Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Doomed: The Curse of Corman’s Fantastic Four

It was the ashcan copy of all ashcan copies. It was also the only film Roger Corman produced that he never released. We were not supposed to see the 1994 Fantastic Four, but where there is a rabid cult following, there is always a way. The speedy production and unfortunate fate of the most notorious Marvel movie ever are chronicled in director-editor-screenwriter Marty Langford’s documentary Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

As most fans know by now, Marvel has stringent use-it-or-loose-it clauses in their film licensing contracts. Bernd Eichinger had acquired the rights to The Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics’ flagship superhero team, but his hold on the property was soon to expire. He needed someone who could produce a film quickly and on the cheap, solely so he could retain control of the property. Naturally, he thought of Roger Corman. Apparently, he also approached Lloyd Kaufman, who wisely declined, but the mind reels at the thought of a Troma Fantastic Four.

Eventually, Langford and company give us reason to suspect the fix was in, right from the start. However, the cast and crew went into the project with high hopes and the best of intentions. In fact, they apparently bonded almost immediately and promoted the film as a team, often on their own dime. Of course, there were those colorful tell-tale signs that this was a Roger Corman joint, but they had reason to believe this would be different. Then suddenly, the film was withdrawn and the rights were transferred to Fox, leaving director Oley Sassone and his cast feeling confused and betrayed.

Langford scores interviews with all the principal cast and just about every crew member with a story to tell. He certainly has Corman’s New Horizon’s poverty row studio covered, but the surviving players at Marvel and Constantin Films were much more camera shy. Frankly, this might be the only Marvel film Stan Lee chose not to appear in—but have no fear true believers, we still see him in some rather illuminating fair use video clips. While Langford is pretty tough on Lee, one could argue he goes easy on the other icon, Corman, who unflappably answers questions and apologizes for nothing.

Although we all know the general upshot, there are a number of genuinely surprising twists and turns. Doomed is breezy and comprehensive. However, it rather diplomatically refrains from gloating over the obvious ironies—despite its cheesy effects and the dubious legality of bootleg copies, the Sassone Fantastic Four is still most fans’ favorite. The strange backroom maneuvering also taught Fox precisely how to deal with Marvel. Hence, all the unwanted sequels and reboots. Frankly, if Marvel had gotten behind the Corman-Constantin co-production, the Fantastic Four film rights they now so desperately covet would have safely reverted years ago. That’s karma.

Regardless, Langford lucidly explains every strange legalistic detail, shaping the assembled testimony into a highly compelling narrative. More than just a “making of” film, Langford exposes some real Hollywood sausage-making, but it leaves viewers’ fanboy enthusiasm undiminished. Highly recommended for Marvel and cult cinema fans, Doomed is now available on VOD platforms.