“How many movies did Roger Corman make that never got released? One.”
When the last failed attempt to competently adapt the Fantastic 4 comic book series for the big screen hit theaters in 2015, I foolishly decided to give all past attempts a chance and watched all four craptastic Fantastic 4 features that have been produced since the 1990s. The only film of the batch that was at all enjoyable happened to also be the only one that never saw an official release. The notoriously campy, 1994 Roger Corman-produced Fantastic 4 film is rumored to have been made solely so that co-producer Bernd Eichinger could retain the film rights to the intellectual property he later leveraged for a much larger paycheck with the 20th Century Fox Fantastic 4 production in 2005. Although Corman’s goofy $1 million Fantastic 4 production was shot, edited, and printed into a final, marketable product ready to be shipped to movie theaters across the world, it never saw an official commercial release. The details of these backroom shenanigans have always been a little murky, as the Corman film was intended to be dumped quietly into the void by folks behind the scenes, which is a total shame given that it’s a much more enjoyable work than the major studio Fantastic 4 travesties that have been released in its wake. Now, the documentary Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 has arrived to promote the very existence of this lost VHS gem and to shed some light on the mysterious forces that sabotaged its would-be theatrical release.
As an informational experience, Doomed! doesn’t accomplish anything that couldn’t be achieved through a longform “oral history” article on a well-funded film blog. It’s more of a Wikipedia-in-motion style of post mortem on a superhero film that never officially saw the light of day than it is a Tickled-style exposé on the dark forces that greenlit the production just to sabotage its release. The interview pull quotes that appear as onscreen text and act as chapter breaks between talking heads awkwardly call into question why this even had to be a movie at all, instead of a series of print interviews & YouTube clips. It’d be foolish to expect anything more than that from a crowd funded documentary about a film only available on VHS bootlegs & less-than-legal YouTube uploads, but keeping those limitations in mind definitely helps soften any major criticism that could be lobbed at Doomed!. Stories about how the movie was fast-tracked into production, passed on by Lloyd Kaufman, filmed at a studio warehouse condemned by the fire marshal, and advertised in theaters with a legitimate trailer despite the apparent conspiracy to never release it all make for interesting anecdotes, but do little to distinguish the documentary as its own work of art. What makes Doomed! worthwhile instead is the pathos it manages to mine from the cast & crew who worked on the film, people who sank immeasurable time, passion, and money into an effort that was conspired to become a meaningless waste by design behind their backs.
In the early 90s most superhero media was considered to be kids’ stuff, with most Marvel films in particular, including early attempts to bring Spider-Man & Captain America to life, not really providing much hope that the landscape would change into the comic book-dominated nerd future we live in today. The success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film changed that perception, however. Although folks working on the 1994 Fantastic 4 might have had reasons to be concerned about the limitations of working within Roger Corman’s direct-to-VHS era, with his quick-paced production schedule & indie-level scale of budget, they also had enough encouragement from the cultural zeitgeist at large that the film might be a huge financial success. A project hundreds of Hollywood nobodies sank all of their hope into as their big break into major A-list success, one that had explicit verbal assurance that it would reach a wide theatrical distribution and a trailer that screened before other major action films, never saw the light of day until it was bootlegged & ridiculed years down the line. The first sign the cast & crew had that the powers that be behind 1994’s Fantastic 4 might not have had total faith in their work was when Marvel legend Stan Lee publicly trashed the film at that year’s Comic-Con before production even wrapped. Everything from that point on is hurt feelings & dashed dreams. Doomed! is most essential as a document when it captures that sense if betrayal from those most hurt by the film’s cancellation. Like with a lot of movies sets, the crew had developed a tight-knit, familial sense of camaraderie during production and it’s a little sad to see them all look back bitterly on sinking together with a ship that was doomed before it even left the port.
If you want to see a great document of the cheap, wild production style of Roger Corman filmmaking, I recommend checking out Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel instead. If you want to see a great documentary about a passion project that becomes unruly during production and is sabotaged out of existence by sinister film industry types, check out Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau instead. Already-established fans of the Roger Corman Fantastic 4 movie (like myself) are likely to seek out Doomed! for its cool tidbits about how The Thing’s animatronic facial expressions were achieved or how, exactly, copies of the film were ever leaked out. Then again, those fans were likely to be the exact people who funded this documentary on Indigogo in the first place. If you’re already on the hook for Fantastic 4, this film works well enough in tandem with that would-be cult classic as supplementary material. Doomed! aims to achieve more than that, nakedly calling out for an official, decades-late commercial release for Fantastic 4 as a kind of victory for the folks who were wronged in the conspiracy of its initial non-release. Only time will tell if it’s successful in that respect. In the meantime, folks who aren’t already onboard with 1994’s “lost” Fantastic 4 can only look to Doomed! for a small, quietly sad story about a group of hopeful up-and-comers having their dreams built up and immediately crushed by a shared project that’s just beyond their control. Even if just for that one aspect, though, it’s still worth a recommendation.