Tuesday, October 11, 2016


I can't resist a good Roger Corman anecdote, and Marty Langford's new documentary DOOMED! THE UNTOLD STORY OF ROGER CORMAN'S "FANTASTIC FOUR" is a very good, if convoluted, one. One of its most attractive qualities is that it's a comparatively new story, because the third act of Corman's career at Concorde New Horizons hasn't attracted much attention from historians and one senses there must be loads to tell. One of the most fascinating stories from this period concerns Corman's $1,000,000 production of the first live action film based on Marvel Comics' long-running title FANTASTIC FOUR (1994), directed by Oley Sassone. What's remarkable about it is not that the entire film was produced for so little (Josh Trank's 2015 adaptation tipped the scales at a reported $120,000,000 and earned less than $57,000,000 back at the box office, branding it a disaster for earning enough to finance almost 60 Corman films) but rather that the film never had a theatrical release. Some participants in this story have said that the film, unbeknownst to cast and crew, was never intended to be released but was rather rushed into production to extend and preserve producer Bernd Eichinger's screen rights to the title, which he then hoped to resell to a major studio as grist for a far more costly and lucrative production. There is talk here of 20th Century Fox wanting to acquire it for writer-director Chris Columbus, but Tim Story ultimately directed the first of two Fox pictures, released in 2005. (That said, both Eichinger and Columbus were among that film's numerous producers.)

The general consensus of comics fans has been that the three (to date) big-budgeted FF films stank, while the Corman production - which was literally shot on sound stages in a condemned building where additional walls of cardboard and quilting were put up to keep the rats out - made up for whatever it may have lacked materially in an abundance of heart. This is something that is only known because a work print of the Corman FANTASTIC FOUR somehow happened to leak out on VHS tape and began trading hands at comics conventions, where the film's stars Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards, "Mr. Fantastic"), Jay Underwood (Johnny Storm, "The Human Torch"), Rebecca Staab (Susan Storm, "The Invisible Girl"), Michael Bailey-Smith (Ben Grimm, "The Thing") - and Joseph Culp as their adversary Doctor Doom - had made promotional appearances above and beyond the call of duty to enthuse fans about the project they all believed to be forthcoming. The special effects on the print don't appear to be finished, and neither was the post-sync looping of some muddy dialogue, but what matters most is that - after another three tries costing upwards of $300,000,000 in production costs - this scruffy bastard son version (scripted by Craig J. Nevius and Kevin Rock) remains the most faithful adaptation of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic to date.
Doctor Doom taunts the Fantastic Four.
Langford's documentary sits down with all of the film's principal cast members, its director and writer and editor, as well as Corman, employees of his company, MARVEL THE UNTOLD STORY author Sean Howe and journalist Chris Gore, who was present on the set every day of its rushed Christmas season production as a representative of FILM THREAT magazine. What is uncovered is another valuable volume of Corman lore, vaguely akin to the multi-tiered story of how he turned the Yugoslavian thriller OPERATION TITIAN into the working capital of four mostly unrelated movies, including Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman's BLOOD BATH; the film's greatest value doesn't have as much to do with Marvel Comics as the fascinating financial and legal reasons why films sometimes get made. As one interviewee notes, everyone involved in this project "above a certain line" made a lot of money on this unfinished picture, while everyone who gave their blood, sweat and tears to it suffered great disappointment and personal expense. Every cast member recalls having to buy a $10 bootleg tape to see their film for the first time, but in the same breath, they also thank God that the film was bootlegged so that their hard work can be seen and shared with their grandchildren. Look close enough and you'll discern a timely parallel between this story and Donald Trump's Presidential debate sound bytes about why disappointing or withholding their due from employees is "good business." (I don't intend here to liken Corman to Trump; he did profit from his participation, as was always assured, but he also saw that everyone on the production was paid. It was not his decision to withhold the film from release, and I think it says a good deal about his honest intentions that he cheerfully participated in this documentary, even though it doesn't always present him in the most flattering light.)

While the various component parts of DOOMED! are engrossing, their assembly (Langford also edited) is not as well organized as it might have been. The film launches into its discussion of the film without the sort of basic introductory details that might help to involve viewers who are approaching the film without prior knowledge or interest. The clips used from the film are shown without any discussion of its storyline; I don't recall any mention at all that the group acquired their super powers as a result of a test rocket flight that bombarded them with gamma rays - basically the same set-up as Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1957, aka THE CREEPING UNKNOWN). It is mentioned that the Mole Man was originally considered as part of the story, but due to conflicting rights, he was replaced with a new character, The Jeweler (Ian Trigger). Thus, despite many points of historical and gossipy interest and amusement, the film becomes a conflation of not always clear references to a movie most people haven't seen, illustrated with murky clips, and extended guesswork concerning the behind-the-scenes factors that brought it down. 
Director Marty Langford with Roger Corman.
Despite this, an irresistible human element keeps DOOMED! consistently enjoyable. Whether it's Alex Hyde-White recalling the "fuck" he uttered when he learned about the film's non-release, Rebecca Staab defending the film's silly costumes because they were supposedly hand-made by Sue Storm, Joseph Culp stepping us through his process of "becoming" Doctor Doom, or Michael Bailey-Smith's heartbreak at seeing a video of Stan Lee dissing the film at a convention appearance after being such a mensch while visiting the set, the film conveys how very much a career in the film business means to so many people - many of whom never get much more than a kick in the teeth for all their devotion - and how important dreams are in a world filled with hard knocks. Several of the interviewees continue to hold out hopes that their film's negative hasn't really been destroyed, as Eichinger once claimed in an interview, and make earnest pitches about how a properly completed version (or even a before-and-after version) would be an assured money-maker. Perhaps the interest aroused by DOOMED! will be the ammunition this worthy idea needs.

DOOMED! THE UNTOLD STORY OF ROGER CORMAN'S "FANTASTIC FOUR" is now in limited theatrical release and debuts on View On Demand outlets today, with DVD and Blu-ray release following on December 12.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.

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