Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 (2016)

“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.

-Brandon Ledet

B.C. Butcher (2016)

It’s generally not the best policy to judge a movie based on its context instead of its content, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid doing so while discussing B.C. Butcher. Written by a 15 year old and directed in her dad’s (beautiful) backyard when she was 17, B.C. Butcher has a distinct teens-goofing-off vibe that makes a huge impact on its production value limitations and reasonable audience expectations. As young as she was, filmmaker Kansas Bowling did talk a big game in her promotional interviews for the film, citing names like Doris Wishman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Lloyd Kaufman (who distributed the film under his Troma brand) among her influences, names I didn’t know or care about until I was well into my 20s. Growing up in L.A. will do that for you, I guess, and Bowling is equipped with enough ingrained schlock history to know how to turn a small, unassuming camp film into a minor success. Shot on 16mm and coming in under an hour in length, B.C. Butcher looks & feels authentic to its trashy drive-in roots. This vibe carries over to the advertising’s David Friedman-esque claim that it’s the “world’s first prehistoric slasher film.” This isn’t the type of work that would normally bowl people over with excitement, but given the context of its production its’ difficult to shake the feeling that we may have another budding Anna Biller on our hands in Bowling: a young schlock historian looking back to old modes of B-picture filmmaking for new, interesting takes on since-stale genres.

In the year 1 million B.C., “before dinosaurs took to the skies,” a tribe of young prehistoric women are terrorized by two outside threats: a gross caveman who individually seduces members of the tribe only to cheat on them & an even somehow less gross monster that murders them one by one, slasher film style. The B.C. Butcher at least has a motive for his crimes against the tribe. He kills the girls as retribution for the slaying of his undead bride, who torments his nightmares with commands to kill! kill! kill! The caveman Casanova has no such excuse, driving the girls apart with his grotesque, predatory seduction merely for his own pleasure. The film boasts two “big name” actors: Kato Kaelin of O.J. fame plays the pantsless caveman loverboy and Kadeem Hardison, best known for portraying Dwayne Wayne on A Different World, is the off-screen narrator. The “plot” doesn’t get much more complicated from there, except maybe in the climactic moment where The B.C. Butcher sheds a magical tear, which was one of the film’s biggest laughs. That kind of slight, straightforward storytelling again feels true to Bowling’s schlocky roots and one of the smartest decisions she makes as a filmmaker is in limiting the runtime so that the story never really outwears its welcome. If it were actually released in the 60s or 70s it would’ve been the exact kind of throwaway junk that padded out a double bill at the drive-in. I mean that with love.

As something that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen a modern teen’s Tumblr or Instagram account, what B.C. Butcher excels at most is aesthetic. In the opening credits, girls pose in leopard print dresses, furs, and boas to a Coasters-type novelty song. In-between the film’s lightly gory kills, the same kids goof off while a punk soundtrack that sounds like it was provided by Burger Records, with band names like Vicky and the Vengents and The Ugly Kids, provides a pleasant aural backdrop for a mildly horrific version of playing dress up. These are, honestly, the best moments in the film. My favorite scene overall might be the mid-movie music video where The Ugly Kids mime one of their tunes on watermelon instruments. Bowling has a great eye for pure aesthetic, a saving grace that elevates her debut high above similar micro-budget horrors like Shark Exorcist & Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. She stumbles a little in a few stray decisions (it’s a little alarming that the only to black characters in the film are a killer ogre and a blind mystic), but there’s more than enough solid humor to be found in her gleefully schlocky details: character names like Anna Conda & Neandra, stock footage dream sequences, casual inclusion of plastic water bottles disrupting the prehistoric setting, etc. B.C. Butcher is a delightfully silly debut with a fascinating pedigree and even if the film itself doesn’t wholly satisfy every trash-gobbling viewer, it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away incurious about where its teenage director is headed next.

-Brandon Ledet

Vegas in Space (1991)

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threehalfstar

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Vegas in Space is an early 90s sci-fi cheapie distributed by Troma in which all characters are played by either drag queens or women. It took almost a decade to complete, was partially fueled by sex work & meth, and was filmed entirely in its star performer’s San Francisco apartment. You can feel all of those qualities in every shoddy fiber of what’s essentially a glorified home movie and, yet, there’s enough artistry in the film’s set & costume design and its central B-movie sendup gimmick to make for a fun, fascinating watch. Filmed in full glory Glamourama & staged on entirely hand-built sets, Vegas in Space looks the way a B-52s song sounds (“Planet Claire”, especially) & recalls a drag routine version of either Corman’s unreleased Fantastic Four adaptation or the cult television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s very rough around the edges, but it has style to spare as it lives by its pronounced motto “Glamour first, glamour last, glamor always!”

An all-male (including women in male drag) crew fly their space ship to the Planet Clitoris in The Beaver System in order to help solve a diamond heist caper. This proves to be a dangerous mission since “No males are allowed to touch down on Clitoris”, so the men disguise their gender by taking sex change pills, a transformation process that looks & sounds a lot like the female orgasm. Newly feminized & disguised as 20th Century showgirls, the men infiltrate the city of Vegas on the Planet Clitoris, “an oasis of glamor in a Universe of mediocrity.” They set themselves on saving the planet by entertaining for a slumber party and keeping their eyes peeled for a jewel thief who has stolen a precious object that keeps Clitoris form suffering dangerous earthquakes. The whole plot feels like something out of erotic fiction, but does serve as a loving tribute to real-life titles of 1950s space epics like Cat-Women of the Moon. There’s no sexual energy to its women-only “pleasure planet’ premise, despite what you might expect form a film written & performed by drag queens & there’s really no point to the space crew starting the film as men at all, really, except for pointing to its own central drag queen gimmick, since they readily adapt to the change & suffer no conflict because of it. For the most part, even the sci-fi aspect of the story doesn’t feel all-that necessary or fully-explored. Outside some cardboard spaceship & a few goofy ideas (like swapping out the term “warp speed” for “ultra space jumps”), the sci-fi setting is mostly an excuse for the film’s true bread & butter: outrageous costume & set design. Those aspects far outweigh any petty concerns like plot structure or a command of pacing, so you have to love their charms to ignore the film’s blindspots & land yourself on its wavelength.

Obviously, it would help if you love drag as an artform for you to appreciate Vegas in Space as art. Starring San Francisco personalities like Doris Fish, Miss X, and Ginger Quest, the film is billed as being “based on the party by Ginger Quest” in its opening credits and “the first ever all-drag queen sci-fi musical” in its liner notes. Now that latter point is up for debate, not only because it might not be the first ever, but because it features cis women among its many drag performers and doesn’t feel at all like a musical besides the fact that it does feature some music (as most films do), most notably the deliciously cheesy lounge number “Love Theme from Vegas in Space.” It may very well be, however, the first film adapted from a drag queen’s party theme (can you name another?), which is much more of an accomplishment in my book anyway. Vegas in Space mostly serves as a Doris Fish showcase, as the performer wrote, co-produced, starred, built the sets (including the miniature outer space cityscapes), did the makeup for her fellow crew members, and (if director Phillip R Ford is to be believed) partially funding the picture by turning tricks. Fish is a delightful personality to helm the picture as the once-male space crew’s captain, but I actually think she’s upstaged by fellow drag queen Miss X, who boasts a kind a gothy, bitchy, Violet Chachki vibe as the film’s would-be villain, The Queen of Police. Miss X‘s cruelty in forcing imprisoned shoplifters to harvest cotton candy and her palace on ”The dark side of the planet” show in glorious black & white) a choice that feels truer to the film’s drive-in era source of inspiration) are where Vegas in Space finds its groove, even if those moments were birthed by Fish’s work on the page. The film features some classic moments of painfully corny drag queen humor, like when The Queen of Police answers the question “Are there crimes here?” with a deadpan “Only crimes of fashion,” or when Doris Fish comments on the mission at hand “sounds like a cinch.” The all-female pleasure planet setting also affords the film plenty of opportunities to do what drag does best in the first place (besides showcasing killer costuming & makeup): poke fun at femininity as a social construct. In this particular case, it helps that here are “real” woman there who are in on the joke, too, especially at sillier moments like when the crew war using their “feminine intuition” to navigate their ship. In some ways Vegas in Space plays its premise a little too, for lack of a better word, straight, (I really cannot believe there is no lesbianism or any sexuality at all in this film), but it’s still delightfully corny & transgressive in the way most drag performances are by nature.

In a lot of ways Vegas in Space feels like what might happen if I tried to make a movie, from its dedication to bad taste to its overwhelming cheapness to its painfully troubled production history. Even if the film sounds exhausting to you or just not really your thing, I’d still encourage you to read director Phillip R. Ford’s lengthy making-of account of this film’s production, because it’s a fascinating mess. Vegas in Space required two years of filming & seven years of post-production, meaning Ford & his drag scene buddies more or less worked on the film for the entirety of the 1980s. Besides the behind-the scenes meth & sex work that color the film’s already plenty colorful aesthetic, there’s also a tragic air to its history as many of the performers involved didn’t live to see the final product due to its lengthy post-production period & the horror of the AIDS crisis in the gay community of that era. As a director, Ford brings a few interesting ideas to the table I especially appreciated: an opening credits scroll that mixed B-movie worthy shots of outer space with Vegas strip light bulbs, a psychedelic dream sequence that intentionally evokes the early stirrings of MTV, and his inclusion of earthquakes in the film’s central crisis that reflected the San Francisco scene where the film was produced (although I suspect that Doris Fish had enough input on all three points to deserve a co-director credit among her endless list of other duties). However, I think Ford’s greatest accomplishment here is in completing the project in the first place. As indicated in his account of the film’s production, this was a sprawling mess of a collaboration that’s nothing short of miracle to ever have been released at all (even if it means suffering through a disturbingly transphobic “bit” from Troma madman/cretin Lloyd Kaufman in its intro). I could see Vegas in Space maybe gaining traction as a cult-adored object or maybe a RuPauls’ Drag Race runway category (Vegas in Space Realness does have certain ring to it), but I think the film’s greatest accomplishment might be that it simply exists in the first place. Well, that and the glorious makeup & costume designs, especially the ones sported by one Miss X. They’re the film’s true artistry, as it should be in what’s essentially a drag queen’s unusually expensive home movie.

-Brandon Ledet

Big Ass Spider! (2014)

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three star

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I was tabling at last week’s NOCAZ Fest when two brothers (I’m guessing between the ages of 10 & 14?) named Beau & Joey let me with a film recommendation I promised I’d look into ASAP. I forget exactly how we got on the subject, but it probably had to do with our Marabunta Cinema zine, which is a collection of reviews of movies about killer ants. Beau, the younger of the pair, enthusiastically described the gruesome scenes of a Z-grade creature feature in which a gigantic spider melted the faces off patients in a hospital. When it came to telling me the title of the film, however, he sheepishly deferred to his older, quieter brother, due to a mild expletive in its title. Joey’s response? “Big Ass Spider!“.

Big Ass Spider! is perfectly suited for Beau & Joey’s demographic. It’s got the intentionally campy, Z-movie feel of a Syfy Channel Original but, as the title suggests, its tongue-in-cheek violence is slightly racier than what you’d typically find in the Sharknado format. The titular big ass spider melts faces, stabs chest cavities, and devours victims after grabbing them with its web like Mortal Kombat‘s Scorpion. All of this mayhem is promised as soon as the opening prologue, where the spider is going full King Kong at the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper, soundtracked by a down-tempo cover of “Where Is My Mind?” (in a little bit of borrowed Fight Club cool). Schlock fans are unlikely too find too much new or surprising here, except maybe in the detail that the spider grows exponentially in size by the hour, but the film is intentionally goofy enough to work & I can attest to at least two testimonies of it serving as a decent introduction to the creature feature as a genre.

By the way, speaking of the Syfy Channel, director Mike Mendez’ project immediately following Big Ass Spider! was the previously-covered Lavalantula, a Syfy movie about spiders that spew hot volcano lava at Steve “The Gutte” Guttenberg. Big Ass Spider! may have landed Mendez the job for Lavalantula, but distinctly feels more like a personal pet project for the director. Because he couldn’t afford a casting director, for instance, Mendez supposedly cast the entire film using his Facebook friends list. That means that Mendez is Facebook friends with Lin Shaye (best known for her work in Detroit Rock City & the Insidious franchise), Ray Wise (best known to me from Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), and Lloyd Kaufman (best known for blessing/cursing the world with Troma Video). Sounds like a cool dude to me. Mendez also stuck to his guns when distributors wanted to rename the film Dino Spider or Mega Spider, claiming that “Big Ass Spider! is the right title for the movie. I felt it in my heart and soul.” I can’t argue with him there. A lot of Big Ass Spider!’s charm is in knowing the whole time that there is a real-life movie called Big Ass Spider! and that you’re watching it.

Despite a couple missteps like an uncomfortable Hispanic stereotype sidekick, a stale “Hide your kids, hide your wife” reference, and some Da Hip Hop Witch-style street interview ramblings, Big Ass Spider! gets by enough on its inherent charm to stand out as an enjoyable, occasionally gruesome diversion. In short, if it’s good enough for Beau & Joey, it’s good enough for me.

-Brandon Ledet