The latest attempt at a “Fantastic Four” franchise is up against stiff odds.
The troubled project finally hit theaters Friday, only to be greeted by a critical drubbing. This falls in line with the previous releases, the underwhelming 2005 film and its 2007 sequel, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” Marvel, owner of the characters in other media, has basically disavowed The Four, ending the comic book series and suspending licensing to blunt expectations.
The worst, however, rests in a movie you probably never saw — the 1994 version of “The Fantastic Four.”
Comic book conventioneers and bad movie mavens have long sought out copies of this smothered production. The curious tale of Hollywood backroom dealings, and a legendary case of a buried completed film, begins back in the 1980s when Marvel had a price tag dangling from the names in their character stable. One outfit, interested in the Fantastic Four, was German production company Constantin Films. The CEO, Bernd Eichenger, approached Marvel with a checkbook, securing the rights in 1986.
In Hollywood there is a wide gulf between possession and production. Eichenger spent years trying to get funding for his dream project, and by 1992 he faced a deadline. His entitlements to the property were contingent on having a film in the production stage by the end of the year. Without it, those rights would revert back to Marvel. Unable to secure the tens of millions he needed for a proper budget, Eichenger opted for a gambit in the opposite direction.
Together they schemed to produce a super hero motion picture as cheaply as possible …
In the comic book business, a longtime practice was used for preserving copyrights by producing what are called “ashcan” issues — printing a handful of copies not intended for production, solely done for maintaining legal rights. Eichenger effectively would resort to producing an ashcan movie.
In the fall of 1992 he approached legendary director — and noted skinflint — Roger Corman. Together they schemed to produce a super hero motion picture as cheaply as possible, and one ultimately few would see. They began production on Dec. 28, 1992 — three days before the rights would expire.
The budget dictated a cast consisting of a character performer, a child actor, a former Miss Nebraska and a football player in his second film. The costume department conjured rudimentary uniforms that were, in the case of Rebecca Staab (Sue Storm), revelatory.
Film Threat magazine reported the crew was always in attendance for filming of Staab’s scenes because of her form-fitting Lycra. Conversely, the costume for The Thing was actually impressive for the era and budget. The bulk of pre-production was centered on crafting that outfit, complete with animatronic facial expressions.
The end result is a movie of polarized quality. The good parts are entertaining. The score is high-grade, as are the sound effects. Some performances are decent. Alex Hyde-White is rather good as Reed Richards, and he and Staab have nice chemistry, but Jay Underwood’s Johnny Storm is over-caffeinated. Dr. Doom (Joseph Culp) gesticulates like a Power Rangers understudy. The special effects are problematic. Johnny Storm barely combusts as the Human Torch, and when he “flames on” the fires are provided via animation. The less said about Mr. Fantastic, the better.
Corman and Sassone wrapped up shooting in less than a month. The myth follows that the movie was never intended to be released; it was simply shot and canned. In a 2005 interview, Stan Lee makes the stark declaration: “That movie was never supposed to be shown to anybody. It was never supposed to be seen by any living human beings.” And yet, Lee visited the set and effused over the actors during the production. Additionally, a completed print was made as well as a trailer, unlikely energy the generic-soda-sipping Corman would expend on a folly.
The less said about Mr. Fantastic, the better.
While gauzy promises of release dates were floated the cast made a number of promotional appearances, but that’s when word come down from Eichenger. He told the players to cease the PR work. The movie was being shelved. No further action was taken, and the movie was never released in any format.
So why was the plug pulled on the film? In truth, it may have never been plugged in to begin with, but how then to explain this energy following the filming? The director spent a year editing the movie to completion, without the knowledge of the studio. The actors funded the PR work, expecting future stardom.
The fate of the finished movie, goes the accepted legend, is Marvel producer Avi Arad, looking to preserve the integrity of the Fantastic Four product, bought off Constantine and Corman. Arad was executive producer of the 20th Century Fox motion picture in 2005. Burying a title thought to be sub-par seems reasonable.
Marvel certainly had a hand to ensure that 1994 movie would be seen by no one. Much of the evidence shows the company prefers you don’t see the newest release of their characters as well.
Audiences may finally get the full story about the project. “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four,” will play Wednesday in Los Angeles with a home video and modest theatrical release planned for early 2016, according to Variety.