Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four Official Website Directed by Marty Langford Starring Roger Corman, Oley Sassoon, and Chris Gore Distributor:Uncork’d Entertainment Not Rated | 85 minutes Release Date: October 11, 2016 (VOD) | December 20, 2016 (DVD)
In 1986, German film producer Bernd Eichinger (The Neverending Story) purchased the motion picture rights to Marvel Comics’ first family of bickering cosmic superheroes, the Fantastic Four. Eichinger envisioned making a classy, big-budget adventure with funding from a major studio and the latest in cutting edge visual effects, but no studio was interested. He had until New Year’s Eve 1992 to get the film into production or his rights would revert back to Marvel.
At that time the only superhero movie franchise was the Superman series, and that would sound its death rattle the following year with The Quest for Peace. The first Batman movie was in the early stages of production under the direction of Tim Burton, but the studios mostly viewed comic books as merely fodder for children’s entertainment and hardly worth risking a total investment in the tens (these days, hundreds) of millions of dollars to realize.
The same year Eichinger set out to bring the Fantastic Four to the big screen, Marvel Comics was purchased by the struggling mini-major wannabe New World Pictures, a company that once specialized in producing low-budget exploitation features and distributing arthouse and foreign pick-ups when it was started in 1970 by B-movie legend and Hollywood filmmaking kingmaker Roger Corman. Corman was the man Eichinger turned to in order to save his Fantastic Four movie with just a few weeks left to go before his option on the property expired.
Although Quest for Peace flopped at the box office, Batman and its 1992 sequel Batman Returns were huge hits with summer moviegoing audiences and major generators of merchandising revenue for Warner Bros., which owned DC Comics. New World had their own stable of iconic superhero characters to exploit as entertainment prospects, but outside of a Punisher film that was only released theatrically in certain foreign markets (it went straight-to-video in the U.S. two years after it was finished) and a trio of Incredible Hulk TV movies that were ratings successes on NBC, the studio failed to profit heavily from the mighty Marvel Universe.
After being rejected by Troma Entertainment president Lloyd Kaufman, Eichinger managed to convince Corman to fast track (with extra emphasis on “fast”) a low-budget Fantastic Four movie with a budget of $1 million before his deadline. Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four, a documentary made by Marty Langford partly with funds raised through an Indiegogo campaign, recounts the entire insane affair through new interviews with most of the film’s surviving participants and behind-the-scenes photos and video footage.
Among the interviewees Langford managed to get on the record for Doomed: producer Corman, jovial as always; director Oley Sassoon; editor Glenn Garland; casting assistant Mark Sikes, (who also executive-produced Doomed); special effects make-up artist John Vulich; Film Threat magazine founder and head writer Chris Gore, a constant presence on the set as part of an extensive cover story he was writing about the film; Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (if you’ll pardon the pun, a fantastic book); and stars Alex Hyde-White, Rebecca Staab, Jay Underwood, Michael Bailey Smith, Carl Ciarfalio, Kat Green, and Joseph Culp.
Over a decade before the first Fantastic Four movie made by 20th Century Fox was released, Corman’s direct-to-video company Concorde-New Horizons produced the first cinematic adaptation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s quartet of superheroes whose success was responsible for the birth of the Marvel Universe. This movie was made, folks. It had been scripted, cast, filmed, edited, scored, and prepped for a theatrical release. How then did it end up never receiving an official release, only to see the light of day via bootleg videotapes and DVDs sold through underground sellers and online grey market merchants?
Without much of a budget for prints and advertising, the cast took it upon themselves to launch a nationwide grassroots promotional campaign on their own dime to increase awareness of The Fantastic Four in advance of its silver screen debut. They traveled to sci-fi and comic conventions all over the country, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans while a trailer put together by Corman’s people (with the late James Horner’s thrilling main title theme from Corman’s low-budget 1980 Star Wars riff Battle Beyond the Stars as a soundtrack) was screened in theaters and on home video releases distributed by Concorde.
Composers David and Eric Wurst paid $8,000 out of their pockets to hire a 40-piece orchestra so the film could have the kind of original music score the major studio releases were allowed to have. Everyone involved in the making of this Fantastic Four truly believed it was something great, and if it were permitted to be shown on theater screens then it would make a ton of money and develop a large fan base.
I remember tracking the film’s progress for months in the pages of various comic book fan publications like Wizard and Hero Illustrated when I was 14 years old, seeing stills and cast pictures and reading of the impending charity premiere at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. As a huge fan of the comics, this was exciting stuff to take in at a time when Marvel characters were practically nowhere to be found in live-action. Based on the scant evidence released to the public, it appeared as if fans of the Fantastic Four were getting a feature film faithful to the tone and spirit of the original comics from the 1960s and worthy of the tireless work Lee and Kirby put into their creation and success (even though Lee, who had visited the set and gave some praise, later disparaged the Concorde production during convention appearances).
As the premiere quickly approached, Sassoon and his cast and crew were stunned to hear that the screening had been cancelled and any and all further promotional efforts were to cease and desist. That’s where the story of the first Fantastic Four motion picture gets interesting…
The people responsible for making this film had no idea of the behind-the-scenes dealings between Eichinger and Marvel that would eventually make their many months of hard work and perseverance redundant. The first half of Doomed is devoted to the production and the inspired efforts on the part of the cast to spread the word about the film they had tremendous fun making, but the story takes a darker turn in the second half as the filmmakers and cast discuss their shock and sadness at the sudden decision to shelve The Fantastic Four indefinitely and the sordid truth behind this stunning development that came to light in the wake of the cancellation of the theatrical release.
Producer Eichinger couldn’t be interviewed for this documentary as he passed away in 2011, and Avi Arad, the former head of Marvel Studios who helped spearhead many of the biggest blockbuster hits based on the company’s classic titles that helped make them into a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry, declined to be interviewed. Arad once admitted in an interview to destroying every print of Concorde’s Fantastic Four, but unfortunately for him a decent copy or two of the film leaked out and would soon spawn thousands of unofficial, illegal VHS and DVD releases that were allegedly responsible for more people seeing the film than a wide theatrical distribution could have ever hoped.
Even though Eichinger and Arad were not present to give their side of the events that resulted in The Fantastic Four being pulled before its official release, some of Doomed’s more open-minded interview subjects could certainly sympathize with the corporate perspective. Marvel didn’t want a cheap independent production to potentially damage the property’s brand should a major studio decide to take a chance on a bigger-budgeted feature sometime down the road. Corman’s production was ultimately revealed to be a way for Eichinger to hold onto his rights until he could set up the Fantastic Four project of his dreams at one of the top Hollywood studios.
This finally happened when Fox jumped at the chance to develop the film as a gift to Chris Columbus, the writer of Gremlins and The Goonies and director of Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and most recently, Pixels. Concorde’s movie was quickly consigned to the dustbin of cinema history, and although Corman was compensated financially for his considerable investment, no one else involved with the production saw any kind of reward in recognition of the time and effort they put into making the best Fantastic Four movie possible with the limited funding they had at their disposal.
It took Fox and Columbus another decade to get their own Fantastic Four movie off the ground when Tim Story (Barbershop) came about to direct. The film that was released in 2005 did very well at the box office, but critics and fans were left unimpressed overall. A sequel that introduced the Silver Surfer followed two years later and fared even poorer than its predecessor. It would be another eight years before a reboot directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle) crashed and burned with summer audiences after a highly troubled shoot fraught with behind-the-scenes calamities (including erratic behavior from Trank that resulted in his dismissal from the project and the entire third act rewritten and reshot). The less said about that trifecta of excessive, infuriating mediocrity, the better.
The Fantastic Four isn’t one of the most beloved Marvel Comics titles for nothing, and it should never have been this difficult for a Hollywood feature to accurately depict the comic’s infectious spirit of fun, love for the dysfunctional family, and adventurous readiness to hurtle into the wildest reaches of the imagination. Sassoon’s film came closer than its slicker and more expensive competitors because it embraced the absurdity and humanity of Lee and Kirby’s legendary creations rather than shied away from them and attempted – as Trank did with the intellectual forethought of a pretentious cretin – to ground them in reality. In its finest moments, Doomed celebrates what the scrappy indie shot and edited in a rat-infested studio in Venice, CA and scored at the world-famous Capitol Studios managed to accomplish with just a mere fraction of the budgets the officially sanctioned and embarrassingly soulless Fox releases possessed but failed to effectively utilize.
The comments from the interviewees are frank, funny, and occasionally touching, such as when Hyde-White talks about how playing Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, the resident brain and leader of the super-team, helped get him through a painful time in his life following a divorce. The stories are unsurprisingly candid and reflect upon how serious the cast and crew treated the material with which they were working.
Culp reveals that his performance as the Four’s reigning nemesis Doctor Doom was inspired by scratchy black & white film of the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini giving speeches. Casting assistant Sikes offers recollections of auditioning future Marvel Studios star Mark Ruffalo for a part and reading Patrick Warburton of Seinfeld and Family Guy fame for the role of Ben Grimm. There are a few minutes devoted to the story of a special effects artist hired for the production who wasn’t exactly honest about their qualifications. One of the best anecdotes involves Sassoon recruiting Sikes to don the Thing costume, a costly and beautifully crafted creation built out of foam rubber and complex animatronics, for some pick-up shots on the streets of Los Angeles shortly after principal photography had wrapped.
Fans of the 1994 Fantastic Four movie will be very pleased by the inclusion of the behind-the-scenes video footage and the many vintage stills, magazine articles, and promotional materials providing illustration for the participants’ stories and observations. Although the interviews tend to ramble a bit, director Langford never once allows for a dull moment in the 85-minute film.
Doomed is an excellent, warm-hearted, and enjoyably candid documentary I would heartily recommend to any fan of comic book cinema and underappreciated B-movie entertainment. The interviews are pleasantly eye-opening but the surviving members of the cast and crew clearly enjoyed making The Fantastic Four and their love for what their combined efforts created can be felt through their recollections of the production and their crushing disappointment at the cancellation of its theatrical premiere.
One day, with any luck, a deal can be reached to grant the 1994 film an official home video release so those who have yet to see it can watch and judge for themselves if it is deserving of its reputation as one of the worst comic book movies ever made. Now that would truly be fantastic.