I still remember where and when I first saw the Roger Corman-produced version of THE FANTASTIC FOUR that had been splashed across the cover of the slick, glossy version of Film Threat like it was a real, big-screen movie coming to one of the 327 screens that surrounded my suburban NJ home. It was the July 4th holiday in the summer of 1995 and I was in personal limbo. Relationships seemed to be hanging by tenuous threads, I hated my job, I hated my life, and I was teaching myself something called HTML so I could start a website. Whatever that was.
But on that summer afternoon I was content to kick back with some old friends, knock back some cheap beers, and watch, well, I'm not sure what. The flick – starring Jay Underwood from the cherished, hysterical afterschool special THE DAY MY KID WENT PUNK – had snuck onto the collector/grey market after the finished product had been shelved. As the story went, the film had never been intended for release and had only been rushed through production (a Corman specialty) in order to maintain the rights for a bigger payday with a major studio.
What's hard to remember – and, perhaps, harder to believe given their recent success – is that in the early 1990s when THE FANTASTIC FOUR went in front of the cameras with director Oley Sassone at the helm, is that live action Marvel adaptations were pretty much considered a joke. Oh, sure, I might have loved Rex Smith as Daredevil in the Incredible Hulk TV movie, but not everybody felt the same. And, yes, that's the dad from Disney's long-running 'Good Luck Charlie' as Thor (or some weird SoCal surfer approximation thereof) in a subsequent, and excruciating, Hulkflick.
THE FANTASTIC FOUR, on the surface, was a different story. There was a recognizable name or two behind the project (the aforementioned Corman, the Concorde/New Horizon video label) and even some familiar faces in front of the camera (Underwood [The Human Torch] plus Hollywood sons Joseph Culp [Dr. Doom] and Alex Hyde-White [Reed Richards]). Sure, it had one-thirty-fifth the budget of Tim Burton's BATMAN (1989), but wouldn't all involved have been happy with one-thirty-fifth of that flick's $250 million gross?
Directed by Marty Langford, DOOMED does an excellent job of tracking the story of the aborted/shelved THE FANTASTIC FOUR from its nascent days as a Marvel Comics adaptation straight through to the revelation that corporate entities have pretty much played everyone involved - including the sweet, grandfatherly Corman - for suckers. There's the initial sniffing around (when Troma honcho Lloyd Kauffman smells something fishy you're probably better off walking away, too), the rushed casting (that somehow lands a group of passionate actors), and the even more rushed shooting schedule (cast members contend they never rehearsed or met until the set).
Everyone involved with the film's production seems to genuinely believe in the flick, if not as a passion project, at least as a feather in their cap on the path to future Hollywood employment. Unfortunately, it appears more sinister forces are at work as the project gets delayed and, eventually, bought out and shelved. It's telling that neither Stan Lee nor Avi Arad agreed to be interviewed, despite what the filmmakers say were repeated attempts to get them on camera, not to mention footage of Marvel tastemaker Lee belittling the flick before a comic loving crowd of nerds.
Kudos to Langford and Co. for shedding more light onto one of Hollywood's urban legends, especially since the original THE FANTASTIC FOUR – myriad flaws aside – has way more comic book heart than the cold, corporate reboots that have followed in its wake. – Dan Taylor
Dan Taylor is the editor/publisher of Exploitation Retrospect: The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media. Check out our 130-page 30th Anniversary Issue featuring horror anthologies, mens action novels, video store oddity THE JAR and much more, available at Amazon, CreateSpace, ebay and the ER website.
DOOMED is available from Amazon.
DOOMED is available from Amazon.