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DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four is a documentary about the ill-fated and controversial non-release of the first attempt to bring the Marvel Comics franchise to the big screen. A fascinating inside look at a darker side of Hollywood, it is also a story of the creative process and puts faces to the people who made something they thought was genuine.
By now, there not a movie fan out there who isn’t familiar with superhero movies. They are the most dominate genre in theaters today. The past fifteen years have seen these predominately franchise building movies shift from niche to mainstream after decades of low-budget productions that left most an embarrassment and the answer to a trivia question. One title though has yet to find the same success (for good or for worse) that some of its fellow comic adaptations have, such as Batman and The Avengers, and that is The Fantastic Four, which has seen two recent attempts to jump start the series with three films, all of which have met with critical and financial failure. Yet they weren’t actually the first.
By 1992, the superhero movie and television genre was in a bit of a twist. Superman had made a groundbreaking arrival in the late 70s but failed to capitalize and its follow-ups, save for Part II were disasters and have since become heavily mocked. Meanwhile on TV, a few upstart comic book adaptations were finding some success with The Hulk most notable, but others were practically jokes, including a silly live-action Spider-Man. Director and visual innovator Tim Burton had come along and changed some people’s perceptions about the genre with his interpretation of Batman, which captured much of the essence of the character and created that same kind of wonder Superman once had. This and its first sequel were very well-received by critics and audiences. Yet overall, there was no escaping the cheesy campiness with how most studios approached superheroes. So few were taking the potential seriously.
Around that same time, German producer Bernd Eichinger was looking to film a version of the popular The Fantastic Four comic book series. He approached producer Lloyd Kaufman and famed B-movie making legend Roger Corman about putting together a movie. They agreed but there were two caveats: filming needed to begin before the end of the year and the budget could only be a million dollars. The go ahead was given, the money sorted, and what followed is a troubling story about a cast and crew believing their futures were about to change and a studio with a plan all their own.
Directed by Marty Langford, DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four brings together nearly everyone involved in this fiasco, including all the actors and many of the crew (even Corman himself) to discuss what happened on set and off to explain why it not only was never seen by audiences but that it was absolutely never meant to be either. Some 24 years after the fact, that decision still has impact on the people who put their hearts into the project, some of whom remain feeling greatly betrayed.
Naturally, there are the larger questions at stake, and for the most part, as expected, most go unanswered as who really is going to take the fall. But Langford’s gripping film is not about that. Instead, it’s an exposé about how even films that have no budget and are deemed ridiculous are often populated by people who try their best, some thinking this will be the break they’ve been working so hard to find. Such is the case for the actors and creative minds behind the extremely low budget film of The Fantastic Four, all of whom, here in reflection, have fond and amusing (sometimes critical) memories of the filming process despite the limitations. What’s more, they all thought they were making a legit movie and that many would see there names up in lights, fulfilling the atypical Hollywood dream.
Those dreams were crushed of course and sooner than expected, as we learn, when the film’s principal photography closed with no fanfare or wrap-up party and there was no word about a post production schedule or even a release date. When screenings were abruptly cancelled and a cease and desist order invoked to prohibit any distribution of or personal marketing of the movie, that was the end.
The documentary goes on to posit (and one that seems most assuredly true) that this was the intention all along as Eichinger‘s option was about to expire and he was contractually obligated to start a production or loose future profits on a bigger deal, of which, of course, eventually happened. That is the core story and what we are meant to take away from this film, but Langford is far from done in his revelation of that.
It is the emotional backstory to this failed filming endeavor that has the most impact while watching DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four. These were people who thought great fame was only one movie away and while they find fault in the film and its production, they also knew that a theatrically released movie would surely be the start of something big. Seeing lots of behind-the-scenes footage of the actual shooting and the host of people involved in creating and filming the story on a shoe-string budget is surprisingly effective in humanizing what has become over the past two decades the butt of jokes, which is itself odd in that nearly no one has seen the finished film (there are bootleg copies floating about). You begin to feel some connection with these people and for anyone with a creative soul, it’s easy to become pulled into their stories.
DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four is not all disheartening though, and by the end, there is actually a bit of a silver lining. Much like how the often ridiculed Troll 2 found new life and cult status due to its horrific production, its stars have become icons and inspirations, so too should the original The Fantastic Four, a curiosity in cinema history that may over time become even more so, perhaps beloved for all the reasons why it was never meant to be seen.
DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four will be available on VOD October 11th and DVD on December 20th. This is a pre-release review.
Director: Marty Langford
Writer: Marty Langford
Stars: Joseph Culp, Carl Ciarfalio, Jay Underwood, Kat Green, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Alex Hyde-White, Oley Sassone, Mark Sikes, Glenn Garland, Lloyd Kaufman, Roger Corman