Entertainment & Arts

Hollywood’s missing motion pictures

Fantastic Four Image copyright Oley Sassone
Image caption Oley Sassone's take on The Fantastic Four was never released to the public

As excitement burbles about who will win at the Oscars in February, spare a thought for the film industry losers.

Every year there are countless disappointed runners-up in the race for the greatest prize in showbiz.

Sadder still are the vast majority of movie makers that never even get nominated for an industry gong.

But the unluckiest of all are those whose hard work doesn't even make it on to the big screen.

One director that knows how it feels to have his creative vision canned is Oley Sassone.

His infamous 1994 movie The Fantastic Four - charting the origins of the Marvel Comics superheroes - remained hidden from public view for more than two decades.

'Kicked in the gut'

"I remember exactly where I was when I got the call," he says, recalling when he was told the film would never be shown to the public.

"I was driving down San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles, and I literally had to pull over by the side of the road to take a few deep breaths. It was like getting kicked in the gut by a mule. I'd worked so hard.

"The film's exec Producer Bernd Eichinger sat me down and said: 'Oley, I'm sorry, but we can't release the movie. There's a contractual agreement'.

"And then a lightbulb went off in my head. I realised we had been made to get it into production by a certain date otherwise Constantin Films would lose the rights to the Fantastic Four franchise.

"That was the agreement with Marvel. The movie just had to be made, it didn't have to be shown."

Image copyright Oley Sassone
Image caption Michael Bailey Smith starred as Ben Grimm while Carl Ciarfalio (front) played the character's alter-ego The Thing

The Fantastic Four is one of a surprisingly common number of movies made each year that stay locked within the vaults of its copyright holders.

And it's not just legal reasons that keep these films from ever seeing the light of day. The most common cause is the death of a key actor before filming is completed.

Thriller Dark Blood was six scenes short of being finished when its star River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993.

Director George Sluizer deemed there to be enough footage to cobble together a final cut, but despite a warm critical reception when it premiered at the Netherlands Film Festival in 2012 to a private audience, the film has never been given an official release.

Hidden away

Some movies stay unreleased simply because they run out of money - like All American Massacre, the 1998 sequel to horror classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Even though the entire film has been shot, to this day director William Hooper has been unable to raise the mere $8,000 (£6,400) needed to finish post-production.

And some films fall at the final hurdle because they're just plain awful, like 2013 fantasy satire Gods Behaving Badly.

Not even a stellar cast including Christopher Walken, Susan Sarandon and Alicia Silverstone could stop critics from labelling it as "remarkably feeble" and "unfunny" when it premiered at the Rome Film Festival.

Since then, there have been no further screenings.

Perhaps the most notorious canned movie is The Day The Clown Cried - a wildly misjudged drama about the horrors of the Holocaust starring comedian Jerry Lewis.

Filmed in 1972, Lewis plays a clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, entertaining children on their way to the gas chambers.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Day The Clown Cried has never been released to the public

He subsequently u-turned on his enthusiasm for the project, but Lewis is known to be in possession of one of the only existing copies of the film.

"You will never see it. No one will ever see it," he told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. "Because I am embarrassed at the poor work."

Such was the furore surrounding The Day The Clown Cried, it has attained an almost mythical status amongst film buffs.

Sassone believes that by keeping movies locked away, it risks drawing more attention than just letting the film be released as normal.

"When people want something that they can't have, it makes them that much more eager to get it," he says. "Rumours swirl about what's in it, and that creates a mystery or a conspiracy. It becomes cultish."

Image copyright Oley Sassone
Image caption The cast of the 1994 take on The Fantastic Four reunited for the release of Doomed (l-r Jay Underwood, Joseph Culp, Michael Bailey Smith, Rebecca Staab, Alex Hyde-White Carl Ciarfalio)

Sassone's Fantastic Four fiasco was chronicled in the 2016 documentary Doomed. The key players quibble over the precise details of why the film never made it to cinemas, but to Sassone what matters most is that those who worked on the movie never got to see it.

"I tried to get them to at least give me a copy, so I had a record of my work," he says. "And they said: 'Sorry, we can't do that, the movie's been confiscated.'

"Thank God, one guy from the studio had it on three-quarter-inch video. It wasn't great quality, it was just a straight transfer to video, but I took it over to a dubbing house in LA to reel off a few VHS copies.

"I'm guessing that some kid working there ran off a few copies for himself, because years later bootlegs started circulating at comic book conventions."

'It does look awful'

In 2015, the film was finally leaked on YouTube and currently holds a 29% approval score on aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes.

"People criticise the movie because it looks awful," Sassone says.

"And I agree because it does look awful - but the original movie doesn't look like that. They've only ever seen terrible copies of the movie made from VHS to VHS to VHS. And it pains us because everybody put their heart and soul in to this film.

"It wasn't about the money - what hurt was that we knew we had a hot little film that cost almost nothing to make. We were never completely satisfied with the special effects, but the drama was so true to the original comic book characters."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Fantastic Four was rebooted in 2005, starring (l-r) Chris Evans, Ioan Gruffudd, Julian McMahon, Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis

Meanwhile in 2005, executive producer Eichinger went on to reboot the Fantastic Four franchise in a mega-budget summer blockbuster starring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba and Chris Evans. To Sassone's delight, it has a lower Rotten Tomatoes score than his take on the movie.

"Will they be talking about the latter versions of the Fantastic Four in 22 years' time? I dunno," he says. "When we had the premiere of Doomed all these kids came up to us and said: 'Your movie is so much better than all those crappy big budget Fantastic Fours!'

"I asked why and they said: 'Because you hit the characters! It was real.' Obviously we can't compete with the special effects, but it was some vindication after all those years when they said our film was better than the $50m (£40m) versions."

As a hero of hidden Hollywood, perhaps Sassone has achieved a prize greater than winning an Oscar - his movie is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

"It's hard to say how my life would have panned out if the movie had just had a regular release," he muses. "I think I would probably have been offered a studio picture or a bigger movie somewhere.

"Instead I went on to make a lot of television like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess, so I had a pretty successful career anyway.

"But I always tell people, it's the movie business. Pay attention to the word 'business' - because that's what it is."

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