Friday, September 01, 2006

Not-So-Fantastic Four

You may not know that the FANTASTIC FOUR film that came out in theaters two summers ago was not the first time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's groundbreaking comic book was filmed in live action. In 1994, Roger Corman produced one in association with a German company. It was also titled THE FANTASTIC FOUR, and even though it was filmed, edited, scored and mixed, it has never been released in any form, not even on home video. It is, however, one of the most widely bootlegged films on the convention circuit, although I don't know why anyone would ever want to watch it.

A movie about the making of THE FANTASTIC FOUR would be much more entertaining than THE FF itself. The short version of the story behind it is that the German company that owned the rights to the characters, Constantin, needed to make the movie in a hurry because its option was about to expire, and it could be renewed only if the film was in production. The notion was to spend $1.5 million on a "quickie" just to keep the rights, but to never release the film. The idea was just to hold on to the rights until Constantin could raise the coin to make a "real" movie. Since Constantin had little experience in making cheapjack quickies, they contacted Hollywood's B-movie master, Roger Corman, and asked him to co-produce it.

Reportedly, the film's cast and crew were never aware that they were wasting their time on a movie that was made only to be shelved. THE FANTASTIC FOUR was directed by Oley Sassone, who had worked for Corman before on films like FINAL EMBRACE and BLOODFIST III: FORCED TO FIGHT. The main cast was composed of decent working actors, but hardly household names: Alex Hyde-White (Mr. Fantastic), Jay Underwood (Human Torch), Rebecca Staab (Invisible Woman), Michael Bailey Smith (Thing) and Joseph Culp (Dr. Doom). So THE FANTASTIC FOUR was a "real" movie in that it was written, directed and produced by professionals, but, from the beginning, it was only to be a placeholder for something bigger.

That "something bigger" never happened. Corman made this movie, then moved on to about 50 others that same year. Marvel, which was pretty sloppy in its film adaptations back then, eventually sold the Fantastic Four to Fox, which produced FANTASTIC FOUR for 2005. Whether it's really any better than Corman's film, I don't know. Don't misunderstand--the Corman production is terrible. Threadbare production values, a boring screenplay, chintzy use of the characters' powers. Mr. Fantastic stretches only about three times, but just an occasional arm or a leg (including the final shot, which is one of the most laughable special effects I've ever seen). The Torch "flames on" in crummy animation, and the Thing always looks like a stiff foam suit.

I sometimes wonder how much money Corman would have made on the film if he had just released it. Certainly it has been bought and viewed by thousands of comic book fans who have picked up an illegal videotape at a convention or traded one online. I've seen it twice. I think if Corman released it on DVD tomorrow, it would move quite a few copies, some to people who would confuse it with the Fox blockbuster, and many to comics fans who are completists and need to see/own it.

New Concorde even went so far as to produce a trailer for THE FANTASTIC FOUR, which appeared on several of the studio's direct-to-videocassette features in the early 1990s. I don't know whether it ever played in a theater, but maybe. It's interesting to me that Corman bothered to make a trailer for a film that was never going to be released. Perhaps he was judging audience anticipation for the "real" movie.

Here's the trailer, thanks to YouTube. Gasp in amazement and thank me later.


iamjimk said...

"although I don't know why anyone would ever want to watch it"

Geez Marty, a bit snarky considering you watched it twice!

Marty McKee said...

Yeah, but I am a dumbass!