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Josh Reviews Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four

July 3rd, 2017
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Back in the early nineties, long before our modern age of high-quality, big-budget, prestigious superhero films, a German film producer named Bernd Eichinger acquired the rights to Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Despite the FF being one of the biggest names in the Marvel Comics sandbox, the rights were acquired for a piddly sum (reportedly around $250,000), and no major studio was interested in the project. So Mr. Eichinger’s company, Constantin, partnered with Roger Corman to produce the film. Mr. Corman was the master of schlocky, low-budget sci-fi and fantasy films, and together they agreed to a budget of one million dollars for the project (a large sum by Mr. Corman’s standards but tiny for major action-adventure films, even of the day). The film was written, filmed and edited. But it was never released.

Marty Langford’s documentary Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four tells the story of the film’s origin, its production and post-production, and the machinations that eventually resulted in its being buried, and the prints destroyed.

I love cinematic what-if stories (such as Jodorosky’s Dune or Lost in La Mancha, a look at Terry Gilliam’s many failed attempts to create a Don Quixote adaptation), and Mr. Langford’s documentary is a fascinating look back at a film that almost was. Whereas Alejandro Jodorosky’s adaptation of Dune was stopped mere weeks before production, and Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was halted after a few days of production, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four adaptation (directed by Oley Sassone), was fully shot and edited and ready to be released to theatres. And yet, it never was.

From what Mr. Langford is able to unravel, Avi Arad, who was involved in bringing the X-Men and Spider-Man to the big screen in 2000 and 2002, was working on a big-budget version of the Fantastic Four, and he worried that the release of a low-budget ruin would make the title into a joke for the public and ruin his chances at a successful big-budget release. So he apparently struck a deal with Constantin and Roger Corman to buy the film from them, and have all the prints destroyed.

Doomed! is a very enjoyable look and the life and death of this film. Mr. Langford has scored interviews with all of the film’s participants, from the director to the cast to many of the behind the scenes creatives and even Roger Corman himself. (The only major player not interviewed is Avi Arad, who was reportedly the main force behind the film’s eventual burial. I can fully understand why Mr. Arad might not want to participate in this film!) Through the documentary, we follow this Fantastic Four film’s inception and production. Mr. Langford has included a lot of footage that gives us a sense, not only of the story the film would have told, but of its look and feel as well.

It is clear that the men and women involved in this film put their hearts and souls into it. Many of them saw this film as their ticket to the big time. It’s heartbreaking that their hopes and dreams for the film were crushed so definitively. It’s one thing to release a film that no one thinks is any good. It’s quite another sort of pain to have your film buried, so that no one would ever see the fruits of your labors. That sucks, and it’s clear that this disappointment is still potent for so many of the film’s key players.

And yet, Mr. Langford’s documentary doesn’t focus on that disappointment, though of course it is a huge part of this story. What is most endearing about the film is the way it spotlights the joy and creative energy the film’s participants, both in front of and behind the camera, had. These people loved the FF and wanted to make a great film, despite their very-limited resources.

Would this version of The Fantastic Four have been any good? Frankly, despite the enthusiasm of the participants, I doubt it. I just don’t see how this wonderful comic book property, filled with such wild concepts, could be brought to life on such a tiny budget.  The footage we see in the documentary of the sets, costumes, and visual effects supports this opinion.

While all three Fantastic Four films that were eventually released (the 2005 and 2007 films overseen by Mr. Arad, as well as the 2015 reboot) were terrible, I am not sure I believe this film, even if it was made with more genuine love for the original comic book, would have been any better. And from a business standpoint, I can understand where Avi Arad was coming from — he probably wouldn’t have been able to successfully release his big-budget Fantastic Four film had this low-budget film been released and branded the property in a certain light with the general public.

But I also fully understand and share the pain of the many men and women who worked hard on this film, only to have their efforts be buried as the result of deal-making among big companies. To work on art and never have anyone be able to see that art is devastating. I am glad this film, in some way, gives a voice to those creative men and women, and allows them to speak for what they did twenty years ago, and what they were trying to achieve. Mr. Langford has done a great job at shining a spotlight on this forgotten piece of cinema history.

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