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DOOMED!: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ROGER CORMAN’S THE FANTASTIC FOUR (2016) review

October 11, 2016

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produced by: Mark Sikes and Mark Steven Grove
directed by: Marty Langford
rated: unrated
runtime: 85 min.
U.S. release date: October 11, 2016 (digital)
DVD release date: December 20, 2016

 

Documentaries about movies that were either never made or conceptualized yet never greenlit have been showing up recently, creating their own niche for the curious. There was Frank Pavich’s “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (2012) and Jon Schnepp’s “The Death of Superman: What Happened?” (2015) recently, both of which gave  fans of their respective genres some answers and new details, while offering a certain behind-the-scenes look at what could’ve been. But none of those movies were ever shot, unlike the Roger Corman-produced “Fantastic Four”, a movie which was made, buzzed about and then never saw the light of day – or the darkness of a movie theater. So, what happened? That’s what you’ll find out in Marty Langford’s documentary “DOOMED!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four”. 

Langford made the film because was just as curious as anyone else who knew about the seldom-seen movie. The director grew up in Massachusetts, where he worked at a comic book shop owned by his friends’ father. His friend, Mark Sikes, went on to become a receptionist and casting assistant for veteran producer/director Corman. With that connection to Corman, Langford and Sikes decided to embark on making a documentary (since nothing had been documented about what happened to the movie) that would serve to uncover the mysteries that shrouded “Fantastic Four”. Serving as executive producer, Sikes provided Langford access to a plethora of contacts, like the movie’s director and  entire cast of “Fantastic Four” as well as others involved in making the movie.

 

 

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It’s dizzying to keep track of what transpired and what went wrong with “Fantastic Four”, but the documentary does a fine job breaking it down for us. It turns out that back in 1986, German producer and owner of Constantin Film Produktion, Bernd Eichinger (“The Never-ending Story” and “Downfall”) purchased the rights to Fantastic Four from Marvel Comics. Eichinger had visions of a big-budget blockbuster with the best visual effects of the day, hoping that a major studio would float the bill, but alas, the studios back then scoffed at comics like your Aunt Petunia used to (Troma Entertainment president Lloyd Kaufman passed on it). Eichinger had until the end of 1992 to make something happen or the rights would revert back to Marvel. That’s when Corman and his Concord/New World Pictures studio got involved, with Eichinger desperate for the B-movie master to start cameras rolling before the year ended. With only a million to work with, director Olley Sassone and his cast and crew scrambled to make the most of what the time and resources they had, often using the rat-infested leftover sets from Corman’s “Carnosaur”.

It’s amazing to learn about how all this went down and how much of what transpired was dependent on how comic book material was viewed at the time. Despite the success of Tim Burton’s two “Batman” movies, studios were still very hesitant about doing anything with superhero properties. Just think about that compared to where we are now.

Considering that moviegoers associate the actors who portrayed Marvel’s First Family as the ones who were cast in Tim Story’s two “Fantastic Four” movies and last year’s flop from Josh Trank (all three released by 20th Century Fox), it’s very cool to see the actors who were the first to be cast in these roles here, reflecting on their experiences with the movie. We hear from Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic), Rebecca Staab (Susan Storm/Invisible Woman), Jay Underwood (Johnny Storm/Human Torch), the two actors who played Ben Grimm/Thing, Michael Bailey Smith & Carl Ciarfalio, respectively, as well as Joseph Culp (Victor Von Doom/Dr. Doom) and Kat Green (Alicia Masters). It’s quite a surprise that each and every one of them made themselves available to Langford for the documentary. I would assume there would be some resentment or bitterness, seeing as how all their hard work never really turned out the way they had hoped, but I was very surprised to find all of these actors very open and proud to talk about their work on the movie.

 

 

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Alex Hyde-White and Rebecca Staab, aka Reed Richards and Sue Storm

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After all, these actors truly thought that “Fantastic Four” would be a game-changer for their respective careers. You can tell in these interviews just how stunned and frustrated they were when it was revealed to them that the movie would never be released. If Langford had not been able to get the cast and the director involved in this documentary, it wouldn’t have been the same. Their positive attitude and realistic perspective of the industry is infectious and what their inclusion here surprisingly did for me was deliver a needed human element to the drama of this story. I was reminded while watching “DOOMED!” that no one involved in moviemaking sets out to make a dud. Everyone involved wants it to succeed, but sometimes it’s not within their reach.

The time spent with Sassone and his frank and often funny cast is the highlight of Langford’s film. It’s clear how personal and committed Hyde-White took his role and the same could be said for Culp, who shares how he was inspired to go big as the villain after watching old clips of Mussolini. Culp also emphasizes that how he felt about wearing the Doctor Doom costume, “there’s no other way to describe it – it was a grueling experience.” I was surprised to learn that both these actors are sons of famous actors, Wilfred Hyde-White and Robert Culp (geeks will know from their TV work on “Buck Rogers” and “The Greatest American Hero”, respectively). It’s also fun to hear Rebecca Staab talk about the costumes that were designed by Reve Richards – let’s just say he did the best he could with what he had to work with, but when you watch the movie you can totally see how cheap they were. Speaking of costumes, its fascinating to learn how they were able to make a Thing costume out of foam rubber and complex animatronics (we also hear from special effects make-up artist John Vulich) with their low-budget. Even more fascinating was hearing from stunt actor Craig Ciarfalio, who had to wear the suit and how crazy hot and restrictive it was. You get the idea that Ciarfalio, who has had an impressive stunt career, could talk for hours about being Thing.

 

 

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visual effects artist John Vulich (above) and director Olley Sassone (below)

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Sikes, who also served as casting assistant on the movie, offers some choice anecdotes about filming. Like how actors Mark Ruffalo and Patrick Warburton came in and read for the role of Ben Grimm. There’s also the story about Sassoon needing additional pick-up shots of the Thing and wound up recruiting Sikes to run down the streets of Los Angeles in the costume, shortly after principal photography had wrapped. These are choice and lively bits that enliven “DOOMED!” and add to the education of what all is involved in filming a movie.

As for the reason the movie got shelved, I’ll leave those details to the documentary, but let’s just say there was no footage of Eichinger (he died in 2001) and former Marvel Studios head, Avi Arad, declined to make any current comments about the movie. I’m not even going to mention what “DOOMED!” says about how Stan Lee, the Fantastic Four creator (along with Jack Kirby) himself, felt about the movie. These nuggets are best left for the viewer.

Throughout the entertaining and enlightening documentary, Langford injects new interviews as well as on-set footage and photos, like the ones we see of certain cast members touring to promote the movie on their own dime, what Hyde-White calls, “a grass-roots publicity tour”. It’s all kind of baffling and unheard of, since nowadays we’re told just about everything about a movie – especially a superhero one.  There’s even teasers for teaser trailers. Twenty-two years ago, we would hear about upcoming movies like this in magazines. In fact, Chris Gore, the founder of Film Threat (one such magazine) is included here, since he was inviting to the set and one of first writers to cover “Fantastic Four”, including a making of cover exclusive. Langford including Gore is a reminder how inundated we are with movie news information 24/7 now.

 

 

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Jay Underwood aka Johnny Storm (above) and Joseph Culp aka Victor Von Doom

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We also hear from co-producer and editor, Glenn Garland, who recalls what he was left to work with in post-production and how the eventual trailer for the movie was more pristine than the final cut. VP of Marketing at Concord/New Horizons at the time, Jonathan Fernandez, also shows up and shares, “No one thought that this film was not going to be playing across the country.”

I first heard about a Roger Corman “Fantastic Four” movie back in the early 90s. If you can imagine, this was a time when a live-action Marvel Comics superhero movie was a joke. DC Comics/Warner Bros. already had success, but Marvel’s properties such as Albert Pyun’s “Captain America”(1990) and Mark Goldblatt’s “The Punisher” (1989) were laughably and inaccurately adapted and never released theatrically. Now, those two movies may have a few fans, but ultimately, faith in a decent live-action Marvel Comics adaption was low.

“DOOMED!” reminded me of the rumblings regarding other Marvel big-screen prospects at the time. There were rumors that would promise a live-action about-face for the better.  James Cameron would be directing a Spider-Man movie for Carolco, Wesley Snipes was rumored to be attached to a Black Panther movie and Wes Craven was supposedly “all set” to direct a Doctor Strange movie. Just imagine.

Fan magazines began to show stills from this “Fantastic Four” movie and I even remember seeing a trailer for it. Yet there was never any way to see it, which led me (and other fanboys) to assume that it sucked. After all, that Thing costume looked about as ridiculous as the costumes from the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” movies from around that time. Still, context is important, so I wanted to be able to see the movie and make up my mind. Eventually, it was bootlegged and would show up at comic book conventions in VHS and DVD copies, which is how I eventually saw it. Ironically (and sadly), that’s also how many of the actors wound up seeing it as well, some of them even purchased a bootleg, just to have it. Crazy.

Watching “DOOMED!” gave me a greater understanding of the hard work and challenges that go into making a movie, especially under the strenuous and extraordinary circumstances involving Sassone’s “Fantastic Four”. Most of all, it made me wish that Marvel (or whoever) would realize there’s an audience for such a movie. Ideally, it would be great to see the movie added as a Special Feature when the DVD for this film comes out later this year. One could hope.

 

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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