Just a little over a week after its release, the latest "Fantastic Four" movie lies beaten and battered at the box office, and the public's consensus seems to be that Hollywood can't give Marvel's First Family the film they deserve. Critics have dog-piled on the movie, fans have ranted about it and ticket sales have proven that word-of-mouth and behind-the-scenes drama don't result in full theaters. But at least Josh Trank's "Fantastic Four" got a theatrical release, which is more than director Oley Sassone can say about his 1994 film, "The Fantastic Four."
Indeed, Trank's film comes from a lineage of trouble "FF" productions. Produced by legendary filmmaker Roger Corman and shot in the span of one month, Sassone's film was rushed through production before languishing in post-production limbo. Eventually, the movie leaked onto VHS after news spread that it had been shelved just a few weeks ahead of its premiere at the Minneapolis' Mall of America.
Typically adorned with a Xerox-printed cover art mixing promo stills and pixelated graphics, the 1994 "The Fantastic Four" has become a staple of bootleg videos sold at conventions, sold by proto-Pirate Bay dealers of a bygone era. With the release of their new documentary, "Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's 'The Fantastic Four,'" director Marty Langford and executive producer Mark Sikes have sifted through the wreckage to figure exactly what happened.
Even after all these years, the ins-and-outs of what occurred have been shrouded in mystery. As the casting assistant for the original film, Mark Sikes was the go-to guy to get the inside scoop. "[Marty Langford] calls me three-four years ago and says, 'I want to tell this story, will you help me? You've got all the contacts. You know all these people. Let's write a book,'" Sikes recalled. "And I was like, 'Dude, you went to film school. I went to film school -- let's make a movie!'"
In early August, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, CA hosted a screening of "Doomed" and Sikes was on hand to discuss the film alongside cast members Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richard/Mr. Fantastic), Rebecca Staab (Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman), Joseph Culp (Victor von Doom/Dr. Doom), Michael Bailey Smith (Ben Grimm), Carl Ciarfalio (The Thing), Kat Green (Alicia Masters) and director Sassone.
"The mythology, which I hope we dispel in this documentary, is that the movie was so bad it couldn't be released," Sikes said. "That's what everyone thought back in '95. Everybody was like, 'Roger Corman made such a bad movie, they couldn't -- Roger Corman couldn't release it!' It was humiliating. And it wasn't true... I was happy when the movie started leaking as a bootleg.
"Everybody, now especially, is talking about how Corman's version was the most loyal. They look like the characters," Sikes continued. "And part of that is because the actors went to Golden Apple and bought the Marvel Masterworks. They read that 10-issue book of 'Fantastic Four.'... So [the film's] got a beautiful, loyal feel to it."
Actress Rebecca Staab also believes their version has a faith in the Marvel comics that the later films lack. "One of the things that stands out about ["The Fantastic Four"] is that it really is a buddy film. You get the love and camaraderie between the four," Staab said. "I think the fact that it looks like the comic book... that's actually what will contribute to its timelessness... It depended on the original source as opposed to whatever was the passing thing, socially or technologically, at the time."
But this is a Corman movie, and Sassone knew what that meant going in. "I'd already made a couple of movies for Roger, and I knew first from working there already, it wasn't going to be much of what the big studios or anybody else could give us," Sassone explained. "But I wanted to make the movie because I remembered how I felt about the Fantastic Four when I was a kid. That's really what the inspiration was for me to try to make the film. I just really loved being able to play like a kid again. We didn't have all the big special effects, and the big sets, but I'll say one thing: I had one really great cast of actors."
Long before his cameo days, FF co-creator Stan Lee dropped by the set during filming. "He brought the donuts once," Alex Hyde-White says at one point in "Doomed." But as the documentary depicts in archival footage, Lee denounced the film just a few months later in a panel at 1993's Comic-Con International in San Diego. "I'm not expecting too much of it," Lee said. "It's the last movie to be made that we at Marvel had no control over."
As the months passed after production wrapped, the cast and crew were left wondering what was happening and whether the film was going to come out. People speculated and theorized, with one rumor stating that the movie was never meant to be released in the first place. Someone had to know the truth, but who?
"I think the intention was to at least make something releasable," Sikes said. "Now, on [Executive Producer Bernd] Eichinger's part, it may very well have been, 'We need to make this nice enough so that I get some really good money from Marvel so that we never release it.' That, I don't know. We'll never know."
As an employee for Corman, Sikes was all over the office, pitching in wherever he was needed, which meant he was also privy to just about every bit of information that passed through its door. "I was at the office every day. I was the receptionist, I was the office manager. I had so many jobs there -- I was the projectionist. You hear things. You see things," Sikes said, explaining why he doesn't believe the movie was created with the intention of burying it. "Nobody could've kept that secret... I don't believe that they knew.
"So much money was spent," Sikes continued. "Why did we make 5,000 movie posters? That's a huge waste of money. Roger's not known for wasting money... They didn't spend a dime they didn't have to spend. I don't believe that he knew."
Asked how he feels about the original film never getting a proper release, Michael Bailey Smith's response was simple and a little emotional. "I feel heartsick. This is what we were hoping for 'The Fantastic Four' -- for you guys to see the real film, to see all you guys in the seats watching that, instead of seeing a documentary about what could have been."
Before the end of the Q&A, Smith made his thoughts on 20th Century Fox known: "There's a thing called 'karma,' and until they do our film right and treat us right -- good luck trying to make another one."
Now, anyone interested seeing the shelved movie can find it on YouTube, but they're going to be watching a copy of a copy of a copy and the location of the original reels remains unknown. But the big question remains: will a high-quality version ever see a release? "It's kind of a back burner mission of mine," Sikes said. "I do believe it will come out. Someone may have to die for that to happen -- seriously. 'Cause I do feel, based on comments that have been made in the media, there's at least one person who really, really never wants that movie to see the light of day."
Check out a sneak peek of "Doomed!" below.