There have been many projects throughout the course of Hollywood which have spent ages and ages trapped in what as known as development hell; that state of limbo in which long-gestating projects stall due to reasons ranging from script issues to budgets. Some, such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Robert Redford’s The Hot Zone have (as of this writing) yet to see the light of day. However, while most films enter development hell before the cameras are set to roll, one film in particular has famously suffered the same fate AFTER filming was completed, becoming one of the most popular film urban myths of all time.
The film in question is of course the Roger Corman-produced version of the popular Marvel comic book series The Fantastic Four. The film, which was fully commissioned, cast and shot, was pulled from its planned release and subsequently buried by higher powers, who hoped that knowledge of it would be erased from memory. Unfortunately for them, Marty Langford’s documentary Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four has made sure that will never happen by offering up a play by play tale of how the most notorious unreleased film of all time came to earn its reputation.
Thanks in large part to the nature of its subject, Doomed! manages to say a great deal about the endlessly tricky and deceptive marriage of Hollywood and rights. The film lays out plain and simple the reason for The Fantastic Four’s existence; namely how Constantin Films, the company who owned the rights to The Fantastic Four, never intended for the film to be released. The company needed to at least begin production or else risk having the film rights lapse. Doomed explores executives’ methods at keeping that fact hidden from every member of the production and how signs slowly, but surely, began to arise. While Marvel creator Stan Lee’s absence is felt here, tales from the cast and crew detailing his visit to the set in which he even brought donuts are followed by footage of him at Comic Con in which he states his complete and utter disdain for Corman’s Fantastic Four. The devastating aftermath of shooting the film is thoroughly detailed through a multitude of facts, including how the actors paid for their own publicity tour for the fans in anticipation of the movie being released, and how cease and desist orders were serve right before the film’s premiere, making the film the only movie Corman ever made that wasn’t officially released.
I haven’t seen the lost film, though many readers likely have. While the film on display was so clearly a Roger Corman production, it seems to me that it would have represented The Fantastic Four pretty well, as evidenced by raw footage of early designs a script which was reportedly very much in tune with the original comics. Despite the incredibly low budget for the scope, The Fantastic Four was meant to be the first film from the production company to play in theaters.
Doomed is full of the interesting little tidbits one hopes to hear in a movie like this, such as how future names like Mark Ruffalo and Patrick Warburton were among those unknown hopefuls auditioning for roles in the film and how powerhouse directors James Cameron and Wes Craven had plans of bringing Spider-Man and Dr. Strange to the big screen in their own respective projects. Most importantly, Doomed lays out the context of how comic book movies and characters were in dire state at the time production was proposed and how it allowed the movie to exist in the first place. The film gets a little dry near the end with the cast and crew of The Fantastic Four saying how much they wish the film would still be released and how they’re willing and ready to help in any way they can through dubbing and/or editing. Still, Doomed! perfectly captures everything that happened with the infamous production, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to personal struggles and behind-the scenes details. Above all though, Langford’s film does right by all involved with the project and gives both the original film and its makers their proper due.
Documentaries such as Doomed!, as well as countless others which dissect some of Hollywood’s most troubled productions, showing how painstaking and unpredictable the act of making films can be within the firm hold of the studio system. These documentaries mean a great deal to the fans in that they not only provide answers to some of their most burning questions regarding project in question, but also pay homage to films they have long since loved that never received the treatment they deserved.