Studio: Uncork’d Entertainment
Director: Marty Langford
Writer: Marty Langford
Producer: Marty Langford, Mark Sikes
Stars: Joseph Culp, Carl Ciarfalio, Jay Underwood, Kat Green, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Alex Hyde-White, Oley Sassone, Mark Sikes, Glenn Garland, Lloyd Kaufman, Roger Corman
Cast and crew chronicle the behind-the-scenes story of production on Roger Corman’s unreleased “Fantastic Four” film.
From “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (review here) to “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau“ to “The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened” (review here), movies that were never made are a hot topic for Hollywood hearsay documentaries. “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four” however, is about a movie that actually did get made. It’s just that outside of convention circuit bootlegs, no one has “officially” seen it. Or at least, they weren’t supposed to.
In the early nineties, there was still a full decade to go before comic book culture would dominate Tinseltown. Goofy guest appearances from Thor on TV’s “The Incredible Hulk” and a live-action “Amazing Spider-Man” series that didn’t include costumed villains conditioned fans to shrug with a “we’ll take what we can get” attitude. Disappointing direct-to-video dumps like 1990’s “Captain America” and the Dolph Lundgren incarnation of “The Punisher” solidified this suggestion of setting the superhero-to-screen expectation bar low.
There was a chance of this sad standard finally changing by 1992. James Cameron was in pre-production on a “Spider-Man” movie. Wes Craven was attached to direct “Doctor Strange.” Still at the peak of his popularity, Wesley Snipes was set to star in “Black Panther.” This was also the year when German producer Bernd Eichinger approached genre film gurus Lloyd Kaufman and Roger Corman with the prospect of cashing in his option to produce a feature film version of “The Fantastic Four.”
There were only two catches. Eichinger needed filming to begin before the end of the year and he wasn’t going to spend more than one million dollars. The possibility of producing something worthwhile under such stipulations was so dismal that Kaufman, whose Troma Entertainment releases include titles such as “Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD” and “Killer Condom,” passed on the project. Corman, certainly no stranger to bubble gum and paper clip moviemaking, had his people peek at the script over a single weekend and agreed to give it a go.
Auditions began on December 1st, 1992. (Film fans curious about “what if?” scenarios will delight at casting assistant Mark Sikes’ revelations that actors including Mark Ruffalo, Nick Cassavetes, and Patrick Warburton were among then-unknown names who read for roles.) Once the cast was confirmed, director Oley Sassone hit the ground running without a rehearsal, beginning production that same month on December 28th.
Principal photography concluded with a whimper in January. There was no wrap party. No cast and crew screening. Above the line producers were curiously noncommittal about completing post-production, seemingly unconcerned that they owned an unfinished film left languishing in limbo.
That’s when everyone else took matters into their own hands. Oley Sassone and editor Glenn Garland clandestinely continued editing away from the eyes upstairs. Composers David and Eric Wurst paid out of pocket for a 40-piece orchestra to score their soundtrack. Actors underwrote their own promotional appearances, with Michael Bailey Smith (Ben Grimm) hiring a publicist on his personal dime. Even if no one above them cared about marketing this movie, the men and women who were on the ground making it definitely did.
After screening a trailer for anxious fans and touring the country signing 8x10s in anticipation of a theatrical release, an announcement was made and everyone was excited for the film to finally premiere at Minneapolis’ Mall of America. Except the screening was cancelled without explanation. Cease and desist orders killed additional homegrown promotional efforts. And the truth finally came out that “The Fantastic Four” was never going to be seen. By anyone.
If the suppositions are to be believed, and they probably should, everyone underneath Roger Corman had unknowingly played a pawn in an elaborate game of Hollywood chess. With his option to produce a “Fantastic Four” film set to expire, producer Bernd Eichinger was contractually obligated to start a production or else surrender his rights to a potentially lucrative franchise. The movie he bankrolled ended up being a bargaining chip to broker a deal with Marvel and Fox for a big budget “Fantastic Four” feature, and that was likely the intention all along. Its purpose served, the movie deliberately disappeared, taking the hard work and hopes for success along with it.
All of the above might sound like the full story of Roger Corman’s ill-fated “Fantastic Four” production. Those are just broad strokes on a timeline. The real story told by Marty Langford’s documentary “Doomed” is an emotional portrait of a close-knit cast and crew finding camaraderie in a common cause under unusual circumstances.
Principal actors and those who dirtied their hands in the trenches paint a personal picture of people making up for a lack of money with an overabundance of enthusiasm, some of it built on blind naivety, but all of it coming from sincere intentions. Virtually everyone essential to creating 1994’s “The Fantastic Four” is on hand to openly spill respective beans about the production as well as personal feelings regarding subsequent fallout. Stan Lee and Avi Arad unsurprisingly declined or did not respond to interview requests, but who would expect anyone vested in corporate interests to be candid in matters concerning controversy anyway?
Listen to smiling faces tell tales of shooting in a condemned barn with a housecat tapped for rat control, or see red-faced reactions to “effects” such as Reed Richards’ rubber arm waving out a sunroof, and it becomes impossible not to root for a group this committed to their craft and to each other in spite of the low-budget odds against them. We know what they don’t yet: that dreams of bright marquees and springboards to stardom are inspiring an investment of time, sweat, and personal finances that will never see a return. Seeing such bright-eyed recollections of grassroots rallying behind a film destined for disappointment can be sympathetically heartbreaking to watch.
“Doomed” ends with the somewhat uplifting sense that perhaps something positive did come from the drama regarding the production’s convoluted conclusion. Had “The Fantastic Four” been given the same treatment of apathetic public reception as other comic book movies of that time, it may have already been forgotten. Instead, its notoriety as an unreleased oddity grants the film cult status on pure virtue of being enigmatic.
For being a story about backs unwittingly used for someone else to ascend a Hollywood ladder, grapes are not as sour as they have a right to be. It helps that 20 years separates hindsight from the sting of having been collectively conned. There is still some muted optimism that maybe Corman’s “Fantastic Four” might see the light of day in proper fashion at some point. Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, a fan can dream. Even if that fan happens to be someone who worked on the film, and just wants an audience to share an experience that the Powers That Be never intended anyone to see.
Review Score: 85