THE FANTASTIC FOUR
The Fantastic Four (the film version here) has a legendary reputation, especially in that the world at large has never seen the film. It has never received any cinematic or video/dvd release in fact, it has never been released in any form officially and the only copies available are bootleg ones that have been uploaded to various download sites. The Fantastic Four came about not long after the Tim Burton Batman (1989). The massive success of Batman saw a number of other comic-book properties making their way onto film during the early 1990s. Germanys Constantin Film production company had obtained an option on the rights to The Fantastic Four but these were about to lapse. Around this time, others were vying for the rights to The Fantastic Four, notably Chris Columbus who executive produced and was originally intending to direct the 2005 version. Constantin realised that if they quickly made a version of The Fantastic Four instead of letting the option lapse then Columbus and co would be forced to pay to obtain the rights off them. And so they turned to legendary producer-director Roger Corman, notorious for his low-budget films.
Thus The Fantastic Four was churned out by Cormans New Horizons production company with minimal effort accorded it and the intention of it never being released to theatres. The cast were convinced to defer upfront fees, led to believe the possibility it would be spun out as a tv series. Roger Corman gave the film no more than a $2 million budget, which is barely even the stars salary on most A-list films. The result was shelved and Constantin made a packet on-selling the rights to 20th Century Fox and laughing all the way to the bank. It must be said that very different stories abound as to what happened Constantin head Bernd Eichinger claims that it was Marvel Enterprises head Avi Arad who offered him money to not release the film, which is a little hard to believe given that Marvel had no problems with the release of the dire version of Captain America (1990) a couple of years earlier. Whatever the case, The Fantastic Four film has garnered a legendarily awful reputation mostly it appears from people who only know of the circumstances of its making. Seen, the film sits there and consistently defies any such reputation. Indeed, considering the parsimoniousness and cynicism of the circumstances under which it was made, The Fantastic Four emerges as far better than anything one might expect. In fact, the production finish on the film is an argument against its not ever intending to be released it is one thing to make a film that is not for release but to actually go into post-production on it is another story altogether.
The script is surprisingly faithful to the Marvel comic-book even more so than the 2005 version in many regards. The writers have clearly done their homework and are fans of the comic-books. There are all the familiar touches the Baxter Building, the blue suits, Reed with his grey sideburns, Bens love interest of the blind Alicia Masters, lines like Its clobberin time and Flame on. The Fours origin story of being irradiated aboard a space mission is depicted far closer to the comic-book than the way it was in the 2005 film. This Dr Doom is also far nearer to his original conception seeing him in his cape and metal-masked costume and ruling over Latveria, Doom could have almost stepped right off the comic-book page. Alex Hyde-Whites performance as Reed Richards is exactly the way one imagines him to be in the comic-book, even more than Ioan Gruffuds incarnation. Bens makeup as The Thing looks reasonably convincing and Carl Ciarfalio and Michael Bailey Smith play the part, capturing perfectly the gruff temperament that Ben has on the page.
The one character that does not work is Jay Underwoods Johnny where Underwood looks for all the world like Kirk Cameron has been cast in the role and simply emerges as too boyish. The other poor aspect is the villain The Jeweler, a character that does not appear in the comic-books but is original to the film. Ian Triggers performance is annoyingly over-the-top The Jeweler scenes feel like they have strayed in from a tattily budgeted childrens film, all madly overplayed cackling and with a jaunty carnival score, while the costuming makes the character look more like Warwick Davis in Leprechaun (1993) and sequels than a super-villain.
The cheapness of the production undeniably shows through. During the space mission, we only get a single exterior shot of the shuttle. All that we see of the meteor is cheap coloured light effects, while Dr Dooms Latverian castle is represented by a single matte painting. There is even stock NASA footage employed for the shuttle launch and tv disaster footage to stand in for the effects of the laser. Directorially, Oley Sassones handling is unexceptional the film has been shot in the Ultra-Stereo video process and the direction and lighting are plain and unadorned making the film looks like no more than filler tv or another of Roger Cormans B-budget action films.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the lack of budget fails to give the film enough room to open up and show the Fantastic Four in action as superheroes. The film is not unlike tvs Adventures of Superman (1952-8), The Amazing Spiderman (1977-9) or The Incredible Hulk (1977-81) where the production team could only produce economy superheroics and there were never such things as super-villains, merely the superheroes going into action against routine villains and thugs because there was no effects budget for anything bigger in scale. There are disappointing corners cut here Susans invisibility is the easiest to get away with, no more than some double-exposures and a disembodied voice; for Johnny as The Human Torch, we get merely animated optical overlays; while Reeds stretching is limited to only seeing part of a leg or an arm very occasionally stretched across a room but with something always preventing it from being shown in the same shot as Alex Hyde-White. Things finally start to get properly superheroic at the 57-minute mark where we get a minor flourish of powers during the escape from Dr Dooms castle with Ben punching out guards, Johnny manifesting a clearly animated thermic lance to burn through the walls, while Reed extends a leg to trip guards up and Susan turns invisible to trip and knock people out. It is tattily low-horizoned but at least its the Fantastic Four in action. And the film does get everything together for a modestly effective climactic battle involving Reed stretching his arms to punch people and rescue Dr Doom who has fallen halfway down the wall of the castle, Susan projecting a forcefield, and in particular Johnny finally becoming the Human Torch we all know and racing through the skies to deflect the path of the laser beam. It is here that The Fantastic Four finally does achieve something of suitably superheroic scale.
The story behind The Fantastic Four is told in the documentary Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Cormans The Fantastic Four (2015).
Full film available online here:-