Throughout cinema’s storied history, we’ve come to know and love an array of grand achievements. The likes of On the Waterfront, The Godfather, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, have challenged, entertained, and touched us, spoken to our spirits. But while the beloved masterpieces of the silver screen will always be with us, there are countless other gems that few have ever seen or even heard of. For every Citizen Kane there is a Citizen Toxie; for every Lawrence of Arabia there is a Larry of Arabia.
Enter the B movie.
Whether you refer to them as B Movies, Bad Movies or simply Low Budget, these films, regardless of how good or bad, have been integral in launching and furthering the careers of countless iconic filmmakers through the years. While most low budget filmmakers move on to larger budget studios and more mainstream filmmaking, there are those who, for various reasons, continue making low budget films, reveling in the schlock, and excel in doing so. One of the more influential of them is Roger Corman, the King of B Movies. Due to the sheer volume of his films, I will inevitably return to a few of his classics in future reviews; today, however, I will be looking into one of his lesser known films, The Fantastic Four.
By 1992, German film company Neue Constantin Films had held the rights to make a film adaptation of the Fantastic Four franchise for several years but their rights were to expire at the end of the year, effectively transferring them back to Marvel. Unable to secure the $40 million that was needed to make a full budget film, Corman was brought on to cut the budget and complete the Oley Sassone-directed film. He scaled the budget back from $40 million to $1.4 million and Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four was born.
One can only imagine that a film that was slated to be a $40 million project but scaled back to $1.4 million would have it’s fair share of problems and I’m here to tell you that it most certainly did. I’m not saying that the film was terrible, because it really wasn’t, but there are a few things that could have been changed to make for a better overall experience.
Story – 3/5
The story line of this movie was actually fairly well written. Penned by Craig J. Nevius and Kevin Rock, the narrative rarely strayed far from its comic book origins.
The film tells the story of the Fantastic Four; how they became so “fantastic”, their struggles in coping with their new found powers and their first battles with super villains. There are two primary villains in this film, namely Dr Doom and the lesser known Mole Man. Now I agree with introducing Dr Doom as the Fantastic Four’s primary rival, which included a fairly traditional account of their early confrontations with him, but was it really necessary to include the little known Mole Man (whose only super power is being incredibly creepy) as a side villain in a feature film? My answer is a simple no. I know that there are going to be die hard Marvel fans out there who will argue that Mole Man does in fact have heightened senses but he doesn’t seem to use them in this film; the only thing he does manage to do is kidnap women and creep them out. While he was a legitimate villain in the Marvel universe, he did nothing to progress this story nor did he draw me in as a viewer.
Hollywood has been notorious about trying to take as many villains as possible and cramming them all into 120 minutes of action film goodness. The results are usually more like 120 minutes of action film chaos and confusion. A prime example of this is Batman Returns. It would be futile to dwell on that film, but the nuts and bolts of its failures are that the filmmakers felt that they needed two villains, Catwoman and The Penguin, when the obvious antagonistic struggle was with the former. This caused the story to jump all over the place and minimized the likelihood of seeing a developed character in The Penguin. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is the only other side villain that I can think of that is so unnecessary that it becomes a distraction from the actual plot of the film. ‘Nuff said.
Conclusion: While there were distractions and follies throughout, there was enough substance to make this film watchable. The main plot was fairly faithful to the comics and campy enough to make it fun.
Acting – 1.5/5
There’s not much to say for the acting in this film; it was just plain bad. The cast is full of no name talent, which is not a surprise on such a low budget, but it’s painfully obvious throughout the film. Jay Underwood plays Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) but is so overly enthusiastic that it detracts from Johnny’s fiery and short tempered personality.
Two other issues that I had with the acting weren’t issues with actors, per se, but with their lines and stage direction.
My first issue is with The Thing’s classic catchphrase which, as we all know, is “It’s clobberin’ time.” You are expecting him to say this at least once during the course of the movie, what you don’t expect is for him to say it so often. It’s like the writers were dared to see how many times they could work the phrase into the script. The answer is three. Now I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking ‘Three times in 90 minutes isn’t too bad.’ You, unfortunately, are incorrect. They are so blatantly obvious and so awkwardly placed that it is grating. Do I think that The Thing should use his catchphrase in this film? Yes, but not like this.
The second issue I had was with Dr Doom. Since he’s wearing a mask, which is another issue that I’ll address in the sound effects section, you cannot see his mouth move and he becomes a very stale and stagnant character. What’s the easiest way to compensate for this? Body language. Dr Doom is very animated and speaks with his hands a lot–and when I say a lot, I’m not kidding around. He becomes over animated and cheesy. Without using hyperbole, his body language can honestly be described as atrocious. The way he is constantly moving his hands in all directions, tapping his fingers together and rubbing his chin like he’s in a permanent state of meditation is, quite simply put, unnecessary. They had the right idea but took it way too far.
The saving grace of the acting in this film was Alex Hyde-White, whose portrayal of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) was spot on. Reed is an intellectual introvert with a strange attraction to Sue Storm who is significantly younger than he is. Hyde-White was able to take this character and make it his own
Conclusion: The acting as a whole was really rather painful.
Sound/Special Effects – 2.5/5
The sound/special effects were decent for what was available in 1992. The music, written by David and Eric Wurst, was really quite good and would be great as a standalone piece of work, but is not a proper fit for this film. It never quite matched the events that were taking place nor did they carry the proper emotions to draw the viewer in and help them connect with the characters. The only major sound related issue that I had in this film is that Dr Doom sounded like he was inside a metal shipping crate the entire movie. I know that they were trying to get a natural sounding echo because he wears a mask, and I don’t disagree with their decision on this, but when the echo is so prominent that it makes it difficult to understand what the character is saying, you’ve done something wrong. My advice would be to tone down the echo effect so that the dialogue is understandable, but then again, I’m no filmmaker.
As far as visual effects are concerned, they were pretty non-existent. I know that they were working with less than is available in today’s world, but throw me a bone. The special effects consisted of making Reed’s arm and leg stretch really far, and making Johnny’s hand and body glow.
Conclusion: The lack of budget really shined in this department. The sound/special effects were low quality and sub par.
Overall Score – 2.5/5
While this movie is fun and campy, it’s not a must see film. It is quite evident that it was never intended to be released, as it was hurriedly and shoddily thrown together.
My recommendations are as follows:
- Fantastic Four Comic Fans – Find a copy of this and enjoy yourselves. While it may not be up to par with the latest and greatest comic book in the series, at least you’ll be able to brag to your friends that you’ve experienced something ‘Fantastic’ that they haven’t.
- Everyone Else – Don’t lose any sleep over not seeing this film. It’s not bad but it’s far from being any good. As much as I hate to say this, you’re better off renting the 2005 Fantastic Four. (I can’t believe I just recommended that movie)
Under the Radar is a weekly column written by The Moving Arts Film Journal’s resident expert on schlocky cinema, Greg Kita, that focuses on B-movies, cult classics, genre films, and low-budget flicks–Hollywood’s neglected step-children. Read more at our columns page.