Roger CormanFantastic Four
The Fantastic Four (Roger Corman)
Medium: film
Year: 1994
Director: Oley Sassone
Writer: Craig J. Nevius, Kevin Rock
Producer: Roger Corman
Keywords: superhero, action, low-budget
Country: USA, Germany
Actor: Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Ian Trigger, Joseph Culp, George Gaynes, Kat Green, Carl Ciarfalio, Chuck Butto, Annie Gagen, Howard Shangraw, David Keith Miller, Robert Alan Beuth, Patrick Richwood, Ricky Dean Logan, Mercedes McNab, Phillip Van Dyke
Format: 90 minutes
Series: Fantastic Four >>
Website category: Superhero
Review date: 13 October 2009
It's Roger Corman's 1994 Fantastic Four movie, never released commercially. The story behind this is complicated and still unclear, involving three different parties: Roger Corman (Concorde Pictures), Bernd Eichinger (Neue Constantin Films) and Marvel itself. In 1993 Constantin Films had the rights to make a Fantastic Four movie and wanted to make one that cost 40 million dollars, but they hadn't been able to raise the money and if they didn't start production in the next three months, they'd lose all rights to the property. Their solution was to call in the infamous Roger Corman. His movie version of the Fantastic Four cost a mere 1.4 million, but apparently its cast and production team really thought it would be released.
"We showed the preview, talked about the characters, went to children's hospitals... did everything we possibly could to promote this film. It was fantastic seeing the look on people's faces, their excitement and enthusiasm; especially the little kids. We took a little low budget film that had no chance of really doing anything and generated enough publicity, enough heat that people throughout the country started talking about it."
Roger Corman at least seems to have acted in good faith. He got paid to make a film and duly made it.
"I was reasonably happy because I made a profit, but I didn't get a chance to distribute the film because I wanted to see how that type of comic book movie fared. At that time, we were making pictures at 500k to 1 million. For 1.4 million I had what I felt was a bigger film and wanted to see how it performed. I never got the chance to try the experiment."
If that's the case, maybe Neue Constantin Films had only ever been thinking of the rights and had always been planning to kill their own film? That's also possible, although it's interesting to note that it would have been enough merely to get started on making a movie, whereas in fact they kept it up right through shooting and even did all the post-production too. This isn't raw footage. It's a complete film. However a half-finished film was never going to worry anyone, whereas in fact Constantin made a profit on their investment. Avi Arad at Marvel has admitted to buying the film for a few million dollars and then ordering the destruction of all prints, presumably after having kittens on realising that one of the company's golden eggs had been given to Roger Corman.. If nothing else, a decade later Constantin did indeed make the two better-known Fantastic Four movies that hit cinemas worldwide and... um, are probably going to be rebooted.
So, is the film good? No, don't be silly. Okay, let's be more realistic. How does it compare with its two successors?
Well, firstly it looks much more like a real film than I'd expected it to. I'd been bracing myself for Flesh Gordon and the Cosmic Cheerleaders, but even so I never felt as if my eyeballs were being sandpapered. It's a TV movie, basically. Not a good one, but you wouldn't fall out of your chair if you found it while channel-hopping. Similarly the cast aren't going to win any awards, but despite appearances they're actors with proper TV and film careers and everything. Alex Hyde-White in particular needn't be ashamed of his performance as Reed Richards. He's the son of Wilfred Hyde-White, by the way. Let's just say there's no one here who couldn't have worked on Babylon 5.
The plot's remarkably similar to that of its 2005 successor, but better. Both spend a lot of time just hanging out with their heroes rather than getting on with the plot, but the difference is that the 1994 film didn't have any choice given its budget. This reduces both Doctor Dooms to being a bit of a panto villain, but they're trying harder to keep things interesting in this one, with another baddie knocking about to make life harder for both our heroes and Doom. I kept thinking of him as Babylon 5's Zathras, but he's called the Jeweller and he's a sewer-dwelling weirdo who steals diamonds and is the leader of a band of outcasts. He's silly, but he's also unpredictable. I liked that. For the most part this film is just another regurgitation of stuff we've seen before, but here we have a daft old freak who's just doing his own thing and doesn't have any backstory with the other characters. He kept surprising me... not in big dramatic ways, admittedly, but it's always nice when a story proves capable of stuff you weren't expecting. What he has to offer Ben Grimm makes a lot of sense, for starters.
The villains' sidekicks are also fun, come to think of it.. Doom's henchmen are having a laugh with Russian accents and at one point do a comedy synchronised look, while a henchmen vs. henchmen confrontation scene has goofy music that might as well have been Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Those are the bit players, though. The important ones of course are the Four and Doom. Going through them from best to worst, we have:
1. Alex Hyde-White, who feels more like a leader than Ioan Gruffudd in 2005. There's probably not much to choose between them, though. The film also makes Reed's elastic body look cooler than it did in 2005, thanks to some long-range punches. He beats up Doom! I liked his stretchy wave goodbye at the end, but despite these efforts the fact remains that Reed has a rubbish superpower that furthermore seems to lend itself to horrible special effects. He's still not a patch on Luffy from One Piece. Admittedly he's the most interesting of the Fantastic Four, but that's because he's clever and the leader.
2. Doctor Doom is the clearest improvement. His origin slightly surprised me, the script makes him look less of a moron and Joseph Culp does a better Doom voice than Julian McMahon. Admittedly Culp can also be wooden at times and sometimes struggles to act through the mask, but oddly enough I rather liked that something about that woodenness. Back at the beginning while he's still human, Culp's doing this impassive face that reminds me of the undead and makes him look as if he's wearing a mask even when he's not. He's bad, but I rather liked him.
3+. Of the others Rebecca Staab is unmemorable as Sue Storm, but she was doomed from the moment she got this script. Apparently she looked quite impressive in that skintight lycra outfit, but I can't verify that without finding a copy of the film with better picture quality. Michael Bailey Smith as Ben Grimm has chemistry with Hyde-White, but is otherwise without merit and doesn't even begin to bear comparison with Chiklis. Finally Jay Underwood is painful and sent my respect for Chris Evans through the roof, since you'd never guess from this film that the Human Torch could be even watchable, let alone one of the most entertaining characters in the team.
This isn't a good line-up, but they're mildly likeable. It helps that we first meet them ten years earlier, when Reed and Victor are at college and the Storm siblings are pre-teens. One of Sue Storm's best moments is when she's not being played by Rebecca Staab, ironically enough, but instead when she's about twelve years old and dreaming about Reed Richards. She feels more real there than she's ever allowed to be as an adult. (In that scene, she's being played by Mercedes McNab! Best known to me as Harmony in Buffy and Angel, but I also remember her from the Addams Family movies.) Of course there are glitches. The Thing's clearly had his brain removed for his angsty bit about being the Thing, but that's not necessarily untrue to the character. I can even tolerate his overuse of "it's clobberin' time", even though I feel it should be said only when there really will be clobbering. Call me a traditionalist that way.
These aren't serious problems. I'm about to get to the serious problem.
This film can't do female characters, or more precisely it can't do interaction between men and women. This mostly manifests itself in attempts at romance that'll have you clawing your eyes out, but watch out also for the brief scene of Ben and Mama Storm. Yowzers. Suffice to say that it starts badly and leads into Reed and Sue staring into each other's eyes with strings playing on the soundtrack. Worse yet, it's all like that! Every scene of a man and a woman talking to each other turns into more of the same. Ben meeting Blind Girl is a similar eye-roller. (She's a bigger character in this film, except that she turns into a plot coupon halfway through and largely loses the power to be given dialogue.) Sue doesn't exist as a character except for teeth-jangling scenes with Reed, which I would have called "romantic" except that their effect on the audience is the exact opposite. Watching this film is like having a vasectomy. "I love you" made the Thing turn back into Ben Grimm and my testicles shrink back into my body. I was in pain, people.
Even that's forgivable, though. You didn't download the Roger Corman Fantastic Four for its love scenes. No, you want to know about the special effects and fights. These are a lot of fun, needless to say. They're not good, but they're arguably much more entertaining than the conventional big-budget CGI-fests we're used to. It's the same charm as a Godzilla movie. I think I actually laughed on first seeing the Thing, who looks like a fossilised gibbon. It's quite a good suit, with decent face animatronics, but the design is all wrong. I don't remember the Thing having scary teeth, for starters. Meanwhile the Human Torch is being done with what I'm informed is computer-assisted animation but on my VHS-quality download might as well have been stock footage from Scooby Doo.
I also liked the touch of a half-visible Sue having a half-shadow, but disappointingly she doesn't need to get naked to vanish. Oh, and saying "Flame On" / "Flame Off" is Johnny's on/off switch. He actually has to say the words.
Then you've got the fight scenes. The Thing talks in cliches and walks through gunfire. Sue turns invisible, then two people standing on either side of her machine-gun each other. Reed, um, trips people up. (Rubbish superpower, remember?) Best of all though is the aftermath of the trippy "2001: A Space Odyssey" space accident, with choir music and flashing lights. What comes next is like something out of The A-Team. The Fantastic Four's spaceship has just been blown up. You know, in space. Nevertheless the next thing we know, we have doors, seats and all the crew lying in a field somewhere. The spaceship has been disassembled into large pieces, but otherwise seems undamaged. The pieces aren't even scorched. They haven't smashed into the earth like a meteor, but instead appear to have been gently placed there. Maybe they have superpowers too?
The script doesn't always make sense (e.g. "when did they acquire the Baxter Building and jet-car?") but there's one clever bit. Reed comes up with a theory tying the Four's powers to their personalities. I thought that was imaginative, with scary implications for Doom that the film mysteriously never thinks of exploring.
I'm vaguely fond of quite a lot of this film, but unfortunately at the end of the day we're still talking about Roger Corman. You'd think something with all this cool stuff would be a must-watch, yet somehow it manages to be a bit dull. It's the kind of vaguely tatty nonsense that makes you want to pause it and go read emails or something. It's the kind of film you want as background while you do the ironing. Nevertheless it's arguably more ambitious than its 2005 successor, with a script that feels as if it's trying harder even if it's fundamentally much less competent. It's saying and doing more. It's got the Jeweller, for starters.