The 1994 film version of “The Fantastic Four” shares a unique place in pop culture history with such titles as The Star Wars Holiday Special, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Apocalypse Pooh, Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown and All This and World War II: its reputation lies solely in bootleg video releases. There is no way you can find this film in a video retail store, you’ll never see it on television, and no repertory venue is going to screen it. If you want it, you have to dip into the bootleg channels to get it.
And it is not the least bit difficult to find “The Fantastic Four.” If any bootleg title can be scooped up with ease, this is the one. Which is ironic since it was the producer’s intention that the film NEVER be seen. Indeed, had the film enjoyed a proper release, it would never have generated the level of interest it has experienced for the past decade.
The story behind “The Fantastic Four” has been told many times and has become something of a legend, even in the scheme-thick world of Hollywood. Rather than repave a well-worn road, let’s keep the tale in summary: German producer Bernd Eichinger had acquired the film rights to “The Fantastic Four” in 1983 for a reported $250,000, but he was unable to secure proper funding to get a motion picture made (Warner Bros. and Columbia were among the studios that passed on the project). Eichinger’s option on the property was set to expire on December 31, 1992, and as a last-ditch effort to maintain his ownership he contracted with Roger Corman to make a low-budget quickie version.
Corman, who at this stage of his career was running the direct-to-video New Concorde studio, was able to cobble together a cast and crew and projected a $1 million budget. Production began on December 28, 1992, and the film was shot in an astonishing 21 days. Corman began promoting the film in the summer of 1993, planting trailers in theaters and on the New Concorde video releases. The film was supposed to open in January 1994, but before its release “The Fantastic Four” was abruptly pulled and never shown publicly.
In viewing “The Fantastic Four,” what is truly fascinating about the flick is how utterly unremarkable it is. The film is not a lost classic, nor is it a so-bad-it’s-good campfest. It’s strictly a B-Movie adventure with some charming elements and a lot of clumsy touches which can be blamed solely on the low budget.
On the plus side, “The Fantastic Four” is pretty much faithful to its comic book source. The eponymous quartet gain their unworldly powers during a mission into outer space, and return to Earth to save the planet from the masked and caped Dr. Doom. The strength of the film is primarily in the four leads: British actor Alex Hyde-White (sporting a convincing Yank accent and less-than-convincing grey sideburns) is droll as Mr. Fantastic, former beauty queen Rebecca Staab makes for appealing eye candy as the Invisible Girl (when she is visible, of course), former Dallas Cowboy Michael Bailey Smith is a surprisingly appealing personality on his own and within the orange make-up as The Thing, and Jay Underwood is hilarious as the Human Torch (he plays the part like an ADD kid on a sugar high and he steals the film on several occasions). Considering this quartet’s strength is in its unity, the actors create a wonderful ensemble and play off each other wonderfully.
Alas, they are still stuck in a cheapjack production, and director Oley Sassone never quite figured out a way to artistically hide his lack of funds (it is a shame Corman himself didn’t direct this). “The Fantastic Four” turns positively un-fantastic whenever special effects are required: the life-altering incident in space is accomplished via overexposed lighting and shaky camerawork while the actors make wincing faces and the soundtrack wails with moaning voices, Mr. Fantastic’s arm stretching is obviously achieved via a pole with a glove at its tip, the Invisible Girl appears and disappears so clumsily that it makes Barbara Eden’s Jeannie look like a CGI effect, and the Human Torch seems to be only capable of creating animated flames (the climax has Underwood replaced by a cartoon clone who flies off to save the world). For a film made in 1993, “The Fantastic Four” actually looks like a made-for-TV-movie from the 1970s.
Of course, had the film been released properly, no one outside of the rabid comic book addicts would’ve noticed. Corman’s New Concorde did not have the level of theatrical distribution powers as his earlier New World Pictures, so any cinema run would’ve been minimal. And as with the rest of the New Concorde canon, it would’ve been lost in the direct-to-video bargain bin. If anything, “The Fantastic Four” would’ve been a minuscule blip.
Over the years, “The Fantastic Four” generated some degree of controversy due to charges from Sassone that no one involved in the production was aware of Eichinger’s intentions of keeping the film out of release. The argument was that Eichinger never intended the film to be shown and only went through the charade of making it so he could hold on to the rights. This was clearly a weird strategy, considering the film was completed, including a symphonic score, and it was not left unfinished. Why record a symphonic score and go through all of the work in post-production for naught?
An article in the March 2005 edition of Los Angeles Magazine repeats these charges, and even Stan Lee joins in by stating as much. Corman, also interviewed in the article, stated he was completely ready to put “The Fantastic Four” out and even allocated advertising funds. Eichinger, interviewed for that article, dismisses the charges that he pulled the plug.
In a way, Eichinger is correct. “The Fantastic Four” was bought back from Corman not by Eichinger, but by a Marvel Comics executive named Avi Arad. According to the Los Angeles Magazine article, Arad never saw the film but nonetheless “ordered all prints destroyed.” Whether or not Arad also burned the negative is not clear; Corman does not have any materials in his possession while Sassone never even received a print of the film for his own collection.
But this raises a curious question: where did all of these bootlegs come from? The copies in circulation are actually very good in terms of visual and audio quality. There are no timecodes and they are not workprints. Clearly Arad did not destroy every copy, since bootlegs have been circulating ever since the film was yanked from release. Whether someone at New Concorde or Marvel surreptitiously sneaked some video copies out is unclear, but in any event “The Fantastic Four” has been a staple of comic book conventions and online collector-to-collector sites for years. It is also widely available on eBay, which is hilarious given that site’s clampdown on bootleg video titles.
Corman has reacted to the bootleg proliferation as “theft” but has done nothing to stop it. Nor has Marvel, nor Eichinger (who is among the producers of the new film version of “The Fantastic Four”). Nor has Stan Lee, who reportedly owns a copy himself!
Perhaps interest in the new production of “The Fantastic Four” will boost bootleg sales of the 1994 edition. Even if it never appears on commercial DVD, there is some warped satisfaction in knowing the devotees of bootleg video ruined the dastardly plan of permanently keeping this nutty little movie out of sight.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on July 8, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “MR. ARKADIN”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE HOMOSEXUALS”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “COCKSUCKER BLUES”
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