The “Fantastic Four” series of films is a prime example of Development Hell, mainly because Bernd Eichinger, the German film producer of “The Neverending Story,” and later “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” as well as the “Resident Evil” films, obtained the film rights to the Marvel Comics characters in 1983, but it would not reach the screen until 2005. A sequel, “Rise of the Silver Surfer,” would be released in 2007, before it was decided to reboot the franchise, which itself was not seen until 2015. A second reboot is now in development after Disney bought 20th Century Fox, which was in control of the rights by then.
Of course, this summary is not that simple. Bernd Eichinger originally had to start making a “Fantastic Four” film before 1992 ended to avoid losing the rights. With no stipulation on what the budget had to be, Eichinger partnered with the producer Roger Corman to produce an adaptation, filming for between twenty-one and twenty-five days, for just one million dollars. While Corman’s reputation is for low-budget productions, they were also completed at high speed, and his ownership of a studio in Venice, California (converted from a lumber yard) made this easier still.
As an adaptation of the comic book, the “Fantastic Four” film that was completed is perfect. Everything, and everyone, looks correct, the characterisation is spot on, and the plot is suitably melodramatic: it is the origin story, with Doctor Doom, Alicia Masters, and the Jeweler, a new villain that stole a diamond vital for Reed Richard’s ship, causing the accident that became the first Marvel mutations. The special effects are cheap and cheesy, but get the job done, and would have been perfectly fine if this had been a television pilot instead of a feature film. The production only spends as long on scenes and emotions as long as it needs, needing only ninety minutes to tell a story that could not afford the space to breathe.
Oley Sassone, a music video director and fan of “The Fantastic Four” since childhood, recreated the book faithfully. Crucially, David and Eric Wurst, composers of the film’s music, paid $6,000 of their own money for an orchestra to perform its few musical passages lending a respectability to the production that was never intended.
It is not clear whether “The Fantastic Four” was ever going to be released, or if that was a decision made after it was completed. Stan Lee had appeared on set to inspect filming, and called the actor Alex Hyde-White, paid $3,500 a week to play Reed Richards, the person he envisaged playing the character. However, the planned premiere was cancelled, and the cast were given cease-and-desist orders to stop talking about it. Roger Corman had a contract to release the film, and had to be bought out of it. The film was reportedly sold by Bernd Eichinger to Marvel executive Avi Arad, who had prints of it destroyed like it was “Nosferatu.”
In an example of the Streisand Effect, “The Fantastic Four” is readily available on bootleg DVDs, as well as online. Those that made the film seemingly won’t ever get royalties for a proper release, but they made a film that was intriguing enough to seek out, something that has not since been said of the films that actually did get released.