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HAVE YOU HEARD OF… THE FAN (1981)

Have You Heard Of… returns, and Ronnie Oz presents his musings on The Fan (1981) starring Lauren Bacall, James Garner and Michael Biehn.
** The following review was originally posted by Ronnie Oz on his own page, Movie Gems: facebook.com/moviegemsbyronnie **

Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is all smiles as she signs autographs, little realising she's soon to become the target of an obsessive stalker

Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is all smiles as she signs autographs, little realising she’s soon to become the target of an obsessive stalker

It is well-known to movie buffs and serious students of film that a great movie released at the “wrong time” can sink at the box office. The Fan is by no means a great movie, but it is certainly not as bad or as forgettable as some critics have painted it. It is certainly true that The Fan is one of those movies that has fallen into the crack of film oblivion… and this is a shame as it does have many laudable elements as a cinematic piece.
The film was released during a time when there was a massive glut of slashers, particularly popular with teen and young adult audiences. Consequently, The Fan was competing with other much better-made slashers at the time, but that was not the reason for its quick cinematic demise. It was the timing above all else which made the film extremely controversial.
The Fan is basically about a young deranged stalker, completely and utterly obsessed with a celebrity, an older woman who happens to be a Broadway star. At the time of the film’s release, the Imdb states that there had been a “recent number of stalkings, harassment, shootings and even assassinations of celebrities”. Stars at the time who had become victims of fan obsession included Jodie Foster, Jane Seymour, Larry Hagman, Persis Khambatta and Jacqueline Bisset. The Pope and Ronald Reagan had been shot at, whilst Sharon Tate, Dorothy Stratten and John Lennon all had been homicides. Paul Wilson covered The Fan in England’s Photoplay magazine, stating: ‘When The Fan was released in America there was, not unnaturally, a public outcry for it echoes the killing of John Lennon. The film company put out a statement denying this, but the parallels are certainly there . . . is there any wonder, then, why there’s been an outcry over The Fan?'”

Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn) has an obsession with Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) which is about to spill over into violence.

Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn) has an obsession with Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) which is about to spill over into violence.

Consequently the timing was certainly not right for the film. Besides this, it is very unusual for a slasher thriller: for example, it includes several musical dance numbers, while a stage musical serves as one of the story elements. As the film was produced by Robert Stigwood – known for his musical films such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Grease (1978) – the injection of a musical theme into The Fan is really no big surprise.
Negatives (the release timing and mixed style) aside, The Fan is still a very interesting piece of cinema due to the strength of its storyline and the performances overall. In many ways, the film is an interesting character study of two disparate souls living in two very different “worlds” who are forced to interact due to the psychosis of one of them.
Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn) is a loner, a salesman in a record shop, and a devoted fan of the actress Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall). But his devotion has become obsession as he continuously writes her gleaming love letters. However, the only responses he gets are formal replies sent by Sally’s personal assistant, Belle Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). Feeling rejected but still wanting to be intimately involved with his idol, Douglas strikes out and attempts to get rid of all those who stand in his way: Sally’s employees, friends and co-workers.

Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) gets stern as she realises her safety is in jeopardy.

Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) gets stern as she realises her safety is in jeopardy.

There are some interesting cinematic elements to the piece. The background score is intriguing; the jumping back and forth between the very disparate “worlds” of the star and her stalker are effective; and there are a few genuinely good scare moments too. The camera movement and shot angles are creative, and these aspects are particularly powerful in the film’s finale when star and stalker meet in an empty theatre.
Bacall is all class as Sally Ross and puts in a great performance. Her character is rehearsing for her first Broadway musical and she is understandably nervous. Sally is not sure she can sing or dance well enough and is questioning her wisdom in taking the Broadway role. She is a complex character: self-centred, short-tempered, lonely and in constant need of reassurance. Bacall conveys all these qualities beautifully on screen, as well as showing us the steely strength of her character when the situation demands it. All up, Bacall makes Sally a most engaging screen presence.

Douglas (Michael Biehn) captures Sally (Lauren Bacall). Is it curtains for the endangered celebrity?

Douglas (Michael Biehn) captures Sally (Lauren Bacall). Is it curtains for the endangered celebrity?

Stapleton as the personal assistant and James Garner (as Sally’s ex-husband, Jake Berman) are also both excellent in their supporting roles. However, the most praise must be heaped on Michael Biehn for his performance as the crazed stalker. He does not have a lot of dialogue in the piece, but he is still able to convey the psychosis and menacing presence of the character by his movements, vocal intonations and facial expressions. Biehn is great in this role because, though we find his violent actions despicable and his celebrity obsession incomprehensible (Sally Ross is much older than him!), Biehn is able at times to make us feel real pity for his character.
The film is certainly not without its flaws: the sub-plot (concerning the on again-off again relationship between Sally and ex-husband Jake) is a tad distracting, and Sally’s “flirting” with the chief cop on the case doesn’t go anywhere. As well the love and devotion by a young, fresh-faced boy for a much older woman is not that easy too comprehend; even Douglas’ sexuality is ambiguous as evidenced by particular events that unfold as the story progresses.

Theatrical poster for The Fan (1981)

Theatrical poster for The Fan (1981)

Overall The Fan is not a perfect film but it is still an engaging and entertaining one. The fact that it is a very different kind of slasher (one of a kind, really), and the presence of both a mature Bacall and a young Biehn, make it a very worthwhile watch.
MoM Rating: 8/10

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