The Fan (1981) Blu-ray Review: Bloody ’80s Stalking Thriller

The Fan was made in 1981. It’s about a deranged man who kills people. He uses a special weapon to do so…and yet, somehow it is not a cheap, cheesy slasher movie. This is against all odds (and apparently against the film’s best efforts). A psychopath obsessed with a woman in the early ’80s by all cinematic law should defy laws of physics, find new and interesting ways to kill all his victims, and should be implacable, speak no dialogue, and have a catchy name in case we need The Fan II.

Instead, The Fan becomes an often interesting, if not entirely original, thriller about a movie fan who takes his obsession too far, and decides nothing should stand in the way between himself and the object of his affection. What makes the movie both interesting and a missed opportunity is that this object is Lauren Bacall, and that when the movie was made she was in her mid-50s. Clearly, the titular Fan is not a normal person, or even a “normal” stalker. He’s not reading Catcher in the Rye and following Jodie Foster. He’s caught in a sort of temporal storm, cut outside of his own time. Sadly, the movie never addressees this.

We begin with a letter from the fan. He expresses his undying love for Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) and says he’s not a normal, ridiculous sort of fan who doesn’t understand his place. No, he knows they have a special relationship and apparently Miss Ross’s secretary doesn’t understand this, because she didn’t send a current photograph in her latest correspondence.

What the heck the relationship Mr. Fan, Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), imagines between himself and Sally is ambiguous. When she’s signing autographs outside of a dressing room, a woman runs off with her pen. A block later, Douglas knocks the woman down, and takes the pen for himself. But when he receives replies to his letter only from Ross’s secretary, he begins to feel slighted.

Where did Douglas’s obsession with Ross begin? Where is it rooted, and how did it seemingly take over his life? These are the sort of questions the movie should be asking but instead, we spend most of our time with Sally. She’s doing a musical for the first time in her life, she has anxiety that her ex Jake (played with effortless charm by James Garner) is getting married to a younger woman, and she doesn’t give a damn about some weirdo’s fan letters.

Until that weirdo slashes up her secretary’s face in the subway and leaves her for dead. Cuts open the belly of her dance partner in a swimming pool. And eventually kills one of her staff in her apartment to show Sally how easily she can be reached since she doesn’t have the decency of writing a single letter back.

Ross reacts sensibly – she gets police protection, and eventually runs away to a cabin that only she knows about. We get the sense of her dread at this obsessive attention and I think it’s in this focus that the movie makes its mistake. Being terrified at being the unwilling object of obsession something people can relate to. Maybe we can’t all relate to being a celebrity, but it still makes sense.

But there’s a disconnect here, because there isn’t a real personal connection between Douglas and Ross, there’s an imagined one. And so the interest in the story lies not with the victim, who is understandably stressed, but with the perpetrator. Where does his obsession come from? What are the origins of his bizarre sense of connection, his eventually murderous need? We don’t know. I don’t get the sense that he rightly knows. There’s a single scene where his sister tries to talk to him, but he says he’s having dinner with an actress. One of Ross’s old movies is on TV that night.

It’s the beginning of an explanation, but not nearly enough of one to justify any interest in his murderous plight. None of which to say the movie is bad, or dull, or disinteresting. Lauren Bacall is arresting as Sally Ross, who may be getting up in years but sure as hell isn’t going to act like it. And there are fun actors in small roles: Dwight Schultz (Maddog from The A-Team) as the Ross’s musical play’s director, or Hector Elizondo as a police detective who begins to develop a crush on Ross.

It was the feature directorial debut for Ed Bianchi, who would later become primarily a TV director, working on shows like Dead Wood and The WireThe Fan is rather assured in its footing, feeling like it has one foot in the ’70s more naturalistic cinema while leaning into the stylization that would be more pronounced at the ’80s wore on. While apparently the story had been retooled while being made to be more of a slasher movie than a proper thriller (and the trailer certainly sells that), it doesn’t have the tonal problems one would expect from such a change. Partially that’s because the murder scenes aren’t really slasher scenes – while bloody, they don’t have the gore factor that would become more and more prevalent as that genre became more codified. That didn’t stop Lauren Bacall from complaining after the movie was released that it was far bloodier than the script she’d agreed to do, though.

But as well-appointed and acted and interesting as The Fan is, it doesn’t ultimately add up to much. There’s too much of a black hole where the titular fan is concerned. I don’t want some ridiculous “one scene from his past that explains it all” but I need something. Sally Ross may not care why this weirdo is chasing after her, but that’s why I’m watching the movie: to gain some understanding which could heighten the thrills, and the tension. And it’s not all there.

The Fan has been released on Blu-ray by Scream! Factory. Extras on the disc include a commentary track by cult film director David DeCoteau and film historian David Del Valle, and a set of video extras: “Number One Fan” (26 mins), an Interview with actor Michael Biehn; “Fan Service”, (39 mins), an Interview with director Edward Bianchi, and “Fanning The Flames”, (19 mins), an Interview with editor Alan Heim. There’s also a trailer, TV spots, and a still gallery.

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Kent Conrad

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