Director: Oley Sassone

Believe it or not, but there was a time when a movie that carried the Marvel Comics logo in the opening credits was a movie that you should have avoided like your life depended on it. Don't believe me? Then boy, do I have a story to tell. The first half of the '90s saw what I call "the Batman Boom," where quite a few comic movies were produced to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton's Batman in 1989. Turns out that most of them were absolute stinkers that had horrible performances in theaters (if they even played theatrically at all), while good movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (that's right, I said it) and The Crow were few and far between. Like I've said in other reviews, if you weren't Batman or Superman, five bucks says your movie either got little publicity or it sucked harder than Jenna Jameson on a three-day weekend. I mean, how many of you remember movies like Tank Girl, Steel, or Barb Wire? That's right, none of you do. They were all immense failures, so much so that Tank Girl's disastrous box office run actually led to the comic's publisher shutting down shortly after its release.

But before Marvel Comics started scoring cinematic brilliance with hits with the Blade trilogy, X-Men, and Spider-Man, they were involved in the majority of these schlockfests, earning them a reputation for the crappiest comic-to-movie translations ever. The Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher was okay, but "okay" doesn't atone for movies like Captain America or Howard the Duck. And as much grief as Howard the Duck got, there's another movie that perhaps could have achieved much more hate and vitriol: The Fantastic Four. I know you're probably saying, "Wait a second, Matt! The Fantastic Four movie didn't come out until 2005. How could it have come out during the Batman Boom?" See, that's the thing: it didn't. Produced by B-movie legend Roger Corman, the movie was never released, only seeing the light of day through bootleggers and Internet file-sharing programs. And there's a perfectly good reason, too: it's bad. Very bad.

THE FANTASTIC FOUR (1994)We open in a college physics class, where the professor is giving a lecture about "Colossus," a "radioactive comet-like energy source" (whatever that is) that passes Earth every ten years. Sitting in the class are whiz-kids Reed Richards (Alex Hyde White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp), who decide to harness Colossus's power with an invention they've been working on. But thanks to some bad calculations on Victor's part, the machine explodes and apparently kills him. And with a name like Von Doom, things are bound to go wrong for him.

Flash forward ten years, where Reed has acquired a spaceship that he plans to launch for another experiment with Colossus. He needs a four-person crew, so he hires his old college friend Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) to pilot, along with siblings Johnny (Jay Underwood) and Sue Storm (Rebecca Staab) for no apparent reason. The children of the woman who ran the boarding house where Reed and Ben lived while in college, the Storms are coming along for the ride for reasons known only to the screenwriters. They're not experienced scientists or astronauts or anything like that, and including them on an experimental space flight is extremely risky. I guess we're just supposed to assume that Dr. Richards has the world's biggest personal liability insurance policy.

Anyway, to keep the spaceship from exploding (a good idea if there ever was one), Reed plans on utilizing a giant diamond to divert heat or some other weird sci-fi techno-babble like that. Said big diamond attracts the attention of The Jeweler (Ian Trigger), who steals the diamond and replaces it with a lookalike. The Jeweler appears to be a very bad rip-off of classic Fantastic Four villain Mole Man, except he looks like a leprechaun decided to become a jewel thief while employing various bums and hobos to serve as his henchmen. Not knowing that the switch has taken place, our four protagonists fire up the spaceship, which explodes as quickly as it takes off.

Although it apparently disintegrates in orbit, all four of the craft's passengers land safely back on Earth. And not only are they not injured, they've got superpowers too! Reed can elongate his arms and legs to insane proportions, Johnny discovers he can turn into a human flamethrower, and Sue can become transparent at will. But unfortunately for poor Ben, his super-strength is offset by his skin becoming craggy orange rock. And that sort of thing can be hazardous to your self-esteem too. They ultimately realize that they can't do anything about their powers, but they can do something about the maniacal new villain in town: Doctor Doom, the evil alter ego of the still-alive (and severly scarred) Victor Von Doom. How Victor managed to finish collage and get his doctorate while dressed like a cheap knockoff of Darth Vader is beyond me. Giving themselves some catchy superhero nicknames — Mr. Fantastic (Reed), Invisible Girl (Sue), The Human Torch (Johnny), and The Thing (Ben) — and some fancy costumes, the Fantastic Four suit up to confront Doctor Doom and stop his criminal activities once and for all.

I figure I should take the time to explain the movie's troubled history right about now. A German company called Neue Constantin purchased the Fantastic Four movie rights from Marvel in the late '80s, anticipating a wave of comic book movies after the release of Batman. The deal allowed them to make the movie any time over the course of four years, or be subject to another fee to retain the rights unless they actually produced something. Assuming that they could make a movie for far cheaper than what they actually paid for it, Neue Constantin commissioned Roger Corman's New Horizons studio to make a quickie film that would fulfill the contract. What happened next, I really don't know. Depending on who you talk to or what website you visit, the movie was never going to be released anyway.

I don't see how making a movie and not releasing it could fulfill a contract, but then again, I don't see why they'd want to release this 90-minute piece of garbage anyway. Seriously, the movie sucks out loud. The gospel truth about it is that The Fantastic Four is like the Manos: The Hands of Fate of comic book adaptations. Everyone involved in this movie should both be ashamed of themselves and thank whatever deity they believe in that it's only available via bootleggers. Oley Sassone's direction is laughable, the script by Craig Nevius and Kevin Rock is wretched (what girl still uses the word "dreamy" to describe an attractive man?), the score by David and Eric Wurst is beyond awful, and the acting is mediocre at best (with only Joseph Culp's insane overacting as Doctor Doom being memorable). Of course, I can only really expect mediocre out of a cast of nobodies. The only people who I can recognize are Jay Underwood (the star of Disney's Not Quite Human trilogy of made-for-TV movies from the late '80s) and Mercedes McNab (from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel) as the young Sue Storm. And unless you've seen Not Quite Human and regularly watch Buffy or Angel, you wouldn't know who either of them are.

I think the movie can take credit for redefining the word "flaw," too. In one scene, Doctor Doom's henchmen kidnap the Thing's girlfriend, Alicia Masters (played by Kat Green), by spraying crazy purple knockout gas in her face. They do the cliché shot where we see things from the point-of-view of the victim, as things go from clear to fuzzy to black. That's pretty standard for low-budget action movies, but there's one problem: Alicia is completely, totally, and in all ways, blind. She has all the eyesight of Stevie Wonder, so how can a blind character have a POV shot? And why does it take six goons and the crazy purple knockout gas to kidnap a blind girl? One guy could just walk up to her and crack her with a blunt object. Or better yet, chuck a crazy purple knockout gas grenade through a window and save some time. I don't know whether to blame the director or the writers for this, but someone should just step up and say, "Yeah, that was stupid, and I'm sorry."

And speaking of stupid, what about those effects? Invisible Girl's transparency is extremely unsophisticated; she could simply record all her dialogue ahead of time, then not bother to show up to the set while the filmmakers add her recorded dialogue in post-production. Simple as that. Meanwhile, the Thing looks like someone took a rejected costume from one of the Ninja Turtles movies and painted it orange, and it fails to show any of the power that the comic character has. The comic Thing could go head-to-head with the Incredible Hulk, but here, he's just a dude in a rubber suit. And when the Thing says "it's clobberin' time," you won't see any clobberin'. Do you remember the scene transitions on the '60s Batman TV show, where everything starts spinning and the Batman logo zooms at the screen? The geniuses behind this epic decided to save on their miniscule budget (an estimated $1.5 million) by using something akin to that instead of actually showing a fight. And you know that classic stock footage of a nuclear bomb test blowing over a cabin in the desert? That's in the movie too.

Also laughable are the Human Torch's flame powers and Mr. Fantastic's stretching. When the Torch goes into a full-body "flame on," it's just crudely done animation, with no sense of realism about it. And worst of all, Mr. Fantastic's usual ability to stretch his body into any shape he could think of is reduced to extendable arms and legs. Big freakin' whoop. I can watch Inspector Gadget reruns and see the exact same thing, but done better. Instead of doing anything cool with his powers, Mr. Fantastic just extends his shin and trips a few dozen goons, then knocks out Doctor Doom with a couple of elongated punches. Again, big freakin' whoop.

It's kinda sad when The Incredibles is a better Fantastic Four movie than The Fantastic Four, but that's what happened. I actually wanted to type "Mr. Incredible" instead of "Mr. Fantastic" during the review, no lie. The Fantastic Four is easily one of the worst movies I've ever seen, and it's the only one that I've actually stopped watching halfway through. I'm a fan of bad movies, but even this one makes me want to rethink that position. I simultaneously hate and pity this movie, and neither is good. Though there is one good thing I can say about the movie: it's still better than Superman IV. I'll be generous and give Roger Corman's Fantastic Four one star.

Final Rating: *