Roger Corman’s unreleased 1994 film version of the Fantastic Four was one of those movies I read about for years before finally witnessing. It’s a prominent and unique entry in the legendarium of bad movies, unusual in the sense that the source material was a well-known Marvel property now worth many millions of dollars and a major Hollywood reboot. It’s funny to think how vastly different the value of Marvel’s First Family was just 20 years ago, back when comic book movies were still, by and large, a secret shame dumped into the clammy hands of furtive nerds and not a free money-generating engine for the world’s largest film studios. How things have changed in the interim.
This is a film that you can now view in its entirety on YouTube or DailyMotion, but for a long, long time that was not the case. Rushed into production under false pretenses in order to hold onto the rights to the characters, this Fantastic Four movie was never even intended for eventual distribution. It was literally a film project that no one was ever supposed to see, and allegedly, the only people who knew this were the studio execs and its executive producer, the ever-resourceful Corman. The final product, therefore, has NEVER received an official release of any kind—if you see a DVD, it’s a bootleg. I should know, as I’ve owned one for years. For a long time, that was the only way to get it, through some sort of finagling of the tape-trading movie black market.
And that’s a shame. Because ultimately, this version of the Fantastic Four story, the low-budget vision of director Oley Sassone, is simply goofy good fun. It’s hammy, colorful, slapdash and inherently “comic-booky,” in a way that the disgraceful 2005 feature and its even worse 2007 sequel couldn’t even match with a full-on Hollywood treatment. Sassone’s Fantastic Four looks more like the story as envisioned and filmed by a 10-year-old boy, and that’s not a bad thing—the film really deserves to be known as the “Sassone FF” instead of “The Corman FF.”
What beer does one pair with such an exotic block of comic cheese, though? After racking my brain trying to come up with some kind of connection between “Fantastic,” “Thing” and “Torch” and prospective beers, I realized that the obvious answer was sitting right under my nose. I needed to be thinking about the four. I needed to drink a Belgian quad, and only a FANTASTIC one would do. That’s why I picked one of the best in the world—Trappistes Rochefort 10.
Belgian quads, truth be told, seem a bit more like something Dr. Doom would be sipping from a crystal chalice than the drink of the Fantastic Four, but this is my column and you’re stuck with the results of my whims. Rochefort 10 certainly has a pedigree, coming from one of the finest Trappist (monastery) breweries in the world. The abbey in Rochefort, Belgium, has been producing beer for sale since the sixteenth century, and remains the primary way the monks fund their contemplative lifestyles.
Like many abbey ales that are actually from Belgium, it pours with an incredibly dense, persistent head of pillowy foam. This is a style that is all about richness and complexity, and Rochefort 10 is a prime example of both. Aromatics are all kinds of fruit—grape, raisin, fig, cherry, as well as a slight smokiness that I haven’t quite picked up on before when drinking this beer. There’s also a bit of peppery spice.
On the palate, its fruitcake richness is apparent, but it incredibly does this without being conventionally “sweet.” The impression you can’t help but acknowledge is how smooth this quad is, given its ABV. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I’ve never tasted anything close to 11.3% ABV that hides the booziness quite so well as Rochefort 10, which allows the delicate malt and yeast-derived fruit qualities to shine through. It is remarkably “sophisticated” beer that begs for introspection and a long drinking session—it’s just as pleasant warm as it is cold.
The film, on the other hand, is enjoyable for its guilelessness and sincerity rather than any reason related to complexity. For someone who’s watched his fair share of Troma Entertainment features, there’s almost an immediate kinship in the visual style—simultaneously grimy and dark in some segments, luridly colorful in others, as if you’re looking at a comic book through a Viewmaster.
A lot of that is a result of the costumes, which seem to have sprung directly from the ink of Jack Kirby, circa 1966. There’s a reason they’re so jarring to actually see on film, and it’s this—what works in the pages of a comic book often looks absurd or childish in live action. There’s a style to the way costumes tend to change in big-budget adaptations, a set of overhauls that help make the clothing look more functional and “realistic.” Colors become duller. Ornamentation becomes a bit less gaudy or bulky. Range of motion is improved for the sake of the actors. Texture is added, so it doesn’t look like someone is wearing a single splotch of primary color.
All of those changes? They’re pretty much absent in Sassone’s Fantastic Four. Mr. Fantastic’s suit is Crayola blue. The Thing struts around in his trademark speedo, practically nude. Dr. Doom’s outfit is shiny metallic, with the trademark green hood and cape. It immediately gives everything an amateurish, Power Rangers-like vibe that is nonetheless fun. It feels like it was meant to appeal to both children and your inner child, and there’s no missing who these characters are supposed to be. No version of Dr. Doom that has come along since has looked even half as close to the comics original as Sassone’s Doom.
This Victor Von Doom, by the way, is a confidant and student friend of Reed Richards in college, and the two geniuses work together in an ill-fated attempt to build a machine that can harness the powers of a mystical comet called “Colossus” that is passing by the Earth. Predictably, this does not go particularly well, and one explosion of incredibly bad CGI electricity later, Victor has been fried to a crisp. He’s presumed dead, but this is of course not the case.
“Ten years later,” Reed has somehow changed from college student to pervy 40-something, and Sue Storm and Johnny Storm have likewise changed from children into people in their mid-20s. Still obsessed with Colossus and his previous failure, Reed prepares to fly into space in a shuttle of his own design, piloted by childhood friend and superhunk, Ben Grimm. He brings along Sue and Johnny because … um … because they thought he was cool when they were children? And because Sue is now old enough to legally violate? It’s either that, or Reed wants someone there he can cannibalize if a disaster strands the ship in space—Reed is the type to prepare for all eventualities.
Unfortunately for those hoping for a cannibal subplot, however, the ship plummets back to Earth after the group is exposed to Colossus’ radiation, and boom, we’ve got our Fantastic Four superpowers … powers primarily expressed through hilariously poor special effects.
If there’s one area where you can legitimately criticize the objective quality of Sassone’s Fantastic Four, it’s those effects. Because oh my. Oh dear, there’s some gaudily bad stuff here, considering the year. This thing was completed in 1994, a year after Jurassic Park, and the effects look like they came out of some grindhouse picture in the ‘70s. Even by ’90s straight-to-video standards, these are bottom of the barrel. Best of the worst is any time we see the “stretching” effect for Mr. Fantastic, which they admirably attempted to do with practical effects and forced perspective, only for it to look like the part was played by Inspector Gadget in some scenes and a Wacky Waving Inflatable Tube Man in others.
Gotta love that transition between the “extendable arm pole” shot and the tighter “okay, now just reach in from off-camera” shot.
Worst of the worst is the incredible segment in the end of the film when the Human Torch physically blocks the path of a laser beam of some kind to hurl it back into space. For a film that has made it through about 80 minutes of live action to suddenly devolve into CGI that looks like an early ’90s PC game’s FMV cutscene is really quite a thing to see. Watch as he pinwheels crazily:
The actual acting performances are likewise hilariously uneven. It’s as if every actor was given very different instructions on what level to emote and how to embody their characters. Reed has numerous reaction shots where he looks incredibly bored or nonplussed, including one magnificent one that happens immediately after Sue is shown screaming in pain. It clashes wonderfully with the relentless overacting of Jay Underwood as Johnny Storm, who seems keen on embodying every annoying trope of the cool ‘90s skater kid archetype that he possibly can. He comes across like the desperate older brother of Zack Morris, jealous of his sibling’s fame and prominent Tiger Beat endorsement.
The best performance, once again, is Joseph Culp as Dr. Doom, not because it’s objectively “good” but because it’s appreciably campy. Someone clearly took him aside at some point early in the process and said “Look, you’re wearing a mask and a full-body costume in this role, so you’re going to have to be physical.” And Culp took this to mean, “I need to have a hand gesture for EVERY SINGLE WORD I SPEAK.” It inflects his entire performance with this overwrought, almost Shakespearean quality—it’s like he’s trying to make sure the vaudeville audience in the cheap seats can see what he’s feeling.
“I don’t know what to do with my hands.”
In a few days, I’ll be seeing the new Fantastic Four reboot to write Paste’s review. Although I’m sure it will likely be perfectly watchable, I know on some level that it won’t come close to the innocence of this Sassone Fantastic Four, and that makes me a little sad. This film is an ugly, cheap hunk of junk, but at least it has heart.
Rochefort 10, on the other hand, is pretty much unassailable. It’s one of the top two or three Belgian-made quadrupels in the world. It’s a big part of why quadrupel is a well-liked beer style in the first place. Although I do have great fondness for the unassuming and entertaining nature of Fantastic Four, Rochefort’s beer is the experience I want to return to on a regular basis. It’s a closer contest than you would likely believe, but Rochefort comes out on top—when in doubt, you can’t rob something this practically flawless of the esteem it so rightly deserves.
Until next time!
Ready to experience the low-budget glory of the once-lost 1994 Fantastic Four? Watch the whole damn film below:
Prefer to steep yourself in the smoothest 11% ABV beer on the market? Drink in the glory of Trappistes Rochefort 10.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he found a physical copy of this Fantastic Four version several years ago at a DVD resale shop in Chicago. It is a treasured possession. You can follow him on Twitter.