Oh Hollywood. Always chasing trends, trying to stay ahead of the curve, sometimes just trying to keep up. It certainly appeared that way when slashers brought in big money by the early ‘80s; all the big studios rushed to get out similarly themed movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th for their share of the perceived pie. And some, like the wrongheaded yet fun The Fan (1981), decide to make a classy ‘psychological thriller’ and then add bloodshed to bring home those duckets. Surely it must have worked with the horror crowd, right?
Wrong. The Fan certainly had none of its own when released, and the best from critics was it was a tepid rehash of other psychotic stalkers. Well, it is that, but it also offers a fascinating look at the Hollywood money-making machinery sputtering when faced with tough decisions, and a solid precursor to the ‘Incel’ character we’ve come to despise in our real lives.
Let’s start our story and meet Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), a record store clerk with an obsession for legendary star of stage and screen, Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall). We hear from Douglas mainly through his inner dialog, as he composes yet another letter to Sally in the hopes of winning her love and respect. Sally never receives her mail anyway, as her personal assistant Belle (Maureen Stapleton) intercepts all and weeds out the weirdos and sickies.
Douglas’ letters are so constant and all-consuming in fact, that Belle finally tells Sally, but she admonishes Belle for mistreating her fans, even though Belle knows something is amiss with Douglas. So, as Sally continues to rehearse for her big Broadway show, his anger boils over until he starts taking it out on those closest to Sally. Will Douglas be able to prove his love to Sally before he flays her entire entourage?
The Fan is a more interesting film than it is good; that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching - in fact it has some solid performances, snappy dialog, and inventive camera work alone to recommend it. Yet, it’s merely another film from Hollywood that second guesses what audiences truly want.
And they did not want a slasher with Lauren Bacall.
A weird sentence to type, I promise you; and it surprised her too when more graphic material was inserted to appeal to a younger crowd (is the razor-with-blood-smearing still a popular gag? Hope so!). She was very vocal in appearances that it isn’t the film she signed up for. Well no, and I’m sure James Garner as her ex-husband/love interest felt the same way, too; of course the young and hungry Biehn is electric - he had something to prove as an actor and gives Douglas a quiet sense of malice disguised as loneliness.
But all credits in front of the camera are, to be expected, top notch; it’s behind the scenes where things get dicier. Director Ed Bianchi can’t be to blame: he gets good work from Biehn, Hector Elizondo as the cop protecting Sally, Dwight Schultz as her theater director, and pro turns from Bacall and Garner. No, the script houses the issues; while the BTS showbiz stuff has an air of truth about it - and Bacall brings that weariness and trepidation with her to the screen - the Douglas material seems underdeveloped. The only time we really get to know him is when his sister stops by his apartment to check on him; knowing full well his obsessive behavior, she tries to talk him into coming home to no avail. More into what drives him would have made the film richer.
That’s the push and pull here; ‘Betty’ Bacall wanted what she believed the film should be, a story focusing on the plight of this brave, brave woman. Times had changed however, and the examination of evil was now a common theme in thrillers and horror; that and the loosening of morals on the cinematic landscape almost ensured that this film would lean “modern” in its trappings.
And Garner and Bacall, while legendary stars, seem out of their element and perhaps even a tiny embarrassed. This kind of violence in movies is for the kids, they were probably thinking, but no harm in expanding the fanbase, right? The problem being that the younger crowd would barely know Garner and probably not Bacall at all, and the timidity of the violence isn’t enough to startle or scare those who slashers are aimed at in the marketplace. Is it a pleasing no one scenario, though?
I really don’t think so. The Fan is more than a passable thriller - it has at least one good gotcha, and the finale between Douglas and Sally is taut and well done - with a good cast. It also chronicles a man who believes he alone deserves a woman’s attention because he loves her the most - I’m not sure why, but this plot point seems like it could still be relevant today. Hmm. Oh well; at least Paramount also had the Friday the 13th series to line their bloodied pockets. And trust me, Jason won’t scare you as much as Sally when she sings.
The Fan is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Class of 1981: NIGHT SCHOOL Provides an Enthralling Education in Giallo-Style Horror