31 Days to Scare ~ The Fan (1981)


The Facts:

Synopsis: An obsessive fan of actress Sally Ross strikes out at her and her loved ones when his fan letters are rejected.

Stars: Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Maureen Stapleton, Hector Elizondo, Michael Biehn, Anna Maria Horsford

Director: Ed Bianchi

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I don’t think the words ‘tacky’ and ‘Lauren Bacall’ have ever been used in the same sentence…until now. Yes, the legendary star really slummed it up with this misguided effort from 1981 that unfortunately was released several weeks after the murder of John Lennon outside of his apartment building in New York.  Also set in the Big Apple, The Fan suffered not only from bad timing but a general lack of good taste, turning what Bacall thought would be a stylish thriller into a gruesome slasher film.

So why does it pop up in my 31 Days to Scare?  Well, because for all of its wrong-headedness it has some decent passages and winds up being a helluva good showcase for Bacall (Murder on the Orient Express).  The luminous screen siren doesn’t just elevate the screen adaptation of Bob Randall’s novel, she sets a fuse under it and lets it rocket up to the heavens.  It’s total trash but in the hands of its leading lady it’s classy trash.

Sally Ross has a fan and he’s different than the rest.  Over a prolonged credit sequence ominously scored by Pino Donaggio (Carrie) that feels like director Ed Bianchi was auditioning to direct the opening of Masterpiece Theater, Douglas (Michael Biehn, The Abyss) narrates his letter to Sally as he types.  He’s her biggest fan but wants nothing from her…except for a new picture autographed to him.  When he feels like Sally’s secretary (Maureen Stapleton, Heartburn) isn’t giving him the attention he deserves by forwarding his correspondence to his admired star, he becomes increasingly unhinged.  If she won’t respond to his letters, maybe she’ll respond to his violent actions against her friends and co-workers on the new Broadway musical she’s rehearsing.

Working with a straight razor, Douglas slices his way through a lot of people until setting his sights on the star herself.  There’s some pretty ghastly violence toward women and a stomach turning killing of a gay man Biehn picks up as part of his plan, all apparently added without Bacall’s knowledge. Whatever tension could have been built is dried up by the time the finale rolls around, with Bacall and Biehn acting out a scene that feels inspired by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a darkened theater.

Bacall makes mincemeat out of anyone that dares to share the frame with her.  Second billed James Garner (Maverick) shows up in a glorified cameo as her ex-husband that still has feelings for her and Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman) is the policeman assigned to her case that screenwriters Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell awkwardly try to make a romantic rival for Garner’s attentions.  Biehn was criticized for being less than threatening but his good looks and internal rage ready to boil over actually works well for his psycho patron.

The scariest thing about the movie are the musical numbers staged by Arlene Phillips with music by Oscar-winner Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics from Tim Rice.  Bacall had triumphed on Broadway ten years earlier with Applause, a musical version of All About Eve and was currently finishing up a run in Woman of the Year in NYC so she’s more than comfortable with the singing (even though you may not be) but man, is this music bad.  The climax of the movie comes when Bacall warbles Hamlisch and Rice’s ‘Hearts, Not Diamonds’ to an opening night crowd while her biggest fan (arriving late…why would he miss the first act?) stalks her from the audience.  The music, the dancing, the singing, the costumes, the set…it’s surreally terrible.

The memory we’re left with is Bacall, who wouldn’t appear in another movie for almost a decade after The Fan bombed at the box office and was trounced by critics. Essentially playing a version of herself, it was a rare chance to see an honest to goodness movie star that went to Broadway playing an honest to goodness movie star on Broadway.  Wisely not letting Stapleton steal too much screen time from her (Stapleton would win an Oscar for Reds the same year), Bacall owns the film and unfortunately shouldered the blame for its failure.

See The Fan for her performance but remember you were warned.

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