Director: Ed Bianchi
Cast: Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Michael Biehn
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Paramount was riding high during the slasher Golden Year of 1981. Just a year before, they had plucked a microbudget schlock bucket called Friday the 13th out of obscurity and made enough money to satisfy the executives’ yacht budget for a decade and change. Of course they rushed out a sequel, but they also made sure their other projects didn’t ignore the slasher subgenre they had more or less called into being. Enter The Fan, a sort of gender-swapped Misery tale about a stalker. Much like the later flick Sleeping with the Enemy, it could easily have pulled off being a prestige drama, but it leaned into those slasher trappings to give it a little sleazy zing.
In The Fan, Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is an aging actress still reeling from her divorce from Jake Berman (James Garner, in a role that definitely would have been played by William Shatner in an alternate universe), who has recently moved back to the city with his much younger lover. She throws herself into rehearsals for her new Broadway musical, but another man throws a wrench in her life. That man is Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn, my secret 80’s crush), her biggest fan. His swoony love letters are brusquely ignored by her secretary Belle (Maureen Stapleton), igniting his rage.
His letters become increasingly lewd and aggressive, and things escalate to the point that Douglas begins attacking Sally’s friends and loved ones with a razor blade. She must handle her own personal turmoil while struggling to end her stalker’s stranglehold over her life.
And, you know, her neck.
The Fan is a truly peculiar entry in the slasher subgenre. Combining the “hero killer’ storyline (the style that focused on the exploits of a madman from his own perspective, which was popular in the waning days of grindhouse cinema) with a character-oriented stalker thriller, it was already a bizarre blend of two similar but disparate genres before they cast Lauren Bacall. The resulting class of the film utterly derails its feints toward bona fide slasherdom, but it doesn’t stop it from being damn fascinating.
The Fan is simultaneously horror, romance, a treatise on aging in Hollywood, and (drumroll please)… a musical. That’s right, we get to spend an inordinate amount of time watching Sally Ross rehearse and perform full production numbers. And they’re pretty good! Bacall’s game but rough-around-the-edges performance leaves something to be desired, but the numbers are written by Tim Rice (who co-wrote Chess, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar… you know, the basics) and they sparkle with unearned wit and verve. The average Johnny Slasherfan might raise issue with this obvious filler, but I adored every second of it, both for its musical theater pizzazz and the fact that I always welcome a dash of the inexplicable in my slasher movies.
The Fan is a barmy attempt at a tonal balancing act that would have toppled better directors than Ed Bianchi (who has been exiled to TV since 1991) but it’s relentlessly charming for it. Nearly everything it does it does well, save for actually finding a credible reason to have all these elements jumbled into the same movie. You want a dignified drama? Here’s Lauren Bacall acting up a storm, demolishing dialogue that’s actually pretty well-written (by two first-time screenwriters who would never write again, oddly – maybe this is all they had in them). And I can’t stop thinking about this utterly gorgeous shot capturing Douglas Breen in a particularly down moment, isolating him in the frame in this god’s eye view of a jumble of urban detritus.
I digress. Do you want a sleazeoid slasher? There’s a truly admirable amount of gay sexuality casually lingering around the edges of the film (something that would have been quite shocking to audiences back in the day when everyone wore short shorts so tight you could see their vas deferens, but insisted they despised gay people). And then of course there’s Michael Biehn threating to “f**k” Lauren Bacall “with a meat cleaver.” How to Marry a Millionaire this ain’t. Neither the drama half nor the slasher half is particularly well-served by the other, and the ending is a jumbled mess that tragically cuts short the thematic arcs of both, but taken separately they’re both pretty satisfying in the shot term.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is no lost grand relic of slasher cinema. Because the first act is mostly concerned with the drama side of things (Garner and Bacall have enough chemistry to overcome his weak characterization), the pacing is perhaps a little more stately than I might have liked. Before the violence kicks in, it just alternates between mundane secretarial business and Michael Biehn using a typewriter. And when he first takes up the razor, nobody actually dies until about half an hour before the credits roll.
This keenness to preserve the characters we actually like (most of the bona fide deaths are doled out to random characters introduced in that very scene or The Help) strips away any real sense of danger from The Fan, despite Michael Biehn’s chilling, inhuman performance. Even in the climactic finale, in which it’s pretty clear that the 54-year-old Lauren Bacall is not mobile enough to evade the 25-year-old, very fit (very fit) Biehn, the movie has played it too safe thus far to provoke any genuine anxiety. There are some effective shocks and jolts along the way, but the utter lack of dreads makes The Fan end up feeling a little dry.
Plus, just like a bizarre amount of 1981 slashers, it’s not as gory as you might imagine, so the less patient horrormongers will want to steer clear of this one But despite all that, The Fan is still kind of captivating. It’s a movie that by all means shouldn’t exist with this script and this cast (and especially those glittery production numbers), and for its very improbability I salute it. I suppose you can say I’m a fan.
Killer: Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn)
Final Girl: Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall)
Best Kill: Douglas’ final comeuppance is appropriately gory and shocking. Right in the neck!
Sign of the Times: Everything that plays at the record store where Douglas works sounds like The Buzzcocks by way of Strawberry Switchblade.
Scariest Moment: Lauren Bacall kisses everyone she meets on the lips. Disgusting.
Weirdest Moment: Douglas seduces a man at a gay bar in a scene that feels like a random gift from Olympus, holding off on revealing his master plan (to kill him) until the audience is good and riled up.
Champion Dialogue: “I have all the necessary equipment to make you very very happy.”
Body Count: 5; as well as 2 bloody attempted killings.
- Elsa is slashed with a razor.
- Random Gay Dude is slashed and set on fire.
- Hilda is stabbed.
- Pop is stabbed in the gut.
- Douglas is stabbed in the throat.
TL;DR: The Fan is all over the place, but it's a delightful combination of sleazy and classy.
Word Count: 1191