The Fan (1981)

NOVEMBER 21, 2019


It's bad enough when there are two movies with the same name but otherwise have nothing in common (like Alone in the Dark or Crash), but it's even more annoying when they have the same basic plot. You are reading a review of The Fan, a film from 1981 that stars Michael Biehn as an obsessed/psychotic fan of a celebrity (Lauren Bacall), NOT the 1996 film where Robert DeNiro was an obsessed/psychotic fan of a celebrity (Wesley Snipes). For added "fun", they're both based on separate novels of the same name, and there's the 1982 German film where Désirée Nosbusch was an obsessed/psychotic fan of a celebrity (Bodo Steiger). Therefore, allow me to take a moment to do something I never thought I'd do: thank Fred Durst, because his recent film about an obsessed/psychotic fan of a celebrity (John Travolta and Devon Sawa, respectively) is called The Fanatic so we can at least not get that one mixed up with these too often.

Anyway, THIS Fan has been kind of forgotten over the years, as it was not a theatrical hit (it was unfortunately timed for release shortly after John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan of his own) and is only now hitting Blu-ray (the DVD, released in 2002, has box art so ugly I can't imagine it inspired too many blind buys). It was also disowned by Bacall, as the film she signed up for was more of a psychological drama but thanks to the success of Dressed to Kill the producers decided to add some bloody violence, lumping it in with the slasher films of 1981. I wouldn't qualify it as slasher by any means - Biehn's character Douglas has an even lower body count than Michael Myers in the first Halloween, let alone the many masked maniacs that were playing in theaters by the time this was released. That said, it's more violent than the book for sure, as the movie has a sequence where Douglas kills some staff at the theater where Bacall's Sally Ross is performing her play, and earlier he murders a maid who doesn't appear in the book at all.

The book also takes an epistolary form like Dracula, as it's presented in a series of letters and telegrams between the characters. This means some awkward means of exposition (these folks sure do write a lot, no matter how trivial) but is otherwise an interesting way of telling a stalker story, as Douglas' letters get more and more unhinged while everyone else's world goes on without even noticing him (the secretary who actually reads the letters eventually just ignores them, so we're the only ones seeing their content). The movie obviously can't do that, so while Douglas still sends letters, it's only about a fraction of what he did in the book, and in turn that means we learn a lot less about him. The book offers plenty of background info - stuff with his parents, more with his job as a record store clerk (and his hatred of a new coworker, played in the film by Dana Delany), and, naturally, more about his obsession - to the point where he is telling old friends that he is Sally's boyfriend and promises them autographs, as well as booking hotel rooms to take her to celebrate the opening of her play. It's legit unnerving after a while, something the film can't quite capture in the same way.

Instead we get a solid performance from Biehn, whose menace is evident from the first scene. He doesn't chew the scenery as well as some of his other villains (like The Abyss), but - perhaps because I've seen a few "Douglas" types over the years of moderating Q&As here in LA - he doesn't need to be gnashing his teeth and such to come off as a threat, as his demeanor alone will leave you uneasy. As for Bacall, she's fine - her best years were behind her and that was part of the role, but I wouldn't say she was exactly diving into the material. I assume it's because the script changes left her cold about the whole production anyway, but for every moment you see her really coming to life (putting the film into camp territory, especially when she's arguing with her secretary), there are others where she just seems bored, and since the character is kind of a tyrant it gets a bit hard to really sympathize with her. Faring better is James Garner, whose ex-husband/now best friend character never joins her in NY in the book (he's in LA with his new wife; the two never share a "scene" there, only corresponding through their weekly letters) but is around all the time and eventually rekindles his relationship with her. It's kind of sweet to watch!

But alas, the book offers a consistent tone that the movie can't match due to its producers switching gears after they already had a cast in place. Again, it doesn't quite qualify as a slasher, but these scenes are violent and grim, a tonal clash with the somewhat campy feel of the Broadway scenes, not to mention Bacall's character's melodrama of getting old, reconnecting with her ex, etc. It's also erratic when it comes to resolving things satisfyingly; Garner's character disappears for the climax, as do the police who have been shadowing her through half the movie, making their characters feel useless in the long run. And while we see Sally's ongoing struggle with a particular dance move for her play throughout rehearsals, they don't bother showing us its finished form on opening night, making me wonder why they spent so much time on it earlier only to deny us the triumphant moment where she finally nails it. So it feels a bit scatterbrained, making it one of those movies that doesn't have any particularly bad scenes or plot threads, but they never quite gel in a way that makes the film fully satisfying as a whole. It's an easy enough watch, sure, but I can't say it's one I'll feel like revisiting much - which for me is rather insane for a "1981 slasher".

Scream Factory has certainly appeased to its fanbase with the Blu-ray though; there's a new interview with Biehn, another with director Ed Bianchi, and a third with editor Alan Heim, all of which are interesting and fairly candid (it seems Ms. Bacall did not get along all that well with anyone). But the real treat is a commentary with David Del Valle, David DeCoteau, and (Scream Factory guru) Jeff Nelson, who have a grand old time showing their appreciation for the movie (they often sing along to the Raspberry-nominated musical numbers) while also discussing the film's production, the climate of the time (re: violence after Lennon), other films that are in the same vein (Cruising comes up a few times), etc. It's a terrific and funny track, the kind I wish Scream would put out more often - genuine fans of the material who also have something to say.

What say you?


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