The Fan (1981)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: November 19th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
By many accounts, producer Robert Stigwood set out to mount a faithful adaptation of Bob Randallís The Fan, at least initially. Somewhere along the way, however, this intimate, psychologically-driven portrait of a woman terrorized by a deranged avatar of male entitlement was twisted into something a little more visceral, and, well, schlockier. The successes of both Brian de Palma and the burgeoning slasher genre proved to be too tempting, I suppose, and the end result falls somewhere between those two poles. The Fan is a touch more elegant than most slasher fare but still comes off as feeling like diet De Palma, with a fairly trite premise to boot.
However, itís also a testament to the power of killing casting and its ability to elevate the mundane into something kind of compelling. On paper, The Fan might not sound like much, as an unhinged fan stalks his favorite celebrity; in practice, itís a little more impressive since this involves Michael Biehn and freaking Lauren Bacall. Tell me youíre not interested! And stop lying if you still insist otherwise!
Anyway, Biehn is Douglas Breen, a real scumbag in persistent, one-sided correspondence with stage and film star Sally Ross (Bacall). His letters might seem harmless but reveal the lonely, disturbing desperation of a true obsessive. Rossís secretary (Maureen Stapleton) recognizes something dangerous in these words but is told to merely shrug it off and dismiss it as the ravings of an over-zealous fan. Once it becomes clear Ross is ignoring his letters, Douglas becomes a violent, unhinged stalker who graduates to assault and attempted homicide in order to gain the starletís attention.
What follows is a serviceableóif not somewhat meanderingóriff on this familiar thing. The Fan splits time evenly between Douglasís mad obsession and Sallyís reckoning with various career and personal issues. The latter could probably make a pretty compelling film in its own right, as Sally faces the indignity of taking roles she feels are beneath her, all while her ex-husband (James Garner) remains a constant presence in her life despite moving on to a woman half his age. Bacall largely smolders through the proceedings, giving Sally a sort of icy demeanor that eventually grows into manic paranoia. Perhaps because The Fan didnít wind up being the film she signed up for, Bacall seems at a distance from everything; she seems most interested in those fleeting moments where the film actually treats Sally as a character instead of a target, so her exchanges with Garner and Stapleton are among her better moments. Also a standout: an entire musical sequence during the climax, where Sally does an elaborate song-and-dance routine as Douglas leers from the audience.
Speaking of which, Biehn is actually clearly the star here. I can only imagine what it must have been like to come aboard a film with the likes of Bacall and Garner, only to find yourself largely carrying the whole damn thing on your back. Whatís more, the rather laconic script doesnít provide a whole lot in the way of backstory or character development. In keeping with the novelís epistolary structure, the film reveals most of Douglasís characterization though his letters, which double as internal monologues here.
Biehnís voice-work here is subtly effective, as the boyish lilt in his voice eventually grows into a sinister whine of male entitlement. Thereís also something retroactively disorienting about seeing Biehn play such a scumbag that gives the film an added layer of uneasiness. While this isnít the only villainous role he ever played, Biehn has solidified himself as the ultimate good guy in my mind that itís downright weird to see him go the other way. The Fan almost feels like him playing against type, even though he didnít even have a ďtypeĒ yet. When it comes to great actors taking on early horror roles, this is among the most noteworthy of the sort since Biehnís appearance isnít a bit role like so many other starsí brief forays into the genre.
Those few moments in the script that do provide some insight into his character almost threaten to turn The Fan into a legitimately fascinating character study. An early scene with Douglasís sister reveals just how far heís distanced himself from his family and plunged into his own delusional world; for a brief moment, it seems as if he might be just as pitiful as he is repulsive, but his actions soon lay that notion to rest. Likewise, a sequence where Douglas seems to be cruising for sex with opens the door for some compelling subtext involving his possible self-loathing as a closeted gay man, at least until it climaxes with another outburst of horrific violence.
Ultimately, the film doesnít seem to be too terribly interested in Douglas as a character; rather, itís more concerned with reducing him to a misogynistic boogeyman who carries out all of the scriptís sordid, grisly affairs. Despite the growing success of his splattery contemporaries, director Edward Bianchi rightly doesnít indulge this premise for outrageous on-screen violence, opting instead to keep The Fan on a genuinely grim wavelength. Its violence dutifully unfolds alongside the assorted melodrama, occurring mostly as a matter of course. Unlike so many slashers clogging theaters at this point, The Fan isnít a showcase for outlandish death sequences, as the script makes a concerted effort at spinning a twisted yarn around its violence.
I donít know that itís the most compelling of yarns, though. The Fan kind of sprawls about and winds up splitting the difference between its two protagonists, almost as if it canít decide if it wants to be a disturbing portrait of a misogynistic psychopath or a triumphant tale of a woman overcoming professional and personal strifeówith a little bit of bloodshed sprinkled in, of course. As such, itís not especially gripping in either respect, and largely coasts on the strength of its loaded cast and its directorís commitment to taking the material seriously. Bacall herself would likely disagree with that sentiment, as the actress all but disowned The Fan once it became clear to her that the producers were more interested in the storyís sordid potential. However, considering what was growing in popularity at this time, Bianchiís film is remarkably restrainedóitís easy to imagine a version of The Fan that was even more outrageously violent and schlocky. Whether that would make the film better or worse is anyoneís guess: as it stands, The Fan is fine, if not something of a missed opportunity given the talent involved.
Youíll hear Bacallís infamous dismissal of The Fanóalong with several other anecdotesórelayed on Scream Factoryís recent Blu-ray release of the film. Screamís disc represents the filmís high-def debut following Paramountís barebones DVD release from 2002. Suffice it to say, this is a title thatís been long overdue for an upgrade, and this Blu-ray doesnít disappoint. With the exception of one noticeable but brief video artifact (a bizarre halo forms around Biehn in one shot), the high-def transfer is well done and is matched with a solid DTS-MA track.
Scream has produced a decent amount of extras, most of which dish out a surprising amount of dirt. A trio of no-holds-barred interviews with Biehn, Bianchi, and editor Alan Heim make it abundantly clear that Paramount did not exactly do right by this project by effectively switching gears mid-stream by firing original director Waris Hussein and aiming for something a bit more shlocky. All three men recall as much and note that Bacall was noticeably unhappy with the change, with Biehn going as far as to say she wasnít the most pleasant co-star. His interview is especially candid in this regard, as he also makes note of Stapletonís drinking problem at one point before insisting that The Fan was mostly a fine experience for him.
Unlike a lot of these interviews, Biehnís recollection mostly stick with this film, and he goes on to discuss what a treat it is whenever someone at a convention mentions this film instead of, you know, all of the other, more famous ones. Bianchi and Heim similarly look for the positives in what was a somewhat rocky production that eventually climaxed with Paramountís vile attempt to release The Fan to exploit John Lennonís recent death. Yikes.
While none of these participants are around for a commentary, Scream did record a track with cult director David DeCoteau and film historian David Del Valle. The usual assortment of trailers, TV spots, and a stills gallery completes a solid package for what is ultimately a film that feels like it should be a bigger deal, all things considered. The talent involved commands some natural interest, even if the final product doesnít thoroughly grip that interest. Would it be too on-the-nose to insist this oneís for fans only? Yes? Feel free to send me a strongly-worded letter in protest. Just maybe skip on the part where you stalk and harass me, though.
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