The Fantastic Four (1994) – Directed by Oley Sassone – Staring Alex Hyde-White, Rebecca Staab, Jay Underwood, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp, Carl Ciarfalio, Kat Green, Ian Trigger, and Mercedes McNab.
I’ve heard so much about the Roger Corman-produced, low-budget 1994 THE FANTASTIC FOUR movie over the years but not once in all that time did anyone tell me it was good.
I’ve heard plenty about how it was made just to secure the copyright, how it was never intended to be released, how it was the cheeseball film with horrible special effects that you just had to see because it was too awful to be believed.
Make no mistake, FANTASTIC FOUR is a B-movie, but it’s an honest attempt at making a legitimate movie with a B-movie budget. There’s some camp, some horrible overacting, and some awful special effects, but the story here is actually quite solid, most of the acting is adequate, the directing is spot-on, the music is (except for a few occasions) really good, and the whole production comes across as being made by people with their hearts in the right place.
The overall quality of the film puts it somewhere between the Captain America Marvel TV movies of the late ’70s and the Nick Fury TV movie of the late 1990s. There is an unmistakable air of cheapness about the production, but by B-movie standards there is also a real sense of genuine decency about these characters. There’s a great moment after they’ve received their powers where Reed realizes that somehow the cosmic rays have turned their own perceived weaknesses into their new strength. The movie never offers cheap gore to shock the audience, nor heaving, naked bosoms to entice them, nor absurd campiness. It’s a shame that this film has been buried like it’s some kind of major embarrassment – if the Captain America CBS movies are worth a DVD release, then so is this.
Maybe it comes down to the special effects. They’re pretty awful, on the whole, but if you can look past them to the story (which, unless you’re 13, you should be able to do), perhaps your experience watching it will be like mine, which went from thinking I was going to have an easy time MST3King this film to being impressed with what the cast and crew were able to do with the limited funds they had.
FANTASTIC FOUR opens with Reed (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor (Joseph Culp) trying to harness the cosmic energy of a passing comet. Things go horribly wrong and Victor ends up fried with cosmic lightning and “dead.” I was completely worried at this point in the movie that things were going to go as horribly as I’d heard because when Reed and Ben (Michael Bailey Smith) go to visit Johnny and Sue, Johnny and Sue are children.
Not, like, ready-to-go-to-college children, either, but … kids. Sue (played as a kid by Mercedes McNab – yes, Buffy‘s Harmony plays teenage Sue Storm) is totally in love with Reed and when he gives her a friendly little kiss on the cheek, I’m pretty sure Sue became a woman right there and then.
This initial accident is just an accident, however, and no one gets any powers. The film jumps ahead ten years and Reed is ready to take his experimental rocket into space. Ben reluctantly agrees to pilot the ship and then they go back to the Storm house to pick up Sue and Johnny (Rebecca Staab and Jay Underwood) to take them into space. The film gets points when the two of them are standing on the Storm porch and Reed is all, “Maybe it’s not a good idea that we’re bringing them to space,” because, yeah, this is not Reed and Ben taking a weekend jaunt down to Atlantic City. Ben’s counterargument is that no one else knows Reed’s plans better, which makes just as much sense as it needs to. He greets Sue and Johnny’s mom by saying, “Hi, Mrs. Storm. Can Johnny and Sue come to space with us?”
Reed’s ship is dependent on this big rock formation, which gets stolen by some dude named the Jeweler (Ian Trigger), who manages to exchange Reed’s incredibly big and unique diamond display with one of his own. I don’t know if this is more unbelievable than the fact that Doom is watching this on remote TV from his castle, but if FANTASTIC FOUR had gotten a wide release (and, let me be honest, there’s no reason it should have, as much as I dig what they’ve done here), the Jeweler would have ended up in the comics. He’s a really strange, really fantastic character.
Sure, he’s basically the Mole Man recast as a homeless dude living in the sewers, but he pulls off that “freaks are us” vibe the Mole Man flaunts to great effect. Ian Trigger gives a really great performance as this mess of a man who ends up stealing Reed’s diamonds, kidnapping Alicia Masters (Kat Green) and forcing her to become his Queen. He’s a total creep and it’s totally effective.
So much about FANTASTIC FOUR is effective because the script (written by Craig J. Nevius and Kevin Rock) is smart enough to not insult your intelligence. Similarly, Oley Sassone’s directing is surprisingly good for a Corman film. I love B-movies, but I also really respect the fact that the production staff is trying to make something more than a typical B-movie. FANTASTIC FOUR never lets its guard down and invites you in to laugh at it.
The rocket flight goes wrong, of course, and our intrepid explorers crash to Earth, where they slowly realize they’ve got superpowers. This is the low point of the film because everyone is required to freak out to varying degrees and then the military shows up to put them in prison. There’s a rather funny scene where the four of them are checked out by a doctor who is increasingly flustered by their powers.
After the four of them break out, Sue makes them their costumes and says they’re the Fantastic Four because that’s what her mom used to call them. Which is true, because she calls them that right before they leave to go to space.
Ben enters the Thing’s “I hate myself” phase and he goes wandering off, eventually ending up in the Jeweler’s underground lair where he meets up again with Alicia (they love each other even though they’ve barely met) and fights Doc Doom. The Thing (Carl Ciarfalio) costume is pretty darn great given the budget constraints they’re under. It’s clearly a “cheap” (by Hollywood’s standards) version of a Thing outfit but the people who put that costume together for what could not have been a lot of money turned in really good work. This Thing really does look like an ugly dude even beyond the rocky exterior, and both Smith and Ciarfalio (the former plays Ben, the latter plays the Thing) both do a solid job of getting his pain across.
Ben comes back after Doom gets away with the stolen diamonds which he needs to power … wait for it … a giant laser cannon. Love it. They all head off to Doom’s castle where they engage in the big final battle. For a film with a limited budget, Sassone gets every penny out of the action scenes. There’s a few times (like when Johnny goes after the laser) where the effects really let the film down, but the physical action is generally pretty solid. (Though Reed’s extendable arms are somehow less believable than the Thing’s skin.) Sue gets the least amount of stuff to do, and the film is a bit of guilty of never letting advance much beyond the lovesick girl.
If it’s true that the producers never had any intention of releasing this film (and you can read an excellent account of their reaction to being involved with the film’s production right here), it’s a cruel joke that the cast and crew were not aware from this, because there’s never any doubt in watching this film that everyone is trying to make a good movie. I think they have. Sure, there’s a limited budget and the end result isn’t up to the standards needed for either a serious theatrical run or even a TV pilot, but this is a much better, much more serious movie than I’d imagined, and I’m thrilled I finally got a chance to watch it. The people who made this movie have absolutely nothing to be ashamed about, and should take a great deal of pride from what they’ve managed to accomplish here.