Here’s the story of a little movie that could, a really-real urban legend made by a legitimate cinematic legend, a movie never released in movie theaters, a movie whose reels were supposedly burned to ash by the Hollywood producer who bought the rights to it, a movie that somehow leaked to the public and (like the Star Wars Holiday Special) found a second life on bootleg DVD’s and lately, on YouTube. This is the story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four.
Roger Corman is an insanely prolific (and successful) low budget Hollywood mogul, specializing in horror, SF, and exploitation flicks. He has producer credits on 415 different movies on IMDB, including Death Race 2000, the original Piranha, and Battle Beyond the Stars.
Corman was famed for making ultra-low budget movies at a rapid pace. Corman’s studio wrote fast, filmed fast, edited fast, and released the movies where and as they could. With such low budgets, it didn’t take many cult successes to keep the studio in the black, and Corman made some of the most beloved cult classics ever. People like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, and James Cameron all came up through Corman’s cinematic boot camp. If you could make it in the break-neck world of Corman productions, you could make it anywhere.
Long about September, 1992, Constantine Films, the then-owners of the rights to Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, contacted Corman, offering to co-produce a film. The budget was $1.5 million ($2.7 million today), half of which they would front, half of which Corman would. (This was an unprecedented budget for a Corman flick.) One caveat: they’d have to start filming by the end of the year.
The script went through four drafts, the actors were cast, sets dressed, costumes assembled (largely provided by the actors themselves, as there was essentially no costume budget), and the cameras began rolling, barely in time. True to form, the film stock itself was left-overs: unused ends of film previously shot for other movies. Those costumes not provided by the actors were often left-overs (one security guard wears a Nazi SS uniform, stripped of all insignia, presumably a remnant from a previous Corman flick), and the sets were left over from previous Corman films. (And recycled in the movie itself: flipped around and repainted, and used in a different scene as a different location).
The filming was speedy. There was no table read, no rehearsals, no director’s notes, no time to re-shoot many of the scenes. They had a timetable, and didn’t have the money to vary from it a bit.
The actors, directors, composers, and so forth poured all their heart into the film. Yes, it was a tiny-budget movie, but the key to moving up in Hollywood was to do a tiny-budget film, do it well, and then your next job would be on a bigger film. (See “Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, and James Cameron” for how that works.)
The actors poured their hearts into the roles. Kat Green, the actress playing Ben Grimm’s blind sculptor girlfriend, spent time at a school for the blind and took sculpting lessons to ensure her performance was authentic. The cast hit the scenes, played their roles with sincerity and dedication, and worked hard to make the movie work. As did everyone else involved.
Just as the film was mostly shot, production came to a sudden end. With a couple of key scenes yet to be lensed, the cast and crew found themselves without instructions, and without a budget. Editing quietly continued on the sly—one editor kept the FF reels close, and after finishing edits on one Corman flick, he’d slip the reels on, and piece the movie together. The director snuck around and finally got the last couple of scenes filmed, one of them being illegally shot on Hollywood Boulevard at night, as they couldn’t afford permits to shoot. The composers paid $6000-$8000 of their own money to hire a 48-piece orchestra to play the score and a music studio to record the soundtrack at.
After all that, the film was finally complete. Technically. In truth, it was more like a rough cut. Some of the actor’s dialogue needed to be re-recorded (or “looped”), so you could hear what Doom was saying in every scene, some audio effects were missing, and many special effects needed to be redone (especially those made by the original FX supervisor, who lied his way into his position by claiming he’d done the Independence Day effects, but who couldn’t actually do the job). With a smidge more money, the movie could have been polished and ready for release.
A couple of months passed with no word from anyone about the movie’s status. It was in cinematic limbo. Then word came down: they would release the movie. Corman cut a trailer, and the actors began promoting the movie at comics stores, comic conventions (including Comic-Con), and fan magazines (on their own dime, Ben Grimm’s actor spending $12,000 to fly people around the country to promote it). Fan response was tremendous. A 500-theater release was planned, and the movie was scheduled for its premiere at the Mall of America.
Then it vanished. The director went to check on the movie, and all the prints were just gone. Turns out, Avi Arad (a Marvel Comics executive) wanted the rights to the Fantastic Four back, and paid Constantine and Corman $1 million each to sell him their movie and the rights. (And, as it later came out, that was Constantine’s only reason for ever making the movie, holding Marvel up for some extra dough, though nobody on the cast and crew knew that at the time.)
And that was it. The movie was never released.
Officially. A copy of the film somehow leaked, and was passed around via the comic convention bootleg circuit. People bought copies for $10-$15 on blue-back DVD’s (no way telling how many), and the cast and crew eventually stumbled upon them—many had never seen the finished movie themselves. And then it hit the Internet.
I watched the movie this week, for the first time ever. (I also watched Doomed!, the fascinating documentary about the flick.) And the movie… doesn’t suck.
Look, let me qualify that. It’s cheaply made, and you can tell. The effects are mostly pretty bad. And it was made in 1994. Compare it to the gloss and finish of Avengers: Infinity War or even The Justice League, and it comes off badly.
But look beyond that.
The movie is absolutely, utterly sincere. The characters have genuine affection for each other, their goals and motivations are genuine and understandable, and each line is delivered with real human emotion. The sincerity makes it affecting despite the flaws.
The people in charge of superhero comics today “don’t human very well”, but the writers of the Fantastic Four did. They knew how to write human characters, instead of robotic ideology-recitation androids, and the actors knew how to deliver those lines like humans would. The plot makes sense (in a comic-book kind of way), Dr. Doom is egotistical and hammy, the guy gets to save his girl, and the very pretty women are even feminine. This movie does many things right, that so much of modern entertainment does wrong.
As Hollywood’s technical prowess (in special effects and other areas) approaches perfection, the special effects themselves are becoming meaningless. Everything is spectacular, the audience is used to it, so you can’t use FX to substitute for a great story anymore. The power of the movie star has faded (they are no longer the audience draws they once were), and as it was in the early days of the cinema, movies now sink or swim on the merits of their story. Hollywood has gotten so good at everything else, it’s ironic that the only thing that matters anymore is the one thing they’ve gotten so bad at: telling a good story.
Well, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four is actually a good story. For all the movie’s flaws, and in spite of all the obstacles the cast and crew faced, the movie is worth watching. Maybe even more than once.
It’s better than all the other Fantastic Four movies, so what have you got to lose?
Corman’s Fantastic Four is available on YouTube.