About a month or so ago, a trailer started floating around for a documentary about the making of the never releasedFantastic Four film. You’ve probably heard of the film – produced (but not directed) by Roger Corman, made for a budget of somewhere between one and three million dollars, sold as a bootleg on the convention circuit for over twenty years now. What you might not know is this – the film isn’t nearly as terrible as its reputation makes it out to be…and might even be worth giving a watch. I’m not saying it’s on par with Marvel’s The Avengers or anything, but the cast is surprisingly strong in their roles given the material. The story is pretty much straight from the Lee/Kirby run on the Fantastic Four comic, and let’s face it, sometimes a train wreck is worth checking out.
The absolute best aspect of The Fantastic Four is the cast. None of these guys knew they were making a movie just so the studio could retain rights – this wasn’t just another job, it was supposed to be their big break. Jay Underwood in particular is a wonderful Johnny Storm, a vibrant, energetic ball of lunacy that practically bounces off the walls when he discovers his flame powers. Just like his comic book counterpart, he revels in his abilities, overjoyed with the potential and prospects of being a celebrity superhero. There’s an almost constant smile on his face, the happy smirk of a show-off with nothing to prove – a perfect match for Marvel’s original bad boy. By contrast, Rebecca Staab’s Invisible Girl is a picture of subtly. She is sweet, pretty, and intelligent, and she plays her crush on Reed Richards with a charm and grace that is totally believable. She also plays well off of Underwood, and the two are actually pretty convincing as siblings. I don’t want this to turn into a laundry list of comparisons to Fox’s two Fantastic Four outings, but it’s worth noting that Jessica Alba and Chris Evans got exactly one scene in two films to show their relationship. This Fantastic Four takes the time to develop the group’s interpersonal relationships in a way the bigger-budgeted blockbusters never could.
The rest of the cast is various levels of competent – Alex Hyde-White is appropriately stoic as Reed Richards, Carl Ciarfalio plays The Thing with the anger and pathos of Lee and Kirby’s original character voice, and Joseph Culp and Ian Trigger are by turns incomprehensible and histrionic as Doctor Doom and The Jeweler, respectively. (The Jeweler, by the way, is basically Mole Man with the serial numbers filed off – why Corman and company decided to invent a “new” character when a perfectly good one was hanging out in the comics pages is one of the bigger questions this film poses.) The real surprise, though, is how great Kat Green is as Alicia Masters. Alicia is a surprisingly important figure in an already full film – the subplot centers around her – and her elegance and vulnerability completely sell her distress and her feelings for Ben Grimm. She’s a very human anchor in a sea of superhero insanity.
It also helps that the film wants to play with a lot of classic Fantastic Four tropes. While the heroes head into space to study a comet instead of the classic need to beat the commies, they still get bombarded with cosmic rays, crash their shuttle, and emerge with phenomenal powers. A flashback sequence shows us that, yes, Doom and Reed knew each other in college, and a failed experiment caused Doom to be horribly scarred. Alicia gets kidnapped by The Jeweler, because while blind, she can show the true beauty of a person with her sculptures, and he believes she can help the world accept him and his kind (his kind being hobos, not Moloids – which is really too bad, I would have loved to see what kind of costume/make-up job this film would have done with a Moloid). Doom still blames Reed for the accident that scars him. Sue’s been crushing on Reed since she was a kid, and he was a young college student staying at her mother’s boarding house. Ben yells “It’s clobberin’ time”…or at least someone does, his lips move super awkwardly in that sequence. Like I said, it’s a very full film, and it tries to cram in as much Fantastic Four continuity as it can into its 90 minute runtime.
Of course, all of these accolades shouldn’t detract from the biggest reason to actually track this down: in the end, this film is bat-shit crazy, you guys. The cast and crew did the absolute best with what they had, but what they had wasn’t all that much. The majesty of space is represented by a pen floating by in zero gravity…that is clearly hanging from a fishing wire. Sue’s invisibility powers also apparently make her intagible – and amount to Rebecca Staab yelling her lines from off-camera while the rest of cast stands around looking confused. Doom threatens our heroes with the destruction of New York by showing them stock footage – or at least that’s what I assume he’s doing, because Culp’s accent is so outrageously faux-European you can’t actually make out what he’s saying a good two-thirds of the time. Ben switches back and forth between the Thing and his human form for basically no reason at least twice – which, you can argue, happened a lot in the early Kirby/Lee issues as well, but it sure feels like an unearned plot contrivance on-screen. And – spoiler alert – the big-budget climax of the film features an animated Human Torch racing a laser beam that he manages to get in front of before he stops it using his flame powers. It’s utterly ridiculous in the best way possible.
The Fantastic Four is not a lost classic waiting to be rediscovered. But I do think it’s a movie that deserves to be sought out. In a world where Sharknado gets collector’s memorabilia and an appreciation of camp is at an all-time high, a film this earnest – not to mention this ludicrous – should find an appreciative audience. I’ve honestly watched this movie version of the Fantastic Four more than I have the two summer blockbusters starring the same characters combined. Just remember, it’s okay to laugh when terrible foreshortening camera tricks are used to indicate Reed’s stretching – I still do. Viva la Fantastique!