budget comic book adaptation of The Fantastic Four, a film that was never intended to see the light of day as it existed for the sole purpose of co-executive producer Bernd Eichinger retaining the Fantastic Four film rights and keeping them in his greedy little hands, sadly, this was a piece of information the bulk of the people involved in this production were unaware of.
Many people wonder at what point Roger Corman became aware of Bernd Eichinger’s plan of creating a film with no intention of ever releasing it, and I question anyone who wouldn’t be suspicious of making a movie based on something like the Fantastic Four for a paltry million dollars as that is rather ludicrous but as Corman was the king of low-budget filmmaking he could have seen this simply as a challenge. What cannot be denied is the lack of thought put into this production from the outset because no matter how little money was spent the problems really began at the script stage. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic was released to the world back in 1961, with its target audience consisting mostly of children under ten, and thus the premise of a scientist bringing his best friend, his girlfriend, and her teen brother into space in an untested craft probably made sense, but that was something that desperately needed updating if you didn’t want your film laughed out of the theatre.
The movie opens with college students Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) attending a lecture where their professor (George Gaynes) tells them of a passing comet that could take the theoretical possibility of travelling faster than the speed of light into the realm of the possible, but this isn’t news to either Reed or Victor as these two have been working on such a project for some time. We see Reed and Victor arguing over some of the elements of the experiment, with Reed wanting to proceed with more caution and testing while Victor is more confident in his equations. Needless to say, Reed was right to be cautious as the experiment goes horribly wrong and Victor is assumed dead. This does raise one major question, what college would allow two completely unsupervised students to build and operate a massive machine designed to harness the power of a passing comet?
It should be noted that in the comic book Victor Von Doom was Reed’s roommate but they were not working together on any sort of project, Victor was building a machine intended to communicate with the dead and he ignored Reed’s warnings that his calculations are off, and when the experiment blew up in his face a scarred Victor blamed Reed and went back home to Latveria to become the villainous Doctor Doom. The idea of tying Victor and Reed’s origin stories together would also be used in the 2005 Fantastic Four movie and the 2015 Fant4stic attempt and while it does make for a more concise screenplay the original idea could have worked as a flashback, in the case of this film, we are then forced to jump ahead ten years to find that Reed has built experimental spacecraft which he hopes to take up into path that same comet as it passes Earth and he holds his old college pal Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) to the promise he made back in the day that if he ever built a ship Ben would pilot it for him, he agrees but they still need a crew.
So where exactly do you go to find a couple of extra astronauts? Well, during their college days, Reed and Ben lived at Mrs. Storm’s Boarding House where they were befriended by her two children and, apparently, they kept in touch and so it’s obvious to Ben that they’d be ideal members of the team. To be fair, we do get Reed pointing out “This is crazy, what do they know about astrophysics?” which Ben counters with “They may not have Harvard diplomas but they know more about this project than anyone else on Earth. Besides, if you don’t let them come, they will never forgive you” and as Sue Storm (Rebecca Staab) grew up hot, who I should point out was fourteen when they first met, the power of boners wins out and he agrees to take her, along with her younger brother Johnny (Jay Underwood) on a mission to space that could easily kill all on board.
It’s at this point we are introduced to a strange man known as The Jeweler (Ian Trigger), a diminutive personage who lives under New York City, who was clearly supposed to be The Mole Man, who appeared in the very first issue of The Fantastic Four, but due to the wacky world of right’s issues they had to swap that character out for this bizarre discount version. And exactly how does this knock-off Mole Man fit into this story? Turns out that a special diamond is required for Reed’s spacecraft to enter the comet’s path safely and The Jeweler steals it and replaces it with an imitation, this leaves the crew exposed to cosmic radiation which then results in them gaining remarkable powers. We also get a “meet-cute” between Ben Grimm and a blind artist named Alicia Masters (Kat green), who in the comic was the daughter of the villainous Puppet Master but here is someone who simply catches the eye of The Jeweler, so while our heroes are off getting superpowers she is stalked and kidnapped by a literal troll.
But what about Doctor Doom, isn’t he the villain of this movie? It turns out he did survive that explosion but a couple of Latverian stooges were able to spirit away his burnt body and now ten years later he has plans to stop Reed and company from launching a successful space mission, jealous much, but his diabolical plan is accidentally aided by The Jeweler, who stole the diamond as a wedding present for his kidnapped bride-to-be, but Doom still has his own need for the diamond as it will power a laser cannon powerful enough to destroy New York City, thus he will eventually have to venture forth into the underworld to claim his prize from this under dweller.
And what would our four heroes be doing during all this? Well, after crash-landing on Earth, due to the fake diamond not providing the needed protection, they discover that the cosmic rays have given them special powers. Reed’s bodily structure has become elastic, Sue can become invisible, Johnny can generate fire on demand and Ben has transformed into a creature with stone-like skin and he will henceforth be known as the Thing (Carl Ciarfalio) and he will be the rightfully bitter one of the group. We are later told these transformations reflect their personalities; Sue has always been shy, Johnny a bit of a hothead and Reed always stretched himself too thin, but poor Ben is turned into a monster because he always tended to use brawn instead of brain. Who knew cosmic forces also worked as manifested therapy? Also, I call bullshit on the cosmic forces because we never saw Ben using his brawn instead of his brain.
When Doctor Doom learns that Reed and his friends have somehow survived the destruction of their spacecraft he sends out men posing as Marines to bring them back to his castle for study, and when he learns what powers the comet has granted them he orders his top scientist, Dr. Hauptman (Robert Alan Beuth), to find a way of draining them of their powers and somehow instilling them all in Doom so that he could become a being of unspeakable power. And sure, this does sound like a right and proper villainous plan for a comic book villain but what this film didn’t need was unnecessary villains like The Jeweller to spice things up. The screenplay for this film is so crammed with stuff that the end result is a bit of a mess. We get these bizarre tonal shifts throughout the film’s brief 90-minute running time as we go from the drama of Ben’s transformation into the Thing to Doctor Doom’s henchmen running around like a pair of bumbling idiots as if they’d escaped from an Abbott and Costello movie, and none of it really works.
This film may have had a minuscule budget but that certainly doesn’t excuse the bad writing or the incredible amounts of over-acting on display here, though to be fair to the actors much of that comes from the directions they were given by director Oley Sassone, such as Joseph Culp being told to channel Mussolini in his portrayal of Doctor Doom, that said, his performance is so over-the-top and campy that it is beyond laughable and only so much can be blamed on the director. But Culp isn’t the only one giving a cheese-ladled performance as the whole cast provides some truly cringe-inducing scenes that would get most actors fired from Dinner Theatre. When the film reaches its “action-packed” climax we’ve barely had time to get invested in the plight of our supposed heroes or figure out what Doctor Doom is exactly trying to achieve and why, or even the most basic elements of the film’s so-called plot.
• If Commandant Lassard from Police Academy is lecturing you on cosmic radiation there is a possibility you have wandered into a sanitarium and not a college lecture hall.
• We see Ben Grimm sitting behind Reed during the film’s opening science lecture but why is he there, was he auditing the course or something?
• The spacesuits look like something eight-year-olds would cobble together for Halloween but without help from their parents.
• In the comic the Fantastic Four were “bathed in cosmic radiation” but in this movie their ship also explodes while in space, so how exactly did they survive the explosion let alone make it back down to Earth?
• Alicia Masters is commissioned to sculpt a memorial statue for the presumed dead astronauts but why are they worthy of commemorating, is flying into space and exploding all that worthy? It’s not like they were noteworthy personages before they met their fate.
• The actor playing Ben Grimm was 6′ 4″ while the actor playing The Thing was only 6’ which seems to be an odd bit of casting.
• Ben Grimm reverts to his human form when Alicia calls out that she loves him, apparently the writers of this movie were big fans of Beauty and the Beast.
• As the Invisible Woman Sue Storm’s fighting technique mostly involved turning invisible so her enemies would hit each other but at one point she does create a force field and while his ability is in the comic it comes out of left field here with no explanation.
• Johnny goes all “Flame On” to stop Doctor Doom’s laser from destroying New York City but as lasers tend to travel at the speed of light I must ask “How exactly did he expect to pull this off?”
When you hear the cast and crew talk about this film it’s obvious they felt they were making something special and even on a limited budget they’d hope to release a film that would please fans but even with ten times the budget I can’t see any way in which this movie would have worked. The fact that the production was housed in a condemned barn, one that relied on a cat to keep the rat population at bay, or that both Dr. Doom and The Thing often suffered from muffled dialogue because the producers decided to not bother to loop their dialogue later just to save a little more money should have been a clue to all involved as to what the end product would be, not to mention the insanely cheap visual effects that all went toward making this a less than a stellar project. That all said, even if this film had received a theatrical release it would have most likely have been as well-received as those other Marvel half-assed projects like The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren and Albert Pyun’s Captain America and would have most likely bombed just as hard.
Side Note: The actors spent their own money to appear at conventions to promote the film, a film that the producers knew was never going to be released, and that’s more evil than anything we see Doctor Doom do in this movie.
I should point out that there are a couple of bright spots in this otherwise disastrous production; the suits built for Ben Grimm as the Thing and the costume for Doctor Doom were way better than what this film deserved and I’d go so far as to say that they were even better than what was later used for the 2005 Fantastic Four movie, though to be honest, that isn’t saying much and is damning with faint praise. Then we have the score composed by David and Eric Wurst, who on their dime provided a forty-piece orchestra to give the film the depth and feel they believed the film warranted, and they came up with a truly beautiful score that is actually so good that it makes everything on the screen look even cheaper by comparison, and while this film never received a proper release it is not some “lost gem” that got shelved by a corrupt studio exec, it’s a bad movie that is only entertaining due to just how bad it actually is.
Note: There is a fascinating documentary called Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four, with many of the cast and crew going into detail explaining what exactly happened with this production, and it is easily more entertaining than the film itself.
The Fantastic Four (1994)
Movie Rank - 4/10
Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four was one of the many speed bumps along the way towards Marvel’s Cinematic Universe but I still find it more entertaining than the two big-budget Fox films that came out in the early 2000s, and it’s certainly a lot better than 2015’s Fant4stic.