Unreleased But Viewable: Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four (1994)

In preparation of the latest Fantastic Four abomination, Chris J. reviews the abandoned Corman film.

"Welcome to Cobra headquarters."
It's one of the saddest and most notorious tales in the history of comic book cinema; something so strange that it almost sounds like the plot of a movie itself. A cast and crew poured their talents into a dream project, only to learn they were conned into making a movie that would never be allowed to see the light of day. A lost movie that would be deliberately leaked as a bootleg, just so it could find its audience by whatever means necessary. The ultimate unreleased-but-viewable film that would become an unlikely cult classic despite never being legally shown. Now, with its reboot hitting theaters this weekend, it's high time to take another look at the cinematic oddity that is Roger Corman's 1994 production of The Fantastic Four.

The story has taken on almost urban legend status, and it's hard to separate the truth from the rumors (so far, anyway...), but the story goes something like this: in the 1980s, producer Bernd Eichinger acquired the rights to make a Fantastic Four movie, but for years every studio he approached about the project struggled to come up with a way to realize the superhero team's highly visual powers on-screen.  With his rights about to expire unless he could renew them by rushing a movie into production, he came to Roger Corman's New Horizons pictures, and commissioned them to make The Fantastic Four for a mere one million dollars. Being the master of low-budget genre films, Corman and company rose to the challenge, and director Oley Sassone's film was completed, advertized, and slated for release... until it was pulled and shelved indefinitely shortly before its already-planned premiere.

Some rumors say that Eichinger's production company never meant the film to be released at all, and merely produced it to exploit a contractual loophole (he did keep the rights, and produced the subsequent Fantastic Four a decade later); other rumors say that he had every intention of releasing it, but Marvel forced Corman to bury the film so it wouldn't tarnish the franchise. The exact truth has not yet been documented – although the story is so intriguing and bizarre that an upcoming documentary, Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four, has done the detective work and will hopefully solve the mystery at last. In the mean time, whatever the truth behind its sad fate, this 1994 Fantastic Four has gone down in history as one of the most famous unreleased films ever. And one of the illustrious few in that category that we can actually see, since someone close to the film deliberately leaked it as a bootleg just so it could be seen somehow. And while it's no masterpiece, it definitely deserved better than what it got.

"Do we look uncomfortable?"
1994's Fantastic Four is a superhero movie from a different era. This was long before the genre was the go-to staple of summer blockbusters; in fact, comic book films were still considered somewhat niche and a bit of a risk to attempt in the mainstream. Yes, Batman and Superman had been gigantic hits, but other comic adaptations were all over the place, with many of them being low-budget TV or straight-to-video films. This was especially true of Marvel properties, which had come nowhere close to cracking the formula for big-screen success (this was just a few years out from Albert Pyun's Captain America and the Dolph Lundgren The Punisher). And so while it is tempting to compare this film to its 2005 or 2015 counterparts, it's important to remember that this was made in a different mode of filmmaking altogether. As director Oley Sassone has himself said, this wasn't intended as a blockbuster for adults (especially not today's Marvel film audience), but a movie for kids, done in the style of vintage serials, classic 1960s comic books, and Saturday morning cartoons. It wasn't trying to compete with Tim Burton's Batman so much as it was trying to compete with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films.

Judged within that context, it more or less works. There's no denying that it's a film with plenty of flaws, and I can't actually call it “good,” but it nonetheless has a charm and sense of wonder and innocence that makes it quite likeable in its own silly, over-the-top way. Rather than a cynical cash-grab of a comic-book movie (looking at you, Michael Bay), or a passionless sequel that's just going through the motions (Spider-Man 3, Batman and Robin), what we have here is a film with its heart in the right place, made by people who clearly wanted to make it as good as possible... but as good as possible was quite limited by the time, money, and talent they had access to. But nonetheless, you can see and appreciate what they were going for, and sometimes they really succeed.

It becomes clear pretty quickly that Corman and Sassone weren't trying to make a cutting-edge Fantastic Four for the 1990s, but rather a nostalgic tribute to the original 1960s comics, and the adventure stories of that same era. The visuals are highly evocative of Jack Kirby's comics, and at their best are very well-done. The colors are stylized and exaggerated with an emphasis on blues and reds, heavy use of shadows add contrast to the image in some key sequences, and set and character designs seek to re-create the look of a comic-book world rather than reality. Yes, Doctor Doom's lair looks a bit like a Journey album cover, and Reed Richards' lab looks like it was furnished with leftovers from Forbidden Planet and 2001, but that's exactly the point, and exactly why those sets are so much fun. Even the dorky Fantastic Four uniforms seem to be deliberately quaint and cheesy – The Human Torch even jokes about how dumb they look – as an affectionate throwback to comics' past. There are times when the sets and art design obviously show their low budget, but the filmmakers clearly took the limitations in stride and integrated them into their knowingly somewhat camp nostalgia trip. Say what you will about other aspects of the production, but they knew exactly what they were doing when it came to the film's aesthetic, and it is the area in which the movie is most consistently successful.

"I stole these from Freddy Krueger.
How cool is that?"
The special effects are far more uneven – wildly so – but again, when they're good they're quite impressive for such a low-budget film. Much of the time Mister Fantastic and The Human Torch's superpowers are visualized using a combination of animation and matte work, and it looks quite good. Decidedly retro for 1994, but that's part of the charm, and it works well. But when Mister Fantastic's stretchy limbs are portrayed using practical effects it's... well... bad, like some sort of ACME extendo-glove in a conspicuously loose sleeve. And when a couple big effects sequences use full-on CGI, it's astonishingly bad. Like, Reboot, Transformers: Beast Wars, or PlayStation cut-scene quality, which may all be fine in their own contexts, but have no place in a feature film intended (or so the filmmakers thought...) for the big screen. But then on the flipside of all that, there's The Thing. The glorious Thing. He looks truly fantastic, and has become the one really well-known symbol of this lesser-seen film. A rubber-suit practical creature with very detailed servo-controlled facial movements, The Thing is where much of the movie's budget must have gone, and it was worth every penny. He's very nearly on the level of the Jim Henson Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – and even if there's only one of him, that's not too shabby for a film made with 1/13th of the original TMNT's budget.

The acting is another area where the film is wildly uneven, though leaning towards bad. The standout performance comes from Joseph Culp as Doctor Doom: he is charismatic in his early scenes as physics grad student Victor, then menacing with just the right amount of over-the-top mania once he dons the iron mask. He has a similar quality to Jeffrey Combs, and is great for the part. Although I can't help but notice that his transformation into Doctor Doom happens before he has finished his doctorate... so he actually has no more than a master's degree in doom. The Fantastic Four themselves are pretty decent, if unspectacular: they don't have much character development to work with, but they all do well enough with what they are given, channeling the movie's cartoony style into characterizations that are kind of stilted and cheesy, but appropriate to the film that they are in. That is, except for The Human Torch, who is so broadly overstated as the comic relief that he just ends up being obnoxious. But the really wild overacting comes from the supporting cast, particularly the minions of the film's two villains, who chew a distracting amount of the scenery. Perhaps they were having fun with the campy script, or perhaps they were trying to embody the project's style of comic-book characterzation, or perhaps they were just inexperienced actors giving the roles their all and didn't realize that a little restraint is a good thing, but for whatever the reason there are some bizarrely stilted performances going on in this film.

"Three different movie versions and still
the best looking Thing."
But having said that about the acting, one must admit: everyone involved clearly gave The Fantastic Four all they had, and no one ever phoned it in. And even with these flaws, that obvious desire by everyone involved to make the best movie that they could with so little money gives it a likeable charm. Even if the results are very uneven, the film has a heart that makes you want to enjoy it; it's an underdog that you really want to root for. And when it's all said and done, this really isn't that bad a movie; it's not that good either, but it certainly is better than some that actually got released, like the 1990 Albert Pyun Captain America. If the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films are a good reference point for what this film was trying to achieve, its quality could be summed up as not quite as good as TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze, but easily better than TMNT III. In style and tone (though definitely not in budget) it also reminds me a bit of the Masters of the Universe and Super Mario Bros films; not great, but a lot of nostalgic fun. It certainly did not deserve its cruel fate, and it would have found its audience upon its release, at least on home video. It was made for kids of the early-1990s, and they would have really enjoyed it. I certainly would have liked it a lot when I was a kid in the early-90s; at the very least, I would have loved this version of The Thing as a hero, and this Doctor Doom as a villain.

Hopefully someday Marvel will decide to release this film after all. The actual prints and film stock were allegedly destroyed, so a blu-ray is likely out of the question, but the source of all these bootlegs actually looks quite good enough for DVD: a first-generation tape of a telecine transfer of the final cut of the film, with finished color correction and special effects and everything. The bootlegs that have circulated for years don't look that pristine, of course, but somewhere out there is the master tape that they came from, which likely looks as good as any official VHS would have. In the mean time, though, the versions floating around YouTube will have to suffice. And with the new Fantastic Four hitting theaters this weekend, it's the perfect time to check this original movie out if you haven't yet, and see the film behind all the myths and legends. While it obviously has a lot more money and a better cast, will this new Fantastic Four be much better than this buried version from twenty years ago, or will Marvel's superhero team continue to struggle to find the right home on the big screen? We'll know soon enough...

- Christopher S. Jordan

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