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Archive for Friday, July 8, 2005

Shelved adaptation becomes bootlegged favorite

July 8, 2005

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In 1993, filming wrapped on a $1.5 million adaptation of Marvel's Fantastic Four.

Carl Ciarfalio, clockwise from top, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab and Alex Hyde-White star in Roger Corman's unreleased 1994 version of "The Fantastic Four."

Carl Ciarfalio, clockwise from top, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab and Alex Hyde-White star in Roger Corman's unreleased 1994 version of "The Fantastic Four."

And then ... nothing happened. No theatrical premiere. No video release. No TV showings.

Unbeknownst to cast and crew, the feature was never intended to be seen by anyone. Such is the strange fate of "The Fantastic Four."

Fifteen years previous, German producer Bernd Eichinger had bought the film rights from Marvel for a pittance. But the option was due to lapse if he didn't begin principal photography by December 1992. So Eichinger partnered with veteran "King of the B's" Roger Corman and hurriedly assembled a cast, director and script.

Oley Sassone (the son of Vidal Sassoon) was hired to direct. Jay Underwood was cast as the Human Torch, Alex Hyde-White as Mr. Fantastic, Rebecca Staab as the Invisible Girl and Michael Baily Smith as The Thing - stock actors no better known then than they are now.

Movie
Fantastic Four * 1/2

Its plot is stretched thin. Its creativity is nearly invisible. Its logic is rocky. And the whole enterprise goes up in flames. Marvel Comic's latest and least impressive entry into its recent superhero adaptations comes across as hokey and dated under director Tim Story ("Taxi"), whose campy approach does the material no favors.

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As with the current theatrical blockbuster, the story involved the four astronauts' cosmic ray-oriented origin and eventual battle with arch-enemy Dr. Doom. But it also added a gaggle of subplots and secondary characters, such as a bizarre monocle-wearing midget called the Jeweler (Ian Trigger).

Rather than release "The Fantastic Four," the producers were reportedly banking on the fact that filmmaker Chris Columbus (fresh off "Mrs. Doubtfire") was readying to make a big studio version of the material. The gamble paid off, and the flick was purchased for an amount that exceeded its production costs by the rival team that didn't want a second-rate version to hit the market before their effort.

It was then relegated to the proverbial "shelf."

The film started to gain a reputation among comic book aficionados who regarded it as the Holy Grail - or at least the Maltese Falcon - of superhero movies. Gradually, bootlegs began showing up at comic conventions. Then with the rise of the Internet, badly dubbed tapes became available online. All quite illegally, of course.

This reporter borrowed a copy from a fellow critic in 1996 and must admit to finding the project's utter cheapness endearing. It looked like the best of what somebody could do if they had less than $2 million to make a non-digital, live-action version of the FF.

Even the costume of the Thing wasn't half bad, although it became somewhat distracting when another actor (Carl Ciarfalio) took over the role once Ben Grimm made the physical transformation into the muscular hero.

Invisible Woman

Invisible Woman

The movie does contain one of the most amusing goofs in recent memory. When Doom's henchmen kidnap Grimm's girlfriend Alicia Masters, they grab her from behind and put a chloroform-soaked rag to her face. The camera cuts to her point of view, with part of the screen obscured by the rag and then the image getting fuzzier until it fades to black to denote her unconsciousness. Trouble is, the character of Alicia is blind.

"The Fantastic Four" is often mentioned alongside 1978's "The Star Wars Holiday Special" as the most popular bootlegged tape with the comic book/fantasy crowd. With the release of the new version, it's always a possibility the old "Four" might find an actual home. Perhaps a DVD bonus when the latest picture hits stores in a few months?

If not, there are copies for sale on eBay for those who can't live without this misplaced piece of pop culture.

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