At a time when we've been inundated with reboots, from Point Break to Spider-Man (soon to get a re-reboot), it only seems fitting that Fantastic Four would join in on the fun. The Fantastic Four from 2005, starring Chris Evans and Jessica Alba, was atrocious. So anything that can help erase its memory is a welcome addition to the reboot parade. But did you know that the 2005 film was also reboot? And that the notoriously bad original, The Fantastic Four, which stars no one you've ever heard of and was probably made just so a company could retain rights to the characters, has never seen the light of day?
Its officially unreleased status puts it in rarified cinematic company—most films that are finished are distributed in some form. The most famous unseen disaster is surely Jerry Lewis's 1972 Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried, which has been locked away in a vault by Lewis himself, never to be seen by anyone again if he can help it. The Fantastic Four was apparently so awful that it's not in a vault—the original negative was supposedly burned by the rights-holders. Could that mean it's actually worse than The Day the Clown Cried?
Twenty years later, a more complete version of the The Fantastic Four story has slowly been pieced together by geek historians, and its much more complicated than the simple myth of a Fantastic Four movie that was so shitty it had to be literally killed with fire.
Director Oley Sassone, for his part, is no fan of movies being burned. "We're supposed to be filmmakers," he told VICE in an interview. "That's really despicable. Just destroy it? And nobody gets to see it?"
"Thank God somebody bootlegged it and got it out there," he added.
Indeed, Constantin Film, the company formerly known as Neue Constantin Film, which owns the rights to The Fantastic Four, doesn't seem interested in sending takedown notices to the sites that host bootleg versions of the film. If you've got 90 minutes to kill, here's The Fantastic Four:
[daily_motion src='//www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/x2fx3g5' width='480' height='270']
Was that so bad?
"Look at that film," Sassone said. "It looks like shit because it's a bootleg copy from a VHS.' It's so fucked-up looking, I'm sorry." Not that he's defending it as a masterpiece: "I know it falls way short in terms of special effects."
However, he and the makers of an upcoming documentary about The Fantastic Four make a compelling argument that the film is a lot better than it has any right to be, given the bizarre circumstances of its making. It was sabotaged from day one, he said. "We never got a chance to do what we would have liked to have done."
In the documentary Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's the Fantastic Four, Sassone and his crew say they fought tooth and nail to make something watchable. The fact that they almost succeeded is a testament to perseverance, and—God help me—bona fide artistry.
The Fantastic Four historian and Doomed director Marty Langford told VICE that the German film company Neue Constantin Film had bought the film rights to the Fantastic Four characters "for a steal years and years before [the movie came out]."
It's easy to forget now, when superhero movies are routinely at the top of box office lists, that few people were all that excited about putting comic book characters in films in the late 80s. The blockbuster success of 1978's Superman was a distant memory, and the most competent adaptation of a Marvel property had been the cheesy but fondly-remembered TV version of the Incredible Hulk, and the Marvel brand wasn't the guarantee of huge profits that it is today. But after the incredible success of the comic book adaptations Batman (1989) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, (1990) Neue Constantin's interest in making a Fantastic Four movie perked up.
No one can ever know what was going through the mind of Constantin president Bernd Eichenger (who died in 2011), but Langford deduces that in 1990, Eichenger must have sensed that there was serious money to be made—the problem was, the company's option was due to expire on December 31, 1992. Throughout 1990 and 1991, it appears that Eichenger put his best efforts into securing $40 million and a partnership with 20th Century Fox, neither of which he was able to swing. By the middle of 1992 he had lost hope in ever getting the production off the ground.
There was a loophole in Eichenger's contract, though: He could retain his option as long as a film was in production. No one ever said a movie had to be finished, let alone good. So if The Fantastic Four went into production by the end of the year, Langford says, Eichenger knew he would be able to keep the option for another ten years.
To be clear: All indications are that Neue Constantin never intended to release the film they were hurrying into production. Most likely, according to Langford and Sassone, Neue Constantin just wanted ten more years on its option, and a phony production was a cheap way to get it.
So with the deadline approaching, Constantin called up producer and B-movie god Roger Corman and asked him to produce the movie. "Roger Corman's reputation is fast and cheap," said Langford, "The quality isn't always there. It doesn't have to be." (In those days, for instance, Jurassic Park was crushing box office records, so Corman made his own dinosaur thriller, Carnosaur, and banked a lovely little profit.)
The deal, according to Langford, was that Corman and Constantin would put up $750,000 each, bringing the total budget to a paltry $1.5 million. For reference, producing 1987's Masters of the Universe, which is not noticeably better or worse than The Fantastic Four, cost $22 million.
Neue Constantin Film "didn't really tip their hand as to why they needed to move so quickly into production," Langford said. In fact no one knew it was a scheme to retain the rights without spending too much money. "They just thought it was another gig, and a really interesting one that could help them."
Sassone, a real movie buff to the bitter end, recalls being over the moon about the opportunity. Look guys, we're in the movies! This is great! We're all making movies! he recalls thinking. By 1992, he was a seasoned commercial and music video director with a couple of Corman features under his belt. But this adaptation of a beloved comic book smelled—poor production values or not—like a shot at the Big Time.
"You can't just say, 'Oh, it's Roger Corman. Nobody gives a shit,'" Sassone said—Corman had worked with many big names before they became famous, including Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, and Jonathan Demme. "Here we were, working for the guy that launches careers. You know how it works: You make a film for no money, and it breaks out, and then everybody wants to make a film with you," he said.
Craig J. Nevius wrote a script over the course of three weeks. Casting was in October, with only two full months until production was set to start. During pre-production, stuff like set design was obviously rushed, judging from the final product. But one thing came out astonishingly well: the Thing, the rock-skinned giant who provides the superhero team with muscle and a lot of angst.
Sassone had a vision for the Thing: "He's a lost soul. He can't get any solace from the other three members of the Fantastic Four," Sassone said.
Langford claims a significant portion of the fan community "agrees that this Thing is better than either [the 2015 one], or the Michael Chiklis one," owing to his faithful adherence to Jack Kirby's initial design and his expressive eyebrows. The facial animation is in keeping with the style popularized by Harry and the Hendersons and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films of the same era.
According to Entertainment Weekly, the shoot started on December 26. "As soon as the first frame rolled, on the first shot, on the first day, they now owned Fantastic Four for another ten years," said Langford.
It was mission accomplished for Neue Constantin. Never mind that there was a crew of schlemiels shooting a movie that they'd been told needed to be rushed into production. Only pre-production actually needed to be rushed to keep the option open. But keeping up appearances requires you to rush production as well. It just makes sense.
"The hours were brutal, and we were in a rush to get it done," Sassone said.
That comes across in the finished product. There's a kind of frantic energy in the hammy but entertaining performances by stars Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, and especially Carl Ciarfalio, who plays the Thing in full costume. The cutting is quick; the camera moves around with startling intensity. Most of it actually kind of works. But there is one giant problem.
"The special effects shots in the film are laughable," Langford said. But he claims this wasn't Sassone's fault. "The guy who was doing them kind of misrepresented himself. He was handing over what are almost the equivalent of animatics—temporary, placeholder effects."
The effects lead to some hilarious midnight movie, so-bad-it's-good moments. At the very end of the movie, Reed Richards and Sue Storm are seen leaving a church after their wedding. As the "just married" limo drives off, a ridiculous 12-foot arm waves goodbye to everybody. "It's almost like they taped four pool noodles together, put some spandex on it, and put a glove at the end," said Langford.
Still, the authoritative comic book and movie blog Den of Geek called the finished project "remarkable" for its unparalleled "fidelity to the source material" as well as "the absolute sincerity with which it approaches such an impossible task considering its budget."
And as such, Sassone fully expected it to be released. Fan screenings of clips had generated excitement, and Roger Corman had all the infrastructure necessary to distribute a film. When the suits in charge realized that, Sassone said, "they had to pay Roger not to release the film."
Asked to describe when he knew then production was all a dirty trick, Sassone cited a moment alone in his car. "I remember exactly where I was. I was on San Vicente Boulevard, heading to Beverly Boulevard," he said. His phone rang, and it was Corman.
"He said, 'Oley. This is Roger. I just wanted to call, and thank you for finishing the film. You did such a great job. I just got a check for a million dollars.'" After the odd opening, Sassone said he was expecting to finally get good news about the film's release, or the next step in his career. It never came. Nothing came.
"A copy of the film? A gift certificate for a dinner for two at a fine restaurant? Something?" But all Corman gave him was a thank you. "I said, 'OK, well, you're welcome, Roger. I'll talk to you soon,' and hung up.
"I just was staring around, dumbfounded in LA, like, What the fuck?" Sassone said.
Knowing the film had been abandoned, Sassone set out to find a "pristine copy" of the film for his own uses. As detailed in the Doomed, Sassone and editor Glenn Garland broke into Roger Corman's film vault with flashlights in the hope of finding a negative to steal so they would have something to show for all their hard work. But the negative was gone. Rumor has it, it was thrown in a fire.
"Fuck them for doing that," Sassone said.
Stan Lee, who created the superhero team with Jack Kirby, had visited the set and told Entertainment Weekly that the film was buried, and that he was "very, very sorry for the actors and the director and most of the people involved in the movie." But he didn't grieve for the movie itself: "I was heartbroken to think it might appear only as a low-budget quickie. When you compare it with something like Terminator 2, I'm glad they're gonna do it over."
They did. Unfortunately, 2005's Fantastic Four is no Terminator 2. It's regarded as, well, bad, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 26 percent. Roger Ebert wrote in his review, "The really good superhero movies, like Superman, Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins, leave Fantastic Four so far behind that the movie should almost be ashamed to show itself in the same theaters." The 2007 sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, isn't much better, and Fox apparently scuttled plans for a third movie and a Silver Surfer spin-off.
Eichenger's trick really did work, though—his company did retain the option for another decade, and it appears Constantin is still involved in the latest incarnation of the Fantastic Four, as its German-language website boasts.
But in a very tangible way, each ensuing Fantastic Four movie owes everything to the work ethic of an obscure director named Oley Sassone who scrambled through that pre-production rat maze back in 1992, and got his project into production five days before the deadline.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.
For information about how to watch, Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's the Fantastic Four check out the movie's website.