The Fan (1981) stars Humphrey Bogart’s (1899-1957 throat cancer) widow Lauren Bacall (1924-2014 massive stroke) well past her prime but worthy of the attention of a fan – like me!
Released by Paramount Studios and produced by Robert Stigwood (1934-2016) who had incredible success with Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) along with their soundtracks, Stigwood would never recapture the glorious success of those two movies.
What followed were a small string of flops which included Moment to Moment (1978) with John Travolta and Lily Tomlin, the musical extravaganza Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and lesbian favourite and “buddy” movie Times Square (1980).
In there somewhere the quality slasher pic The Fan followed and along with Bacall, a quality cast includes James Garner (1928-2014 massive heart attack) and multiple Oscar nominee Maureen Stapleton (1925-2006 emphysema). Actor Michael Biehn (1956-), once the lust object of many a female viewer, plays the villain – the fan of the title.
Biehn can of course be remembered by sci-fi fans as one of the stars of the original The Terminator (1984), James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989). He went on to marry a few times and raise sons.
The Fan is Biehn’s first major role as Douglas Breen the stalker who lives in a world of his own. I’m sure the best ones do. So much so that Biehn will set the table in his small apartment and have imaginary dinners with Bacall… Why I only had dinner with Susan Sarandon the other night! I’m kidding!! It was just a cardboard cut-out of Susan Sarandon!!! Tee hee.
Bacall is basically playing herself as a former 1940s and beyond movie star who now does Broadway. She is divorced from the character played by James Garner who is also big in the business.
“How is little red riding hood?,” asks Bacall of Garner’s latest young lover, lighting a cigarette. Bacall gave up the cigarettes at 65, which is why she almost made it to ninety. She would be about 56 in this movie and her heavy lidded persona with the husky voice is intact and still a little sexy.
Biehn works begrudgingly in a record store and he would rather watch Bacall in a late night movie than go and see the latest band with fellow workers. He’s not popular, and no wonder, since he isn’t really a terribly nice guy. He is a man out of place, alienated from the world, kept only in touch with reality by arguments at work and pounding out fan mail on his typewriter to Bacall.
“Right now I’m having dinner with a very famous actress… A great star of stage and screen,” says Biehn as his sister pounds on his locked front door.
“Here’s to us,” toasts Biehn. And I thought I had problems!
The Fan was shot around the time of John Lennon’s (1940-80 assassin’s bullet) killing by an obsessed fan and so it copped a lot of flak upon its release. The fact Bacall also lived in the Dakota building where Lennon was slain at some stage also didn’t help matters and as a result the film didn’t set the box office on fire and only collected about a third of its nine million dollar budget.
There was also John Hinckley Jr’s stalking of Jodie Foster and his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The Fan came out some six weeks after this attempt. And the murder of actress Dorothy Stratton (1960-80 shotgun blast) was also fresh in the public’s mind. The public weren’t about to spend money on something remotely to do with a stalker, although the fact the film made about three million at the box office shows there was and always will be a hard-core audience out there.
The source novel by writer Bob Randall (1937-95) won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. Its adaptation to the screen was by someone named Priscilla Chapman, who did nothing else apparently, along with John Hartwell who only ever had one other credit when it came to movies as well.
The Fan did no-one any favours although director Edward Bianchi would have far more success on television years later directing such shows as Boardwalk Empire (2011-14) and the earlier Deadwood (2004-06) but his movie career fizzled after this one.
“We’ve had lots of weirdos,” says Bacall about her fans to her secretary played by Stapleton. “All these people have fantasies.”
Stapleton wonders if she should make sexual appointments for Bacall with her fans. Interesting is the fact that Stapleton won an Oscar for Reds (1981) the same year The Fan was made and that the characters in both films have the last name Goldman.
The film seemed to be perfect casting for Bacall as she had success in the 1970s on Broadway with shows such as Applause and – at the time of this film – Woman of the Year. After you see her singing the big number of the film entitled Hearts Not Diamonds, written by Tim Rice (1944-) and Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012 collapsed and died), you may see why it was nominated for a Razzie for worst song.
Not being too critical of Bacall’s warbling, but the use of Andy Williams’ (1927-2012 bladder cancer) voice to dub Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946) was correct. I guess big stars can get away with anything and Bacall’s stage singing was always well received in the latter part of her career.
As the movie progresses, Stapleton’s character is slashed by a straight razor for sending and unkind reply to one of Biehn’s requests.
But back to the Broadway element of The Fan, and it is that part of the film which lets it down a little I think. Personally, I would have liked to see the entire cast murdered for their boring renditions of hackneyed stage numbers. If you agree with me, and now I’m sounding like one of Biehn’s nasty letters, please watch the Italian slasher Stage Fright (1987) directed by Michele Soavi (1957-) where actors locked in a theatre are knocked off by a killer one by one. It’s definitely one of Soavi’s best movies and isn’t “camp” which is something that sends The Fan a little off kilter.
However, it is that secluded and elite family of show business and the world of the stage and Hollywood as opposed to the drudgery of working day to day just to pay the rent in a job you don’t like which is shown. It also shows that both Bacall and Biehn are each living in a fool’s paradise. That people watch horror as a relief to their everyday lives is not surprising. That people perform horror because of their everyday lives is not surprising either and it’s going to get worse as drugs and the gap between rich and poor worsens. But then the world might just turn around… But I’m raving at my keyboard like Biehn on his typewriter…
Biehn, having scarred Stapleton for life by slashing her face, goes to Bacall’s apartment, this time killing her maid with the razor.
“Dearest bitch, I have exhausted myself trying to think of the perfect way to kill you,” we hear Biehn’s narration upon the body being discovered.
In fact the novel was told in “letter” style with the various characters sending each other letters. No wonder it won an award.
Bacall then isolates herself with cigarettes and whiskey while Biehn picks up an unsuspecting soul at a gay bar, takes him to a rooftop and sets fire to him with gasoline after slashing his throat.
With it’s “camp” Broadway setting and an almost homophobic killing, it’s hard to know which audience the producers had in mind. I know Stigwood was gay.
Anyway director Bianchi does a slick job with the images in The Fan and it is not surprising he directed hundreds of commercials and won countless awards before taking on this project.
It is said the original star of the film was meant to be Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2001 heart failure) but she dropped out while Shirley MacLaine (1934-) was considered along with Anne Bancroft (1931-2005 uterine cancer). They made the right choice with Bacall as she is the grandest of movie dames among them. If you want to see a horror with Taylor grab a copy of Night Watch (1973) although that isn’t a slasher in the strictest sense. Yes I prefer to whistle for Bacall.
Bacall apparently looked back on the film with distaste over the slasher elements… but since she was Broadway royalty at the time and because of the stigma over the film’s release, it is not surprising.
Meanwhile Garner’s role is wasted, as he is not called upon to contribute any action duties, or pass out dry lines. When he stands around Bacall’s dressing room in the latter part of the film wearing a black tuxedo and bow tie, it is obviously the scene which inspired the black and white poster used to promote the film. The poster has us imagine the white shirt through the buttoned tuxedo as a sharp blade.
This is probably the crux of the film as Garner presses himself against Bacall benignly with the tux just before the opening night of her new musical where Biehn is in the audience dressed in a similar tux but with malevolent intentions with a blade.
“Inaccessibly not a bit,” sings Bacall, ironically, in one of those 1980s numbers, followed by the lyric: “Don’t come to my apartment unless you’re incredibly fit.”
Yes, it’s all a world of make believe on the stage while there really are murderers sitting in the audience.
As a slasher film, The Fan has a small body count but it doesn’t detract from what is a classy film made in the wake of films such as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) cleaning up at the box office.
The movie climaxes in the theatre long after the show is over and the audience and cast have gone home except for the star. Bacall’s new show is a triumph despite singing Hearts and bloody Diamonds. Killing the stage door guard, Biehn finally confronts Bacall…
The actress may have had her day in the 1940s and 50s. I think she is at her most beautiful in her wholesome role in Key Largo (1948). It’s great she has a slasher on her resume after such a long line of ageing stars beginning with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).
Its score by Pino Donaggio sounds like a cross between a Bernard Herrmann (1911-75 heart attack) Alfred Hitchcock score and one by Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini (1943-). So don’t underestimate the influence of that slasher.
I guess The Fan is an artificial or theatrical slasher movie, a glossy one that with its musical backdrop is the antithesis of the Grand Guignol, that type of theatre from the 19th century that specialised in gory horror shows… And The Fan is the final graduation to freedom from the theatre to a more broader and forever bloodier scale. It’s like the production of The Fan is almost legit or meant for the mainstream. Certainly as a stalker movie it is the ultimate coming out party in the history of the genre, certainly in terms of its relationship to reality.
And as Biehn goes to kill Bacall in the stalls of the empty theatre the final irony of the stalkers and their murder or attempted murders predicted by this screenplay – it was written before Lennon’s murder – comes into effect.
“I’m going to miss you too,” says Bacall in her last line in the film, killing Biehn with his own razor. Then there is the voice-over of her “greatest fan” as he reads another letter to her saying if there really is a soul, which is the basis of all life, then “you are my soul”.
Is that the reason why Biehn hesitates as he is about to kill Bacall? He wouldn’t kill the soul he sees as his own. It was love, what more can I say? Bloody narcissists, they’re everywhere, even in my mirror!
Yes, I’m a fan of The Fan rather than the fan in The Fan. Paramount Pictures, cashed up with money from their co-production of Friday the 13th thought they’d go first class and run with the slasher ball as it gathered speed back in the early 1980s. They forgot that people with taste would rather see something like On Golden Pond or Raiders of the Lost Ark, which were big that year. Especially after Reagan’s shooting. One wouldn’t see such a movie… Yet a few weeks after The Fan was released, the far more gory An American Werewolf in London hit box office gold. The Howling was a hit later that year too (all 1981). Dog-gone-it!