Movie Review – DOOMED! THE UNTOLD STORY OF ROGER CORMAN’S ‘FANTASTIC FOUR’

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Those of you who have been regular visitors to the site and listeners of the LeagueCast podcast know we have fostered a professional and friendly relationship with New England-based director Marty Langford, whose superhero movie documentary Doomed! The Untold Story Of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four is about to hit VOD on October 11 and Blu-Ray on December 20, from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Langford and Fantastic Four casting assistant Mark Sikes poured their own cash, some Kickstarter contributions, and their blood, sweat, and tears into the documentary – and Sikes’ professional attachment to the 1994 production proved to be a crucial asset. Doomed! utilizes vintage marketing materials, information culled from actual production documents, and first-hand accounts from just about every actor and peripheral player involved in the making of the ill-fated 1994 movie to finally chronicle the story of how and why the first big screen adventure of Marvel’s “First Family Of Comics” was funded, shot, edited, marketed…then abruptly locked away forever.

In February 2014, Langford released the first trailer for the documentary, which quickly went viral with over 500,000 views on YouTube, garnering coverage from all the major geek culture/movie news websites like Slashfilm, Aint It Cool News, Birth. Movies. Death., Collider, SuperheroHype, Comic Book Movie, and more. After successful screenings of Doomed! at San Diego Comic-Con and the SAG theater in Los Angeles in the summer of 2015, it was obvious fan interest in this untold story was high, but unfortunately a series of legal claims resulted in the trailer being pulled from YouTube and delayed the film’s completion and release. Fortunately for Langford and everyone involved, the issues have been fully resolved, and now the entire geek culture world can officially see and hear the story straight from the unsung heroes behind and in front of the lens.

The Blu-Ray/DVD cover

The Blu-Ray/DVD cover

Doomed! opens with a brief sequence in which we see various talking heads lamenting the film’s fate and discussing the “seedy” Hollywood machinery that swallowed the film whole, complimented by some vintage behind-the-scenes images from the production. After a cool title screen pops up, we meet the cast of “characters” who relate the tale of The Fantastic Four’s demise – Producer Roger Corman (a real coup for Langford and crew), director Oley Sassone, casting director Mark Sikes, editor Glenn Garland, makeup effects artist John Volich, vice president of marketing for Concord/New Horizons Jonathan Fernandez, film journalist Chris Gore, producer/Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, author Sean Howe (The Untold Story Of Marvel Comics); and actors Alex Hyde-White (Mr. Fantastic), Joseph Culp (Dr. Doom), Jay Underwood (The Human Torch), Rebecca Staab (Invisible Woman), Michael Bailey Smith (Ben Grimm), Carl Ciarfalio (The Thing), and Kat Green (Alicia Masters).

Now, if you’re a hardcore geek, lifelong comic book reader, huge fan of superhero cinema, etc., you likely already know the gist of the situation surrounding the 1994 Fantastic Four film: producer Bernd Eichenger—who bought the film rights to the Fantastic Four during Stan Lee’s fire sale in the late ’70s/early ’80s—was going to lose those rights if he didn’t get a FF flick in front of the cameras by the end of 1992, so he contracted legendary B-Movie shlockmeister Roger Corman to start production as soon as humanly possible. The film was put together in a matter of weeks, completed, then shelved – with almost everyone at Marvel and everyone involved in the production (with the exception of the people who actually toiled away on making it) insisting it was never meant to be seen in the first place. However, grainy videotape dubs of the finished product soon appeared in comic book stores, flea markets, and the convention circuit, ensuring the film would live on in infamy as both a cult phenomenon and a huge question mark.

Director Oley Sassone And Stuntman Carl Ciarfalio

Director Oley Sassone And Stuntman Carl Ciarfalio

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “If the story of what happened to the movie is fairly well-known, why bother further exploring it in a documentary?” Well, it’s one thing to absorb the story of this film via decades of speculation and hearsay printed in old magazines or posted on geek news blogs, but it’s an entirely different experience to see and hear it first-hand from the truly down-to-earth people who actually busted their butts making the thing. The cast and crew braved Corman’s rat-infested, condemned barn/sound stage in the middle of California (which served as the film’s various high-tech labs/secret villain lairs) in the hopes of nabbing that elusive, career-sustaining breakout attention from a high-profile property like the Fantastic Four – and if there’s anything that shines through in Doomed, it’s the sense that these individuals poured everything they had into this project and genuinely tried their damnedest to make the best movie possible.

If you’ve ever actually watched the finished product, you can see that heart and enthusiasm beaming out of every frame, in spite of the shoddy spandex costumes and cardboard sets. Unsurprisingly, that chintzy aesthetic provides some of the most entertaining segments of Doomed, as the cast members light up and chuckle over their recollections of  spandex costumes with unevenly sewed “4s,” shooting on recycled sets from Roger Corman’s Carnosaur, or the aluminum foil-esque space suits.

The “stars” of Doomed!—by a country mile—are, ironically, the two opposing leads of the 1994 Corman Fantastic Four – Alex Hyde-White and Joseph Culp. In fact, their demeanors and physical appearance almost echo their respective characters. Hyde-White is particularly engaging, communicating his memories of the ill-fated production with grace, wit, and affability (surprising, in light of the tremendous hardships he suffered). Culp, meanwhile, cuts an imposing figure with a deep, commanding voice, rigid stature, and jet black head of hair; his recollections of the film tend  to skew a bit darker and more sardonic, but even he can’t help but break his steely façade and grin to ear to ear when reminiscing about the first time he saw Mr. Fantastic’s wonky, wobbly “arm” waving to the crowd from a limo’s sun roof after the wedding scene.

Alex Hyde-White

Alex Hyde-White

The rest of the cast share some fun anecdotes, but don’t offer up the level of personal hurt or criticism of the backdoor studio politics as Hyde-White and Culp. Director Oley Sassone and casting director Mark Sikes also offer up a wealth of previously untold or lost bits of crucial information; adding an invaluable presence in this documentary (something I’m sure Langford was well aware of). In fact, if there’s a third “star” here it’s definitely Sassone, who comes across eminently positive and likable, despite the terrible blow the shelving of the film delivered to his burgeoning directing career.

Corman and Kaufman—while being nice “gets” for this indie effort—don’t offer much beyond some star splash and expositional filler in the “story,” (I really would’ve liked to have heard more from Corman in the last 20 minutes of the doc; especially his version of the story, but apparently he wasn’t too forthcoming in that regard) . For me, the biggest surprise of the doc was author Sean Howe, whose Untold Story Of Marvel Comics book is a must-read for any comics fan. Though his screen presence is nonexistent, he shares two really juicy, eyebrow-raising tidbits about the tangled web of this whole affair.

Doomed! is a very linear documentary; it starts with Roger Corman being approached by the desperate head of Neue Contantin Pictures, Bernd Eichinger, to get the film before cameras before the end of ’92, carries through to casting process and shooting, moves on to the strange and tumultuous post-production process (some of the doc’s most interesting anecdotes occur here), and wraps up with the “villains” of the piece swooping in to buy up the movie and steal the negatives away, leaving the bewildered cast and crew searching for answers. Those looking for tabloid sensationalism or a narrative twist focusing on quirky “characters” – i,e delusional or mentally unstable actors who can’t let go of the past as seen in other docs in this genre such as The Best Worst Movie, will be disappointed, as everyone here is presented with respect and seem to be happy, personable, and well-adjusted. This cut-and-dry approach gets a bit stale at points, but those intrigued by the premise and invested in the questions explored will have no trouble staying engaged throughout.

Langford and Corman during the DOOMED shooting

Langford and Corman during the DOOMED shooting

Visually speaking, the documentary could not look or sound any better. The photography is slick and professional, the audio is clear, and the talking head setups are generously sprinkled with original storyboards, comic book art, photographs of key players brought up during conversations, archival footage from the set, magazine articles, posters, marketing materials, and other relevant imagery. Overall the film is paced well, communicates the narrative of the ill-fated project in an efficient, engaging way, and ends on a note-perfect final line. The only thing I found myself missing was some more material about how the movie captures the spirit of the classic Kirby source material better than other iterations, but that’s a trivial deficiency in an otherwise very informative piece.

Doomed! The Untold Story Of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four isn’t a documentary that will transcend its niche source material and appeal to a mass audience like Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, but I can easily see it filling art house theaters around the country with rabid comic book movie fans, perhaps pairing nicely as a double feature with the similar The Death Of Superman Lives doc. I can also certainly see it performing very well on VOD and eventually on a streaming service such as Netflix. Thanks to Uncork’d Entertainment and Langford’s efforts, this is one “untold story” that will finally—and deservedly—be told.

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Jeff Carter

Jeff is the defining voice of his generation. Sadly, that generation exists only in an alternate dimension where George Lucas became supreme overlord of the Earth in 1979 and replaced every television broadcast and theatrical film on the planet with Star Wars and Godzilla movies. In this dimension, he’s just a guy from New England who likes writing snarky things about superheroes, monsters, and robots.