I’m pretty sure we can agree that if two leads slaughter a film as part of its supposed ‘promotion’ – with one even going so far as calling it the ‘worst film they were involved in’, chances are it’s a pile of trash, right?

Well, not quite, as this is 1981’s campy slasher The Fan, and the two stars with gripes were none other than Lauren Bacall and James Garner.

It was Garner that dubbed it his worst, while for Hollywood legend Bacall this was a detour into a genre she was very much unaccustomed to – or wanted to be involved in.

You see The Fan (based on a 1977 novel) started off as something more akin to a psychological thriller, before pressure to up the violence quotient – this was in peak slasher movie season remember – saw Bacall instead stalked by a razor-wielding psycho.

The plot is extremely straightforward – Bacall plays Sally Ross, a feted star of the big screen, now looking for a career comeback of sorts in a Broadway musical. She lives on her own (with her PA providing daily support), whilst also going through a ‘divorce-but-they-don’t-actually-want-to-get-divorced-as-they-still-love-each-other’ entanglement with ‘ex’ Jake Berman (Garner).

Step forward ‘superfan’ Douglas Breen (a fresh-faced Michael Biehn), who devotes his life to following and celebrating Ross at every turn.

So much so in fact, that from his apartment plastered with posters and pictures of the star, he furiously hammers away at a typewriter, sending regular letters to the actress hoping for some sort of response.

The problem for Breen (and ultimately Ross) though is that these letters are intercepted by the star’s PR Belle (Maureen Stapleton), who sends off brief responses that most definitely do not quench the fan’s thirst for reciprocation.

Breen ups the ante and, as his letters become even more suggestive/aggressive, the PR curtly tells him to stop writing. But that’s enough to push the fan dangerously close to the edge – and out comes the razor…

The Fan is a real mixed bag of a film – entertaining, but certainly flawed.

For starters just marvel at that cast – Bacall and Garner aside, Stapleton herself won an Oscar for her supporting role in Reds the same year The Fan was released. We also get Hector Elizondo as a NY cop on the case, as well as The A-Team’s Dwight Schultz as the musical’s director.

And then there is Biehn – 24 when this was made – who plays fidgety, confused, enraged and murderous with sinister intent.

The film veers wildly in tone from quite creepy to high camp – certainly in the numerous scenes of the musical being rehearsed (and indeed opening night), with the numbers written by Tim Rice and choreographed by Arlene Phillips no less. I’m not quite sure what the makers were aiming for with these scenes, but they certainly had me laughing.

The violence, while over-the-top for Bacall and Garner, is actually quite tame by early 80s splatter standards, although Biehn does slice his way through a number of unfortunate folk.

Director Ed Bianchi, who moved from this early feature to concentrate on TV fare such as Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire, shows a deft touch at times, and the film’s climax in the theatre is well handled.

There are also some scenes set in seedy/grimy parts of New York City that build an effective atmosphere – all simmering tension beneath the veneer of high society and celebrity.

But The Fan has issues – we never really know what’s going on in Breen’s head (there is one brief throwaway scene where he is visited by a relative), and the wild shifts in tone hinder the flow of the movie overall.

Even so, The Fan is well worth watching.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written three books - on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014), the history of the character Norman Bates (2015) and the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker (2017). He is currently working with director Richard Loncraine to explore all avenues in a bid to orchestrate the re-release of 1978 Mia Farrow chiller Full Circle