Today, 31st May 2019, marks the 25th anniversary of the one and only screening of Roger Corman’s infamously unreleased “The Fantastic Four”. Tax write-off? Copyright obligation? Shits ‘n’ giggles? Whatever the reason, this million-dollar movie was apparently never meant to see the light of day, but then again if you want to find it, it’s really not that hard.
Produced by Roger Corman and Bernd Eichinger (who would go on to produce 2005’s “Fantastic Four” as well), “The Fantastic Four” certainly lives up to the Corman brand. It’s cheap, often cheerful, super-cheesy but – crucially – also often entertaining.
It opens with a cameo from George ‘Commandant Lassard’ Gaynes as a professor lecturing young students Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) who plan to use a passing comet to further their experiments. Unfortunately, their experiment goes awry and Victor Von Doom is severely burned. Thinking his friend dead, Richards continues his studies and, ten years later, embarks on a space mission to study that same comet, accompanied by his pilot friend Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) and Sue (Rebecca Staab), Johnny (Jay Underwood) as crew. But the mission has been sabotaged and exposes them to strange cosmic rays, changing the four astronauts forever.
There’s a slightly creepy vibe to the age difference between Reed and Sue in this movie as young Sue Storm is played by Mercedes McNab, only for Rebecca Staab to take over whereas Reed Richards is played by the same actor throughout. The other main cast difference is, much like “The Incredible Hulk”, they use different actors for Ben Grimm and The Thing, with the latter being played by Carl Ciarfalio in a prosthetic suit. The Thing may look a little like somebody cosplaying Mentor from “The Last Starfighter” but, while far from perfect, it clearly used up a lot of the available budget. For the others, there’s some truly terrible hair on show, from Reed’s painted on greying temples to Johnny Storm’s unfeasibly yellow barnet and the Fantastic Four costumes are the cheapest lycra jumpsuits imaginable.
The acting is cheesy and, the further you stray from the main cast, variable but no worse than you’d get in an average episode of “Power Rangers” and the main cast are pretty earnest, clearly doing everything they can to elevate the production above its limitations. Director Oley Sassone may be lumbered with production values which would shame a homemade fan film but he still finds opportunities to impress, even managing to get a few shots that look lifted straight from a silver age comic panel.
Having watched “Doctor Who” through the seventies and eighties, the cheap and basic effects used here didn’t phase me and while there’s room for improvement across the board, there’s still fun to be had with this clunky but good-natured movie.
The film’s Doctor Doom is waaaaaay over the top, but he kind of should be. Yes, the armour looks a bit on the cheap side and it’s cacophonously rattly but the mask is absolutely spot-on and it’s still the closest Doom has ever gotten in a movie to his animated and comic book persona. This is definitely a Doom that would toot as he pleases.
There’s also a secondary villain, The Jeweller, who helps involve Alicia Masters in the story, interrupting her re-enactment of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” video because despite its limited resources, the film still tries to involve as much Fantastic Four lore as it possibly can. The music, though, is the wurst – David And Eric Wurst to be precise and it’s actually not too bad, if a little generic.
In common with the bigger budget attempts which followed it, there’s a lot of set-up for not much payoff but where this differs from its successors is that although it’s made for peanuts, it channels the wide-eyed innocent attitude of the 1960s comics better than any of the other have managed.
It may stretch your patience beyond even Mr Fantastic’s capabilities, but if you can overlook its many, many shortcomings, you might just have some fun with this campy, low-cost throwback. Hard to believe that just four short years later, Marvel would finally find theatrical success and kick off their modern super-hero boom with “Blade” – something that may never have come to pass if this movie had made it to cinemas instead of following the likes of “The Star Wars Holiday Special” into bootleg legend.