The Fantastic Four [1994]

Certificate: PG
Running Time: 90 mins
Director: Oley Sassone
Starring Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey-Smith
Genre: Comic Book, Superhero, Sci-Fi
Country: USA/GER

A German Production company hold the cinematic rights to Marvel’s first family but are low on time and money and appear certain to default on production.  Who can they call?  What can they do?  Can anyone save their chances of committing to celluloid an FF movie?  Enter Roger Corman (The Big Doll House) who guarantees he’ll deliver a production on time and for a lot less than the $40M[1] they had originally intended.

The Corman led Fantastic Four film is considerably loyal to the core text while also not being afraid to colour outside the lines were the narrative either 1. requires it or 2. allows it.  There’s a double edged blade here but we’ll look at that in more detail later and when discussing the 2005 instalment.  The core components of the FF are here in their entirety and more.  Not only do we get their origin story but also a pre-origin, origin story that shows Reed Richards (Hyde-White) at College with Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) and an early connection to a pre-teen Sue Storm that makes their future relationship more than a little… icky[2].  The groundwork laid out here by Sassone is actually rather nice.  Though the largest change in our characters is to come once they encounter some cosmic radiation it’s entertaining to see them evolve into the daring and brilliant astronauts they will become.  The pseudo-sibling rivalry that Hyde-White and Culp create on screen is great.  From here, it’s logical how Von Doom could drop the ethnicity of Von, bestow a PhD upon himself and become a very naughty boy.  There are issues though.  The B-story is somewhat problematic.  It involves a tacked on relationship between Ben (Bailey-Smith) and a blind girl obsessed with Lionel Ritchie’s Hello video and an evil little hobo-gypo leprechaun with sticky fingers who goes by the name of The Jeweler.

The Jeweler is a difficult element.  Firstly his River-dance across the secured area to steal the large diamond responsible for stopping the FF’s ship from overheating when passing through the Colossus radiation makes him their creator, not to mention primary villain[3].  Secondly, as ill-fitting and odd as his storyline is he actually has more to do on screen than Doom.  Certainly more flamboyance in his performance and it skews the piece drastically.  Yet there’s something magical about it.  It has the Roger Corman signature.  It’s almost as though he couldn’t help but take a straight-forward comic book adaptation and skew it so it fits his ouevre.  Like it or not, believe it or not Corman has many of the required stables for authorship.  Cahier du cinema would probably chase me with a pitch-folk for saying so but he is something of an auteur.  Albeit one that causes problems both in his categorising and his movies.

Hyde-White makes for a good piece of casting as Reed Richards.  He’s able to play him at both ends of the spectrum[4] and finds the honesty in ever scene he has, regardless of how silly it may be.  Rebecca Staab (Sue Storm) is fine but her role suffers from some serious underdevelopment (much like the early FF comics[5]) which is a kind of source loyalty you really could do without.  I like Jay Underwood (The Boy Who Could Fly) as Johnny but he’s not exactly the “hot-head” that we’ve come to know and the Corman budget seriously limits the effectiveness of his Human Torch on screen with the exception of one sequence towards the end.  Bailey-Smith is incredibly awkward as Ben but Carl Ciarfalio as The Thing is actually brilliant.  His suit looks good.  I mean, he does look like he’s in traction any time he tries to walk but the screen presence of the Big Bad Boulder is spot-on, his mannerisms and pitch-perfect and there’s a complexity to him that’s wonderful. 

Yes, the love story is badly handled.  Really, really poorly stuck on to the side of the movie and in many ways unnecessary but in having it on screen it allows for some consideration to be given to Ben’s “condition”.  Reed, Johnny, and Sue all have control of their powers.  They can save the day and they have a normal life.  Ben, however, is a monster.  Doomed to be kept at a distance by most people because of his appearance.  His selflessness is true.  His sacrifice –complete and Nevius and Rock’s screenplay highlights that beautifully and with a level of subtly that isn’t all that common in a Roger Corman Joint.  Joseph Culp (Baadasssss!, Mad Men) is incredible as Doctor Doom.  Absolutely incredible!  He’s a really wonderful piece of casting.  The kind of actor who has real rise and fall in his performance that allows for complex reading of character and motive.  It’s such a shame that his Doom is… well… lame.  Blame the budget again but his supercharged suit does nothing.  Each encounter with the FF he delivers an awesome monologue then skulks off scene leaving inept (and bad shot) henchmen to blunder up dealing with Reed and co.

There are problems with The Fantastic Four but the fact that it was made for a little over a million dollars is truly staggering.  Marvel would pay out more than the production budget to have the movie taken off the market, unjustly in our opinion as in 1994 what else did they have out there?  How is it this movie is shunned as an unwanted bastard yet Elektra lives comfortably in the family home?  The film is far from fantastic but it’s got real heart.  You can tell that everyone involved was fully committed to rendering the most entertaining and faithful film they could.  You can watch it [here] and judge for yourself.

[1] Final production budget $1.4M – the most of any Roger Corman film to date.
[2] Entirely legal term.
[3] Rather than Doctor Doom.
[4] Both at College and as the Patriarchal Commander of the expedition.
[5] In which Sue was primarly used as either window dressing or kidnap fodder.


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