The Fantastic Four (unreleased)
They tried; you can tell they tried really hard. But $2 million just doesn’t buy much, not even in 1994. The backstory of The Fantastic Four has been well-documented elsewhere; briefly, Roger Corman’s company New Horizons owned the film rights to Marvel Comics’ flagship title, but the option was due to run out, and a movie had to be made quickly (and cheaply). So, with no actual intention of releasing it, Corman’s company embarked on what’s been universally recognized as one of the worst films ever made. As of this writing, it’s still officially unavailable, though poor-quality bootlegs are all over the web. Like The Star Wars Holiday Special, it has taken on the mystique of a legendarily crappy and, more importantly, suppressed piece of schlock. It’s therefore understandable that a lot of cult-film fanatics want to get ahold of it just to say they’ve seen it.
I can say I’ve seen it, but I don’t know what more there is to say that hasn’t already been said. Yes, the acting is uniformly atrocious, though the sub-comic-book dialogue would defeat far better actors. Yes, the special effects are “special” in the sense that kids who get a trophy for trying are special. Yes, the homoerotic subtext between Reed Richards and Victor von Doom is thick enough to cut with a spoon. Yes, the movie haplessly and unintentionally trashes the very appeal of the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics, which derived their power from cosmic, world-shattering conflicts, whereas all we get here is some henchmen and a laser cannon.
Fantastic Four ’94 is more interesting as a cinema footnote than as actual cinema; it sets modest entertainment goals for itself and flunks those. The damn thing is diabolically watchable, though — you can rest assured that every few minutes, something memorably daft or lame will happen. Ironic fans of the film point with glee to the wonderful moment when blind sculptor Alicia Masters (Kat Green) is kidnapped and we get a point-of-view shot as she passes out from chloroform and the frame dims to black. It’s the sort of Asgardian blooper that Stan Lee used to hand out “No-Prizes” for when they showed up in the comics.
The movie begins, oddly, with science geek Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and jock pal Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) in college, where Reed and colleague Victor von Doom (Joseph Culp) are planning some sort of experiment. It goes awry, as such things so often do, and Victor is left horribly scarred and near death. He’s presumed dead, though, and we skip forward ten years, when brother and sister Johnny and Sue Storm (Jay Underwood and Rebecca Staab) — whom we’d previously seen as children — re-enter the picture. The four decide to go on a rocket trip, and Johnny and Sue’s mom fatefully dubs the quartet “the Fantastic Four,” in a moment guaranteed to provoke eye-rolling among even the most forgiving fans. I mean, Christ, as much of a dork as Peter Parker is, at least Aunt May wasn’t the one to name him Spider-Man.
The rocket trip goes awry, as such things often do, and each member of the team ends up with strange powers. Reed can stretch (to the best of the effects budget’s meager abilities); Sue can turn invisible; Johnny catches fire; and Ben, after a while, turns into an orange, rocky behemoth known by generations of fans as the Thing. Oh, did I forget to tell you why this all happens? Because some troll-like thief known as The Jeweler stole the huge diamond Reed was going to use in the rocket. The Jeweler, who figures in no Fantastic Four comic to my knowledge, seems like a rip-off of the Penguin in Batman Returns crossed with the Mole Man from the first issue of FF. There’s really no reason for him to exist other than to inadvertently do the bidding of the real villain — Victor von Doom, who has renamed himself Dr. Doom and found himself a shiny metal mask and green cape. Dr. Doom laughs a lot — that muuuahahahaha kind of nefarious laughter. He does this often enough to enable a drinking game, though it helps to be drunk going into the movie.
Towards the end, Fantastic Four becomes an invaluable lesson in what was doable on a $2 million budget with 1994 technology. Johnny “flames on” and finally, instead of just setting his hand on fire, becomes what looks to be an early example of computer imaging — one of those humanoid figures you often saw in student animations in the early ’90s, only covered in flame. The Human Torch proceeds to outrun (or outfly, rather) a laser beam and deflect it with his incredible heat power, or something. Like I said, everyone tried real hard on this thing. (Speaking of which, the make-up work on the Thing is probably the movie’s best effort — they try to get as close as they can to the way he looks in the comics, though his face seems frozen in a scowl, missing the character’s occasional jolliness.) The movie is blathering nonsense, with one of the most charmingly awful scores in soundtrack history, but it has a certain cheapjack late-night appeal. If it ever had been released, I’m sure Mystery Science Theater 3000 would’ve built a classic episode on it.