Color, 1981, 94 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Edward Bianchi
Starring Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Michael Biehn, Maureen Stapleton, Hector Elizondo Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Paramount (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The sudden slasher boom of the early 1980s had some unexpected effects at the box office around the turn of the decade, with the success of the low-budget Friday the 13th dovetailing with the more reputable success of the equally bloody but more star-studded Dressed to Kill from Brian De Palma. The latter in particular had a major impact on The Fan, an adaptation of an epistolary suspense novel by Bob Randall that was intended to be a classy psychological thriller with a top-notch cast including Lauren Bacall and James Garner. Noting the huge response to De Palma's film, producer Robert Stigwood and company decided to change course and beef up the film with a number of bloody straight razor murders; the original director, Waris Hussein (who was certainly no stranger to sleaze thanks to The Possession of Joel Delaney), ended up being replaced by Edward Bianchi, a now-busy TV director who was only known at the time for some flashy Dr. Pepper commercials. Bacall was displeased with the new gory direction of the film but stayed aboard to reunite with Garner (just after Robert Altman's HealtH) and show off her musical skills after her lengthy Broadway run in Applause. The end result is a fascinating, memorable, and certainly unique entry in the small number of big studio slasher films, with its multiple controversial elements now earning it a fan following among those who cherish the intersection of bloody thrills, Hollywood stars, and a few little doses of glitzy camp.
While performing her latest Broadway production, veteran stage and screen performer Sally Ross (Bacall) relies on her secretary, Belle (Stapleton), to take care of her day-to-day needs including answering multitudes of fan letters. However, that proves to be quite a challenge thanks to Douglas Breen (Biehn), a record store clerk who has developed a very unhealthy obsession with the star and sends her increasingly menacing fan letters. While Sally begins to rebuild bridges with her ex-husband, Jake (Garner), Douglas develops his own romantic fixation that leads to attacks on those in Sally's inner circle that soon become homicidal. With Douglas' feelings of rejection mounting, it's only a matter of time before he zeros in on Sally herself just as she's set to debut her brand new.
This film is most fascinating and certainly most famous as an early study in stalker psychology before that term even entered the public lexicon, beating David Schmoeller's The Seduction by one year (which actually looks a lot more genteel by comparison). In the interim a number of high-profile real stalking incidents involving celebrities took place, most famously the slaying of John Lennon, which shone a spotlight on the dark side of celebrity that many had been unaware of until that point. Speaking of celebrities, keep an eye out for some quick appearances by Dana Delaney (in amazing 1981 makeup as one of Beihn's coworkers), Griffin Dunne, and Dwight Schultz among the NYC denizens. The film also features a particularly sordid sequence (at least for a studio film) involving a razor throat slitting behind a gay bar, which called up some touchy associations with the previous year's Cruising and earned this film prominent negative placement in both the book and film of The Celluloid Closet. However, that scene plays more like a traditional kill scene these days since the film also deliver plenty of catnip for gay fans including two glittery, jaw-dropping musical numbers penned by Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice; you really haven't lived until you've seen that big "Hearts, Not Diamonds" number. All of the actors do a professional job here but it's really Stapleton who takes top honors here, turning what could have been a one-dimensional role and giving her plenty of depth and agitation. Also in the plus column is the violin-heavy score by Pino Donaggio (hmm, wonder why he was hired?) that's sorely in need of a commercial soundtrack release one of these days if someone can pry it from the Paramount vaults.
The Fan has been fairly easy to see since the VHS days, though its DVD release (first as a pressed release and then as an MOD title distributed through Warner Archive) was hampered by some very distracting audio censorship for its most shocking line of dialogue (the "meat cleaver" one). Luckily the uncensored version is back in action on the 2019 Blu-ray from Scream Factory, which boasts a satisfying transfer about on par with most recent-ish Paramount HD transfer; it's nice and organic without any futzing around with the film grain. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also in fine shape and does well enough by that great score, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. Another audio option is a new audio commentary by David DeCoteau, David Del Valle and an uncredited Jeff Nelson, all "uber fans" who have a lot of fun dishing on this one including its Manhattan locales (including a prominent rent boy bar for that scene), the film's placement in the slasher and kinda-sorta-LGBT cinematic canons, Bacall's iconic presence (including items from her own collection used in the set decoration), the glut of horror films that took away a lot of attention from this one at the time, and plenty more. As for video extras, "Number One Fan" (25m52s) is a very entertaining and candid chat with Biehn about getting his first big break with this film after his time with Crown International, doing a tricky scene with Stapleton that had to surmount her terror of elevators, switching directors before the film started shooting, and becoming a recognizable face not too long after thanks to his films with James Cameron. He also confirms Bacall's less than pleasant disposition, which ranks only behind Faye Dunaway's in Hollywood circles. Then Bianchi appears in "Fan Service" (38m15s) to explain how he was originally brought aboard by Stigwood to work on what would eventually morph without him into the notorious Staying Alive, dealt with a "tough" and not terribly happy Bacall who still delivered in front of the camera, worked around Stapleton's neuroses while bringing her on just after shooting her Oscar-winning role in Reds, and indulged in his serious fandom for Garner by getting to direct him here. He also reveals the fascinating use of a hypnotist for the eerie final shot of the film, which makes you appreciate it even more. Finally, "Fanning the Flames" (18m13s) catches up with editor Alan Heim, who came on this one just after completing 1979's All That Jazz (which won him an Oscar) and was also opposed to the heavy level of bloodshed. He also chats about the "creepy quality" he wanted to add to the opening sequence, the less bloody but more unnerving original scene with the maid, and the challenge of building production numbers around Bacall who wasn't known as a professional dancer or singer. The effective theatrical trailer is also included, plus a trio of TV spots (how they heck did they keep that "equipment" line in there in '81?) and a gallery (4m19s) of lobby cards and international ad art including a newspaper ad where this was showing alongside Friday the 13th Part 2, Final Exam, Happy Birthday to Me, The Hand, and Mother's Day, which should be enough to make any horror fan want to hop in a time machine.