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Retro Review: THE FAN (1981)

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THE FAN
(US - 1981)

Directed by Edward Bianchi. Written by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell. Cast: Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Maureen Stapleton, Hector Elizondo, Michael Biehn, Anna Maria Horsford, Kurt Johnson, Feiga Martinez, Dwight Schultz, Reed Jones, Charles Blackwell, Dana Delany, Griffin Dunne, Terence Marinan, Lesley Rogers, Robert Weil. (R, 95 mins)

"Can there be more than one 'worst-picture-I-ever-made?'" - James Garner on 1981's THE FAN in his memoir The Garner Files, two pages after declaring 1966's MISTER BUDDWING the worst picture he ever made. 

It's a pretty safe bet that during the glory days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Lauren Bacall never envisioned herself decades later starring in a trashy slasher movie where the killer says "How would you like to be fucked with a meat cleaver?" That line is one of the more memorable elements of THE FAN, which opened in the spring of 1981 to almost unanimous pans from critics before making a quick exit from theaters. It didn't help that Bacall openly trashed it during the press junket, saying that the end result bore little resemblance to the original script she was given, but it was also plagued by bad timing, with its story of a legendary movie star being stalked by a crazed fan maybe not sounding like a fun night at the movies and coming off as a little too queasily exploitative just six months after the December 1980 murder of John Lennon by deranged fan Mark David Chapman. History would repeat itself to a certain extent in 1982 when both THE SEDUCTION (news anchor Morgan Fairchild is stalked by psycho fan Andrew Stevens) and VISITING HOURS (news anchor Lee Grant is stalked by psycho fan Michael Ironside) both underperformed at the box office around the same time that RAGING BULL co-star Theresa Saldana miraculously survived being stabbed nearly a dozen times in broad daylight by an obsessed fan. THE FAN does allow Bacall to indulge her passion at the time--she was only sporadically acting on the big screen by this point, with her primary focus being Broadway and live theater, which earned her a Tony for APPLAUSE in 1970 and would win her another for WOMAN OF THE YEAR later in 1981--but it's also a product of its era. And with the success of slasher films like HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH, and the controversial buzz around Brian De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL (the latter two hitting theaters while THE FAN was in production), concessions had to made to the trends of the day. Producer Robert Stigwood, then riding high on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE, wasn't seeing eye-to-eye with director Waris Hussein (THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY), the latter wanting the more traditional psychological thriller approach that drew Bacall to the project.






After clashing with Stigwood and Paramount execs over their demand for more shock value, violence and gore, Hussein exited during pre-production (he either quit or was fired, depending on who's telling the story), and Stigwood brought in an unlikely replacement in rookie Edward Bianchi, who was already developing a sequel to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, a gig he landed because Stigwood was impressed with some Dr. Pepper commercials that he directed. Bianchi was pulled off of the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER sequel (which was eventually made in 1983 by Sylvester Stallone as STAYING ALIVE) and handed THE FAN, a production that was already troubled long before its star, tough as nails and not one to suffer fools gladly, became increasingly surly when she realized the movie that was being made wasn't going to be the one for which she signed on.


Based on a 1978 novel by Bob Randall, THE FAN, just out in an extras-packed Blu-ray from Scream Factory because physical media is dead, stars a perfectly-cast Bacall as Sally Ross, an aging Hollywood actress who's in NYC to begin rehearsals for a high-profile Broadway musical. She's also trying to patch things up with her ex-husband Jake Berman (James Garner), a director who's in town working on his latest movie and has already hooked up with a much-younger ingenue. She's got enough going on that her loyal assistant Belle (Maureen Stapleton) hasn't alerted her to the disturbing and increasingly threatening and sexually explicit letters being sent by an obsessed fan named Douglas. The fan is Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn, three years before THE TERMINATOR), a weirdo who alienates his co-workers (including a young Dana Delany in her first movie) in a record store and spends his free time having imaginary candlelit dinners with Sally in his apartment, which has become a shrine to the star. He makes it very clear in his letters that he is the perfect lover for Sally ("I have all the necessary equipment to make you very, very happy"), that no one loves her as much as he does, and that nothing will stop them from being together. Belle writes back and basically tells him to get lost, and an offended Douglas follows Belle from the rehearsal studio to the subway, where he attacks her with a straight razor. Belle survives but can't give much useful information to Andrews (Hector Elizondo), the detective on the case. Enraged that Sally is ignoring him, Douglas breaks into her apartment while she's at rehearsal and kills her maid, prompting Sally to take a leave of absence from the show and hole up at her secluded beach house. Douglas then fakes his own death after cruising in a gay bar, killing his similarly-built hookup, leaving a suicide note, and burning the body beyond recognition to make the police close the case and to give Sally a false sense of security to return to the production, where he is determined to be with her the night of the show's triumphant debut.


Buoyed by one of Pino Donaggio's most Pino Donaggio-esque scores, THE FAN is really busting its ass to be DRESSED TO KILL II, but Edward Bianchi is no Brian De Palma. He does alright for a first-time director dealing with a diva who was unhappy throughout the shoot, but THE FAN simply doesn't have the stylized verve and panache to compete with anything De Palma was doing at the time. Two big suspense set pieces are pulled off in bland fashion by Bianchi, and one wonders what De Palma could've done with the subway stalking and razor-slashing of Belle, or the YMCA swimming pool murder where Douglas kills Sally's co-star (Kurt Johnson), by swimming underneath him and holding up a knife that slices him open as he passes above. Bianchi, now 77 and looking at least a decade younger in an interview on the Blu-ray, toiled in relative anonymity until the 2000s (his only other feature film to date is the 1991 straight-to-video Cyndi Lauper comedy OFF AND RUNNING), when he became one of cable TV's busiest directors on shows like THE WIRE, DEADWOOD, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE. He's still active, most recently helming episodes of GET SHORTY, CITY ON A HILL, and YELLOWSTONE. Biehn, then largely unknown with a couple of movie credits (the comedies COACH and HOG WILD), acquits himself as well as he can in a role that doesn't give him much to do other than look and act like a total creep, while Garner, fresh off a six-season run on THE ROCKFORD FILES, seems to be coasting through in a minor supporting role just to hang out with good friend Bacall. He's so inconsequential to anything that happens that he seems to actually show himself out of the movie along with Stapleton and Elizondo after Sally's performance and is never seen again. This was Garner and Bacall's third project together in as many years, after she guest-starred on a two-part ROCKFORD FILES in 1979 and they co-starred in Robert Altman's little-seen 1980 comedy HEALTH. The pair were rumored to be an item over 1979 and 1980 while Garner was separated from his wife Lois, with whom he eventually reconciled and remained with until his death at 86 in July 2014, a month before Bacall passed at 89.


But for better or worse and whether she liked it or not, THE FAN is Bacall's movie, and a good chunk of the third act devoted to the premiere of the elaborate stage production, complete with her singing the Razzie-nominated Marvin Hamlisch/Tim Rice composition "Hearts, Not Diamonds," seems to be a move to placate her to some degree. The end result is a compromise that satisfied no one--it's too trashy and sleazy to appeal to older moviegoers who followed Bacall since her days with Bogie in the 1940s, those who liked Garner on TV, or those who wanted an old-fashioned Hitchcockian thriller, but it wasn't over-the-top enough to appease the young gorehounds looking for the next FRIDAY THE 13TH. THE FAN was eventually embraced as a cult movie by the gay community for its camp value, particularly all the time devoted to the truly bizarre Broadway production, which at times makes it feel like what might've happened if Bob Fosse made a slasher movie.




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