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First ‘Fantastic’ film enjoys cult status

Mike Antonucci San Jose Mercury News

Throughout the infamous, unreleased “Fantastic Four” movie, the villainous Dr. Doom chortles like a madman in the corniest possible style.

But those aren’t the worst scenes. It’s even harder to endure the moments when the heroic Thing plunges into combat by stiffly waddling toward his foes. And the film slips completely into parody during the skulking and posturing of various doltish henchmen.

Don’t worry, though. That “Fantastic Four” flick has nothing to do with the highly anticipated summer blockbuster that opens today from 20th Century Fox, starring Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis.

The B-movie version of “Fantastic Four” – which also included some nice touches in acting, dialogue and cartoonlike special effects – was made 12 years ago and never distributed. Its considerable weaknesses and intermittent charms are legendary among comic book fans and movie freaks, who have long celebrated its cult status and historical lore.

How did they see the unreleased production? Easily – by watching one of the bootleg videotapes of the film that have been openly available for years at pop-culture conventions, as well as from mail-order dealers and video Web sites.

Some say the film was meant to be shelved from the start. The theory is that a German company asked low-budget icon Roger Corman to get a film into production as a way of preserving its movie rights to the “Fantastic Four,” without any intention of releasing that version.

But Alex Hyde-White, the actor who played the Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic character, insists that theory is unfounded.

“Anybody who tells you this movie was never intended to be released is either delirious or has an agenda,” he says.

Public relations man Jim Moore, who handled the “Fantastic Four” buildup for Corman, believes the plug would have been pulled on his promotional work much earlier if the production had been only a ploy.

“Everybody in the cast was looking at this as a launch vehicle for them,” says Moore.

The Sue Storm/Invisible Girl role went to Rebecca Staab, who had been on the “Guiding Light” soap. Jay Underwood, who later played Sonny Bono in a TV film, got the Johnny Storm/Human Torch part. Michael Bailey Smith portrayed the tortured Ben Grimm, in tandem with a stuntman who was needed when Grimm was transformed into action as the Thing. Joseph Culp, son of actor Robert Culp, landed the Dr. Doom role.

Moore said the film was generating excitement if only because most superhero movies were nothing more than dream projects in that era. “Superman” and “Batman” had succeeded on the big screen, but the Marvel Comics line of characters had yet to make their mark.

“It was a Roger Corman film, but it was still the ‘Fantastic Four,’ ” says Moore.

Regardless, a twist ending was lurking overseas in the offices of Bernd Eichinger, the German producer in control of the “Fantastic Four” movie rights.

Author Michael Mallory researched the film’s history – and its derailment – for the 2001 book “Marvel: The Characters and Their Universe” (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, $75).

“In a move that surprised nearly everyone,” wrote Mallory, “Eichinger paid Corman a cool million to get the film back, and then canceled all plans for its release, ostensibly because another, much more elaborate version of ‘The Fantastic Four’ – much closer to the film that Eichinger had originally wanted to make – was by then in development with a major studio.”

Eichinger shares one of the producer credits for the new 20th Century Fox film, which is presented in association with Constantin Film, the company Eichinger used to run and remains with as a producer.

Mallory has sources who estimated the film’s budget at a minuscule $750,000 (as opposed to a publicized figure of $2 million).

But as he points out in his book, there were some reasonably good effects, including the representation of the Human Torch “in full burn” to thwart a laser beam.

Watching Hyde-White and Staab, it’s easy to see why Mallory describes the lead actors’ work as “uniformly good,” and the affection that fans have for the bootleg tape is also understandable. The sincere demeanors of the stars is part of the appeal, along with some cute touches, such as the mechanical harness that helped create an elongated arm for Hyde-White’s Mr. Fantastic.

Hyde-White recently found a reason to watch his bootleg tape again.

“I’ve got a 4-year-old son, so I broke it out six weeks ago,” he explained. “And he loved it.”

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