With the forthcoming Fantastic Four movie about to arrive in cinemas, Neil Calloway looks at a doomed attempt to start the franchise…
The latest Fantastic Four film is the second attempt to reproduce the comic characters on the big screen; everyone knows about the film made in 2005 and its 2007 sequel, both of which did respectable, if not stratospheric business at the box office.
Less well-known is the 1994 film The Fantastic Four. The 1990s were an odd time for films based on Marvel Comics; 1990 saw the release of a Captain America movie starring the son of the guy who wrote The Catcher in the Rye. Marvel seemed to be concentrating more on animated television shows than big budget live action films, and those of you who watched the first episode of the Flickering Myth Movie Show will know that various Marvel properties were owned by different studios in the 1990s, before being brought under one roof and becoming the cinematic behemoth that is the MCU.
A German film producer, Bernd Eichinger, who would go on to produce the 2005 Fantastic Four film as well as more cerebral fare like the meme inspiring Downfall and the 1970s set left-wing terror movie The Baader Meinhof Complex, owned the rights, but needed to begin principal photography before the end of 1992. Unable to raise the $40 million for the film and running out of time, he turned to Roger Corman, a master in getting films made cheaply and quickly.
Corman is a legend in B Movie circles; he’s produced more films than you’d think was humanly possible and given early breaks to everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to Jack Nicholson. He started working in Hollywood in the 1950s and is still at it today. He was making a film called The Fast and the Furious more than ten years before Vin Diesel was born, and Grand Theft Auto decades before Rockstar Games existed. If you want a film made on time and on budget, Corman is your man. Just don’t expect any Oscar-winning films.
The low-budget is reflected in the film, which has been leaked online. Starring C list TV actors (Mercedes McNab, later to turn up in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, plays the young Susan Storm, and Doctor Doom is played by Joseph Culp, who would go on to play Don Draper’s father in Mad Men), and the production values are of a 1990s daytime soap, with some rather clunky dialogue – “Mrs Storm, can Johnny and Susan come to space with us?”, “Look at you, the fantastic four.” (this last one is said before they have received their powers). It’s not a great film, and the catering budget for the new Fantastic Four movie probably cost more than the entire budge of this one, but it certainly looks better than the sort of mockbuster the Asylum churn out.
Stan Lee claims that the film was never meant to be released, and that it was only made so Eichinger would retain the rights, but the cast and crew believed that they were working on a legitimate film, and the fact that some pre-release magazine interviews were given and a trailer appearing would seem to back that up. Of course, the cast and crew don’t always have a say when the studio get involved…
Avi Arad, then just an executive at Marvel, later to be the founder of Marvel Studios, bought the rights to the film and buried it. Well, he didn’t actually bury it, like those Atari cartridges for the ET game that bombed, or the original prints of The Wicker Man, which found their way into a motorway, he just ensured it didn’t get a release. Corman made a profit, so he was happy, and Eichinger retained the rights so he was happy and the franchise wasn’t sullied with a sub par production, so Marvel were happy. Lovers of unreleased films were also happy, of course.
With the new documentary telling the story behind the ill-fated Superman Lives project and the 2013’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, about the attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel to the big screen, there appears to be a growing interest in unmade and unreleased films, and The Fantastic Four is no exception; after a long gestation, DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s “The Fantastic Four” is due to be screened this month in LA, and will hopefully get a wide release. Unless Marvel buy the rights, of course…
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.