Despite how tepid it sometimes is when it comes to its horror elements, THE FAN is surprisingly watchable as it toes the line between earnest thriller and camp with the incongruous presence of Lauren Bacall, James Garner, and Maureen Stapleton in a slasher flick.
There really is not much original about the plot here: Douglas (Michael Biehn as the titular character) is a very intense young man that no one seems to notice is one step away from becoming completely unhinged. He obsesses over Sally Ross (Bacall), a former movie star who is now on Broadway and is set to be the lead in her first musical—something most performers don’t take on for the first time at the age of fifty, so she is already on edge before the film even begins. Douglas pens increasingly desperate letters to Sally, but they are intercepted by her secretary Belle (Stapleton), who tries in vain to get the self-absorbed Sally to take the stalker seriously. But once Douglas attacks Belle in the subway, slashing her face with a straight razor, all bets are off as Douglas zeroes in on Sally and those she holds dear.
While the plot has a “been there, done that” feel to it—even when it was released in 1981–the direction by Edward Bianchi is ruthlessly efficient while still allowing for character bits and a couple of very good, suspenseful sequences as Douglas stalks his latest victim (the swimming pool scene, in particular, is terrific). Instead of trying to re-write the rules of this type of film, the script by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell (based on a novel by Bob Randall) instead grafts the typical stalk-and-slash formula on to an aging diva story that makes this feel like ALL ABOUT EVE as directed by Sean S. Cunningham. But when the aging diva is Lauren Bacall in full acid-tongued, self-pitying mode, that odd pairing of tropes works better than it should.
THE FAN also benefits from a supporting cast that brings more class to it than it probably deserves. Biehn is very good and creepily believable as the odd, but handsome, guy next door who is just good enough at hiding his violent tendencies from the world that he passes by unnoticed. Despite Biehn’s intensity, he resists making it a showy performance, walking the edge between slow-burn menace and eye-rolling psycho moments with finesse. Stapleton chews the scenery with a fun performance, bouncing off Bacall’s cranky ice queen with several good one-liners the script is generous enough to provide her. And of course Garner exudes the easy charm and likability that was his stock-in-trade as Sally’s ex-husband Jake with whom she still has a friendly relationship and wants desperately to re-marry. It’s to Garner’s credit that he is given absolutely nothing to work with in the script (he mentions being in pre-production on a movie, but it’s unclear if he’s an actor, director, producer, etc.) and his character has no real impact on the plot, yet he turns Jake into a welcome presence in the movie.
But while the cast is engaging and the glossy cinematography by Dick Bush elevates the proceedings, the real MVP of THE FAN is composer Pino Donaggio.
In the extras on the disc, much is made of the fact—by nearly everyone interviewed—that THE FAN did not begin life as a slasher flick. The film went into pre-production as a straight thriller, but before shooting could begin, DRESSED TO KILL and FRIDAY THE 13TH set the box office on fire. Producer Robert Stigwood took notice and ordered changes to the screenplay to reflect the slasher craze that was just starting to take hold. Bacall was apparently appalled, Garner reportedly did not like the change but remained a professional, and original director Waris Hussein quit the film rather than agree to the added violence. What is interesting about the extras on the disc is that no one notes that Donaggio was a favorite composer of Brian De Palma’s and had done the score for DRESSED TO KILL. But even if he was simply brought on because someone on the production was trying to replicate the success of De Palma’s film, Donaggio turns in a score that is suspenseful, at times playful, and lushly romantic when complementing the Bacall/Garner scenes. His score takes a film that could be accused of being by-the-numbers and pushes it into a weird space where it is too trashy to be classy, but too stylish and well made to truly be trash. Its existence in this no man’s land of genre cinema is a part of why I have such affection for it.
A combination of a lot of unfortunate issues (not least of which was the murder of John Lennon by an obsessed fan) sank THE FAN upon its release. While it is not a lost classic, the odd combination of slasher horror, Lauren Bacall nearly going full late’60s/’70s hagsploitation, and nightmarishly cheesy Broadway musical numbers make it a film not easily dismissed or forgotten. There are plenty of better early ’80s horror flicks out there, but few are as casually weird as this one.
While the Blu-ray is not exactly pack with extras, THE FAN is the rarity in that all of the supplemental material feels necessary and adds important context to the film.
Biehn is always a great interview since he is an open book when he starts sharing. Here, he dishes on how rude he found Bacall, how she objected to what she saw as rough treatment in a scene in which they physically struggle, and how disappointed he was when he realized his first major role was going to do nothing for his career. He seems aware of the repressed homosexuality of the character of Douglas—which comes through in one of the strongest, yet ugliest scenes in the film—but also seems slightly flummoxed by how many gay men have told him over the years about how much they love THE FAN.
Bianchi relates the difficulty of joining the film as Hussein’s replacement three weeks before shooting was to begin. At the time, he was best known for directing a series of Dr. Pepper commercials, which led to a lack of respect from Bacall (Biehn claims she called Bianchi “Dr. Pepper” on the set), who was already unhappy about being forced to star in a slasher flick once the script re-writes were under way. But he seems appreciative of everything he learned on the film (he went on to become a director on several prestige TV shows, including Deadwood, The Wire, and Boardwalk Empire), even though it sounds like a rough shoot for him. He also points out how Paramount made a big deal about first labeling promotion of the film as having nothing to do with the murder of Lennon and then pulling promotion altogether to “be respectful” as a bit of a bullshit attempt at a sort of sympathy marketing—as though the studio believed they could do better by cozying up to real-life tragedy while also claiming not to be exploiting said tragedy. Obviously, the box office returns on the film do not back up this strategy.
Editor Alan Heim (who was fresh off an Oscar win for ALL THAT JAZZ when he edited THE FAN) details the challenges of working with a first-time feature director. And—like seemingly everyone that worked on the film—has his own story about a run-in with Bacall (It should be noted that even though everyone had a Bacall story that painted her in a less than flattering light, they also still seem awe-struck to have been in her presence. Such is the bright shining light of old-school Hollywood glamour, I suppose), though it is less harrowing than Biehn’s and Bianchi’s tales.
While the interview segments are great, the real star of this disc is the commentary track by Scream Factory’s Jeff Nelson, prolific genre director David DeCoteau, and film historian David Del Valle. Bringing the perspective of three gay men who have long been fans of the film despite the unfortunate cliché of the closeted gay man as a serial killer. In an enormously entertaining ninety-five minutes, they point out the way the film falls into the gay community’s love of watching “grand dames slum it” and anything about bad fictional musicals. DeCoteau’s description–with an audibly wistful sigh–of the then 22-year-old Biehn as being in “mint condition” drew the biggest laugh from me that I’d had all month. Their freewheeling conversation hits that commentary sweet spot of being both insightful about the movie’s production and the cultural context of its release with frequently being laugh-out-loud funny. More of these gents watching movies together on future Blu-rays, please.
THE FAN is now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
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Tags: Alan Heim, Bob Randall, David DeCoteau, David Del Valle, Dick Bush, Edward Bianchi, James Garner, Jeff Nelson, John Hartwell, Lauren Bacall, Maureen Stapleton, Michael Biehn, Pino Donaggio, Priscilla Chapman, Robert Stigwood, scream factory, Slasher Flicks, The Fan, Waris Hussein