Saturday, October 31, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Parasocial relationship

Halloween might be cancelled, but it's still October, and that means it's time again for the peanut butter and chocolate we call The Switcheroo, with Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture and Alternate Ending doing my weird, gross, nostalgic 1950s sci-fi thing for a spell, whilst I do some nice, wholesome slashers from the brightest days of the 1980s.


Directed by Ed Bianchi
Written by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartman

Spoiler alert: moderate

The Fan
 is classy, and that's both its best reason for existing, and maybe its downfall.  It's the kind of slasher that makes you wait over an hour before a kill is confirmed (it makes you wait about forty minutes before the first act of overt violence is even committed).  It fancies itself to be about mood, and charactersgoodness, maybe even real themes and issues.  But it doesn't just suppose itself to be classy.  It genuinely is.  It was a real A production, in fact, with the kind of budget that if (say) Tom Savini had gotten ahold of it, he'd probably have come up with stuff so convincing and obscene that it would've had the production investigated for actual murder.  (I believe its $9 million budget makes it the priciest slasher of the whole decade.)  Anyway, Dick Smith is no joke on makeup himselfwell, usuallybut I can't imagine a lot of that money went to him here.  It's not that kind of movie.

Presumably, that budget instead went to securing a lot more A talent besides just a makeup artist they barely bothered using.  It was shot by Dick Bush.  It was scored by Pino Donaggio.  I've buried the lede: it stars Lauren Bacall.  For that matter, it co-stars James Garner, and even small supporting roles are often filled out by recognizable faces, like Hector Elizondo and Maureen Stapletoneven Griffin Dunne's here, for some reason, and I wasn't just imagining him like a common American werewolf.  The villain is Michael Biehn, which, fair, would only mean something a little later (is Halloween "classy" because of Jamie Lee Curtis? a little bit more than it would be otherwise).  It had a music budget too.  It was produced by Robert Stigwood, of Grease and Saturday Night Fever fame, and so, besides the novelty of at least one recognizable pop song, it has original songs, by Maurice fucking Hamlisch and Tim fucking Rice.  Are we even sure it's a slasher?  It is, and takes forever to prove it, but to the extent the film has a thesis, it's to lock 1980s slasher sleaze and Old Hollywood class in a cage together, to see what happens when they fight.

It does not prosecute this thesis all that well, unfortunately.  Often, it doesn't seem entirely conscious of it, and maybe that's what happens when you get Bush, Donaggio, Bacall, Garner, et al, et al, and put them all under a first-time director who is known solely for this very film, i.e. for the movie easily confused with other movies by the same title, particularly the Robert De Niro one, which seems correct, since The Fan is effectively The King of Comedy without the commentary.  But that thesis does come out in extremis, particularly in a final girl ("girl") sequence that's pretty shit in every other regard but nevertheless concludes with an unforgettably steely Bacall, standing in for a whole vanished cinematic culture, daring her nemesis to go ahead and strike her down, because she's already achieved the immortality her enemy could only dream about.  It did not keep Bacall from thinking the movie was trash, however, not that it's really worlds away in substance from the pictures that made her name.  It probably just seems that way because they were old and she was young.  Oh, and nobody got their throat slit while giving somebody head in them.  So, "classy" in scarequotes, maybe.

The Fan, then, revolves around the obsessions of an increasingly-unstable young man, Douglas Breen (Biehn), whose love for old movies has gone a little overboard.  The focus for his love is one Golden Age actress in particular, Sally Ross (Bacall), whose Hollywood heydey was thirty years ago, but who's kept herself at least somewhat busy as she explores the other side of middle age.  She's living in New York now, alone as a result of her divorce from fellow actor Jake Berman (Garner), and attended mostly by just her put-upon secretary, Belle (Stapleton).  Nonetheless, Sally was big enough she can still be sought after, not least by the producers of a stage musical that we don't get a lot of details about, though it appears to be a bit of camp about an aging sex symbol still having it.  Lately, Douglas has taken to sending his idol lettersvery explicit letters, and letters that, obviously, she never reads in the first place (that's Belle's job)but Douglas takes exception to such hands-off treatment, because, after all, he's not a fan, he's the fan.  He loves Sally, and they are meant to be together.  It's not that long (in geological terms, it's an eyeblink!) before Douglas decides to make his existence much harder to ignore, and the first to be punished is the secretary who was so rude to him in her replies.  Mangling the poor woman with a straight razor, now begins Douglas's reign of terror against everyone standing between his and Sally's destinythough when he finally arrives upon the object of his affections, who knows what horrible things he'll do to her.

This escalates naturally.  By this I mean it escalates slowly, and it's easy to imagine that somebody fancied this a psychological study.  In theory, Douglas Breen is one of those vanishingly rare slasher psychos, who doesn't start out fully formed as an agent of terror; certainly, part of the class-adjacent tone that The Fan attempts to strike is how it follows its villain as he gets worse.  In reality, there is nothing but inevitability to Douglasthe creepy stalker monotone that Biehn uses to narrate Douglas's latest letter over the opening credits is pretty much his whole performance (a bit of a disappointment coming from Biehn, to be honest), though there's something to be said for Biehn maintaining very nearly the same loopy, inhuman cadence as his letters shift from (comparatively) respectful erotic fanfic to "Dear bitch, see how accessible you are?  How would you like to be fucked with a meat cleaver?"  It allows for a certain suspense, as Sally and company go about their fairly undramatic business.  But mostly it just feels like a movie biding its time for no reason at all, since it definitely isn't biding its time in order to get us inside Douglas's head.

On the bright side, that time also allows The Fan to be a pretty decent hang-out movie with Lauren Bacall, or at least the vaguely-defined "Sally Ross," whom the film suggests you assume is basically a version of Bacall who wasn't widowed at 32, and didn't then subsequently marry a drunk (rather, she married a philanderer), but is otherwise much the same, including decamping back to NYC and plying her trade there on the stage.  Sally's movie is significantly more psychologically engaging than Douglas's movie (it is, by default, probably the most humane story a movie labeled "slasher" ever told), and Sally's movie's all about an aging actress really coming to feel her years and wondering where the good times have gone.

Bacall in particular is even giving a modestly great performance, if not necessarily the most committed one.  (I suspect the 57 year old could still run, but evidently not for a movie about being chased by a guy with a knife.)  Still, Bacall does a hell of lot to ground her fictional stand-in with deep history and real personality, investing Sally with not just a keen sense of loss and fatalistic pessimism, but resilience, good humor, and integrity, too.  Her scenes with Garner, in particular (who's slightly amazing himself at creating a character out of about five scenes, all of which he's playing second fiddle), do a genuinely fantastic job of unsentimentally capturing a certain type of relationship, less a romance than the low-key affection between a pair of broken-down old folks who miss each other terribly, but mostly because they didn't hurt each other too bad, and they want someone to die with.  Altogether, it's a terrifically lived-in ensemble, from Bacall to Garner to Stapletonwhose querulous relationship with her boss is the closest thing the movie's got to comic reliefand even all the way down to Elizondo, as the detective Sally likes because he doesn't lie to her about her chances.

That leaves a film that's unique and even successful, but not always that exciting.  In part, that's thanks to Bianchi, who assembled an incredible crew to go along with that incredible cast, and extracts from them mostly anonymous work.  Decent work: Bush's cinematography, while on autopilot, manages several memorable images (including one great shot that feels like it's out of another movie altogether: a visually abstract overhead shot of Biehn sitting on a bench in a giant plaza completely and inexplicably filled with benches).  Meanwhile, it's possible that Donaggio just doesn't do bad scores, and even if this one's a second-tier echo of the kind of music he was doing for De Palma (and a second-tier echo of the Jaws theme, for some reason), it has the same mournful quality that made De Palma's trashy movies seem classier than they were, too, so that besides Bacall I think Donaggio is doing the heaviest lifting in the attempt to "elevate" the material.  (Given that Douglas's weapon of choice is likewise a straight razor, I suspect The Fan is taking a lot of its cues from Dressed To Kill; and the movie is, of course, at most just a half-day's rewrite away from Douglas obsessed with being Sally rather than just being with Sally.  Potentially, we'd have a more memorable movie if he were.)

But there's a lack of rhythm to upwards of the first forty-five minutes of the film, a shapelessness that does it no favors, and that feeling is never completely banished.  It speaks to the aimlessly proficient quality of The Fan as a thriller that the most interesting thing about it visually turned out to be, probably, just an accident: Bush routinely shoots Bacall's singles in softer light and with pronounced diffusiongiving her a slightly-shimmering appearance, that is, doing exactly what a 1940s cinematographer would do to imbue a star with glamorand Bush seems to do this less and less as the story unfolds and things get darker, finally just shooting Bacall with pure, flat naturalism, letting blocky shadows mar her face (and emphasizing the shadows her face, at 57, would make of its own accord).  Which would be a neat, subtle storytelling deviceif it had any consistency to it, which it does not.  Similarly, the script is actually pretty full of 40s-style repartee, and it's fairly good, amusing stuff, that Bianchi lets sit there inside a sour early 80s aesthetic that tends to seep the life out of it; and again, it's not clear this is a choice.

Still: Bianchi gets better as he goes along, and at length The Fan finds something like a groove, though it still hasn't found it by the first attack.  It does find it with the second, which really does feel like somebody taking De Palma's lessons and applying them, with a spectacular little thriller setpiece involving that aforementioned straight-razor and a dip in the YMCA pool, which is terrifying in large part because Douglas has decided to take his victim in the middle of the day and in full view of dozens of people, but, even so, with every expectation of getting away with it.  (When Douglas fakes his death later, his acquisition of a body of similar build is accomplished with even more disorienting tension, because we have no idea, at first, what his plan is.)

Yet for all of its thriller bona fidesand there's still that final girl sequence to comeBianchi might not have wanted to do a slasher, and you half-wonder if the screenplay itself only has a slasher structure by accident.  (Despite the lavish setpieces, the majority of its kills are so perfunctory as to be contemptuous.)  And that leaves a film that can't ever be too much of a slasher, but can't be too much of damn near anything else, either: it can't really flesh out its drama the way it would obviously prefer; it can't so much as start to be a psychological thriller about a madman; and, obviously, it's not likely to be an actual musical.  (Though, oddly, "musical" is probably the one genre that it does do right by, with Sally's stageplay's garish lighting set-ups and even more garish costumes, not to mention Hamlisch and Rice's brassy showtunes.)  By the end, The Fan has done an awful lot of different things, and none of the results are truly unsatisfying, and yet you still exit somewhat wishing it had done them better.

Killer: Douglas Breen
Final Girl: Sally Ross
Best Kill: When Douglas goes swimming, he rakes his razor across the throat of Sally's young fancy man, David (Kurt Johnson), while the latter swims over him, whereupon David becomes a thrashing bloom of red spreading across the pool.  And, yep, I'm counting it, even though a line of dialogue indicates he didn't die.
Sign of the Times: People show the slightest interest in movies made before 1975
Scariest Moment: When the ADR misaligns with Bacall by like a solid second during a rehearsal, and you hope like hell that the actual musical numbers won't be like that
Weirdest Moment: I mean, what is this?  A park bench junkyard?  A park bench park?  Is it art?  Explain:

Champion Dialogue:
 "Look, how long have we been together?"  "Seven years.  I must be masochist."  "And I'm a spoiled bitch."  "One of the greatest."
Body Count: 5, including the killer, plus 2 aggravated assaults for some reason
1. Belle is slashed across the face
2. David is slashed in the pool
3. Elsa (Feiga Martinez) is cut on the boobs of her jacket, and presumably dies from something else offscreen
4. The poor fellow that Douglas cruises in a bar (Terence Marinan), and whom he plans on using to fake his death, has his throat cut while giving Douglas a blowjob
5. Hilda (Parker McCormick), Sally's costume designer, is stabbed
6. Pop (Robert Weil), Sally's stage manager, is stabbed
7. Douglas has his own blade forced into his neck by Sally
TL;DR: The Fan is a fairly effective backstage drama about an old actress and her ex-husband, and while it's very good for a slasher, or even just a thriller, to do something besides slashings and thrills, it does leave you wanting more.

Score: 6/10

2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)


  1. A note for Brennan: I am running late. Had a new law project start up, and for some reason chose this weekend to buy a house (admittedly, my girlfriend actually did most of that), but the big thing is one of my cats is sick and I've spent most of Halloween trying to figure out what's wrong with her, and so I haven't really even gotten this review into the shape I'd prefer. Still, the third one's forthcoming at some point in the near future.

  2. I've never quite been able to decide if this is a slasher dressed up as a "psychological thriller/adult drama" or the reverse. It's kinda a forerunner to those 90's thrillers that had the violence and gore of slashers (and the MPAA let get away with so much more) but actual name actors, an appreciable budget, and tried to appeal to a slightly older target audience, albeit with the same tawdry elements slashers used to get the teens.

    Best wishes to your kitty.

    1. Yeah, as close as it is to King of Comedy plotwise, it really does feel like a De Palma film without the directorial and narrative focus, or the twin senses of tragedy and playfulness. (I think Brennan disagrees with me on this, but Blow Out is basically the ultimate expression of the concept, "a slasher film for adults.")

      As for Kira, I appreciate that. She was much, much more ill than we thought or even suspected, and on doctor's advice we determined to end her life yesterday afternoon, and we miss her very much.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you, Brian. She was a sweet thing, and not young but not very old. I guess I just expected more, or at least to see it coming.

  4. But the bench shot is so PRETTY, Hunter! Style over substance, or has Tim taught you nothing?
    And I high key love the musical numbers in this movie and I love even more how little right they have to be here. Fun fact: in the book The Fan is based on, the musical is titled “And So I Bit Him.”
    re Kira: much love to you and yours. I’m terribly sorry to hear that. I hope the new house is treating you right though

    1. Thank you, Brennan.

      If it were a dreamier piece of cinema, I'd let the benches go. As it stands, I want to go to the New York Bench Exhibit.

  5. One other note: I think it must say something about society and fanatical behavior that there are two movies called The Fan, that have no actual connection, but are both about an obsessed psycho threatening and tormenting a star of some sort.

    1. Yeah, it's never "the fan manages to make contact with their idol in a responsible way, they become buds."