In the early 1990s, low-budget cheesemeister Roger Corman produced a film based on The Fantastic Four purely to maintain the rights to the property. It was a famously terrible hackjob never meant to be released, only surfacing years later as a bootleg on the convention circuit. For over twenty years, that’s been the story percolating through the film world, but documentarian Marty Langford needed to know more. That desire drove him to produce Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four, a charming little doc about doomed filmmakers just trying to eke out the best product they possibly could.
Take this as an object lesson in the machinations of the film industry.
Bernd Eichinger of Neue Constantin Films is set to lose his option on The Fantastic Four at the end of 1992. Knowing that Roger Corman can turn a film around fairly quickly, Eichinger co-finances a Fantastic Four feature for $1.5 million. The cast and crew rush into production mere days before New Year’s, with next to no rehearsal time or prep work. Director Oley Sassone shoots the film on sets leftover from Corman’s Carnosaur, which, as he puts it, “If you never film it in close-up, it looks great.” After production wraps, the cast lead a grassroots campaign to get the film out into the world, but to no avail, as then-Marvel executive Avi Arad pulls the prints and orders them to be destroyed.
From its rushed inception to its unfortunate (and perhaps even predestined) demise, Doomed! chronicles all of the speed bumps and missteps that befell Fantastic Four on its way to the dumpster. It’s easy to tell from interviews with the cast and crew that everyone saw this film as a huge opportunity. Alex Hyde-White and Jay Underwood (Mr. Fantastic and The Human Torch, respectively) thought this was going to be their big break, and the utter disappointment clearly still weighs on them as they retell this story. Joseph Culp (Doctor Doom) relished the opportunity to play a broadly operatic villain, but the lack of audio dubbing left most of his line readings muffled behind a plastic mask. To hear it from those on the set, there were nothing but good intentions for this Fantastic Four, even if they didn’t quite have the money or time to pull it off.
All the good intentions in the world don’t count for anything, though, if the powers that be don’t play ball. It’s one of the sad truths of the industry that money talks, and the story of the film existing purely as a rights formality turns out to be true. Granted, this was never really a mystery in the first place, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of hearing it from those that were there. Folks start to wonder who benefitted from all these negotiations and deals, and all signs ultimately point to Roger Corman. Fantastic Four was never anything more than a bargaining chip, and Corman cashed it in sooner rather than later. In the film, he naturally remains pretty tight-lipped about the whole thing. He seems more than happy to discuss the project, but when the topic of selling it off comes around, Corman disappears completely.
That’s where Doomed! takes an interesting turn. After recounting the production’s history, the cast go right back to pounding the pavement for their film to officially see the light of day. It’s clear that some, Alex Hyde-White and Oley Sassone in particular, still stand by their work and have never stopped lobbying to get their Fantastic Four released. And they make a solid point: What kind of business sense does it make to buy up a film print only to sit on it? Or worse, destroy it completely? The final minutes of Doomed! become an impassioned plea — to Roger Corman, Avi Arad, Marvel, Kevin Feige, anybody — to find the original print of Fantastic Four, finish it properly and just release the damn thing already.
This doc has all the hallmarks of a DVD special feature ready and waiting for a film to accompany it. It’s a neat little story that shines a light on where Marvel Comics was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that a film like this could even be produced. Footage of Stan Lee voicing his displeasure over the chintzy mess that the film became is reason enough to see Doomed! We may never see a fully restored edition of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, but hey, if it can happen to Manos: The Hands of Fate, then anything is possible.