“The Fan,” “The Fan,” & “The Fanatic”: Which Stalker Movie Triumphs Over All?
Thanks to social media, being an obsessed fan isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. Whereas once you had to keep your sweaty devotion and sexual fantasies about your favorite actor or singer to yourself, now in the lawless land of Facebook and Twitter you can put it all out there for everyone to see. If anything, it’s a competition where there are no rules — short of putting on a live video feed where you set yourself on fire while promising allegiance from beyond the grave, there’s no such thing as “too crazy” when it comes to fandom.
Back when it was something secret and and a little scary, “obsessed fan” thrillers were practically a film genre in and of themselves. Though they ranged in quality from sleazy (1982’s The Seduction) to genuinely compelling (1990’s Misery), most of them hit just the right notes of camp trash. While in real life stalking isn’t exactly what one would call a laugh riot, in movies it’s often an excuse for actors, whether playing villain, victim, or victim’s friend, to do their best bug-eyed, shrieking capital-E Emoting, as if not trusting the audience to understand just how disturbing an experience it can be. I now take a closer look at three of those films, with similar titles but from different decades, all of them touching on the “crazed stalker” tropes with various degrees of success.
A flop upon its release, 1981’s The Fan has in recent years not gained a cult following, exactly, but certainly a deeper appreciation from its audience. It’s so deliciously campy that much of the last twenty minutes is devoted to Broadway-style show tunes, and the titular fan shows up in a tuxedo like he’s on his way to senior prom. That would be Douglas Breen (an astonishingly handsome pre-Terminator Michael Biehn), a mentally disturbed record store clerk who’s dedicated himself body and soul (but especially body) to legendary star of stage and screen Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall).
Douglas’s fan letters to Sally quickly turn from sappy to vulgar to threatening, but Sally’s too busy rehearsing her new musical and moping over her ex-husband (James Garner) to notice. It’s not until he attacks Sally’s secretary (Maureen Stapleton, who knows exactly what kind of movie this is and is one of the best parts of it) that she realizes there might be a problem. No amount of police protection can seem to keep Douglas away, however, and they finally face each other on opening night of her big show.
Let’s talk about this Broadway show for a minute. It’s called Never Say Never, the most generic of musical titles, and features songs written by Marvin Hamlisch that sound like parodies of Marvin Hamlisch songs. There’s no discernible plot, but there are male dancers in sparkling silver zoot suits, and at one point Bacall yells “Hot love, baby, tonight!” apropos of absolutely nothing. It concludes with Bacall, resplendent in a black sequin pantsuit, world-wearily smoking and singing that she wants “hearts, not diamonds, I’ve had enough champagne.” We get the whole song here, while Biehn sits out in the audience, sweating and squirming in his seat like his pants are too tight.
Look, I’m not going to try to convince you that The Fan is a good movie. No, it’s a great movie, a Lifetime drama with swear words. True, the plot slows to a crawl whenever Bacall and Garner’s characters fart around trying to decide if they’re still in love with each other (spoiler: they are). It picks up considerably, however, whenever Biehn is on screen, not just because he’s so beautiful it’s hard to look at him, but because you get to hear him say stuff like “Dearest bitch, I’ve exhausted myself trying to think of the perfect way to kill you. How would you like to be fucked with a meat cleaver?” I mean, it’s just polite of him to offer her options, you know?
It’s also worth mentioning the subtext-that-might-actually-just-be-text of Douglas being queer, and directing his fear and confusion about it towards Sally, a woman old enough to be his mother who won’t intimidate him or expect much from him sexually. While he writes to her that he has “all the equipment necessary to make you very, very happy,” he sounds more enthusiastic in an earlier, less menacing letter when he mentions that he’s bought a “gorgeous Lucite frame” for one of Sally’s photos. But maybe the man just gets really excited about picture frames, who knows.
There’s slightly less plausible deniability in a later scene, when Douglas picks up a man at a gay bar with the express purpose of killing him, setting fire to the body, and passing it off as himself in a staged suicide. Douglas distracts his prey by letting him, uh, perform oral favors on him. He lets it go on a little longer than he should, and it’s clear that he’s pretty into it. If it’s intentional, The Fan would still at least rank above Cruising and Dressed to Kill in the grand scale of Hollywood’s deplorable treatment of LGBTQ characters, but nobody associated with it has stated for certain. Lauren Bacall was reportedly unhappy with the final cut of the film, not realizing how violent it would be, and spoke little of it later. As for Michael Biehn, for some reason people would rather ask him about The Terminator or Aliens, which is just a tragedy.
The obsessed fan in 1996’s The Fan isn’t driven by sexual desire (or repressed sexuality), just plain old garden variety entitlement. He’s Gil Renard (Robert DeNiro), a knife salesman (just in case you had any notion that this was going to be a more subtle movie than the other The Fan) whose object of undivided attention is professional baseball player Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes). Gil, whose life peaked after winning one (1) Little League game as a child, is on the edge of losing both his job and visitation rights to his son, and the only thing that gives his existence meaning is watching Bobby and the San Francisco Giants play.
Gil’s whole world is turned upside down after Bobby is injured and his playing suffers. He decides that the solution to Bobby’s performance issues is murdering his teammate/friend Juan Primo (Benicio Del Toro). Surprisingly, this actually works, and Bobby’s playing improves, though you should absolutely not take that as an endorsement to murder someone just before you go to your boss to ask for a raise. Believing that Bobby is not showing a proper amount of appreciation for his fans, Gil then pretends to save Bobby’s son from drowning so that he can get closer to him.
Indeed, Bobby does express mild dismay for fickle, demanding fans, which Gil reacts to as if Bobby’s dug up his mother’s corpse and pissed in her eye sockets. In order to teach Bobby a lesson about gratitude, Gil kidnaps his son and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t hit a home run at the next big game, at which Gil is disguised as an umpire. This is all very stupid, and yet it’s oddly accurate in the unreasonable demands fans make on celebrities, particularly athletes. Gil thinks Bobby’s playing slump is proof that he doesn’t appreciate his fans and all they’ve done to support his career — compare that to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who recently retired at age 29 after admitting that the physical pain he endured while playing was too much to bear. Though the press and other football players were sympathetic to Luck, he was resoundingly booed by fans, who perceived his early retirement as ingratitude for his success.
Gil threatening to kill Bobby’s son if he doesn’t hit a home run seems to be directly inspired by the 1993 World Series, during which Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams received death threats from purported “fans” if he didn’t throw well. Unlike Bobby, who successfully hits a home run, Williams blew the sixth game, causing the Phillies to lose the series to the Blue Jays. While Williams was not killed, he was traded to the Houston Astros in 1994, and retired from baseball altogether in 1997.
An interesting movie could have been made about how sports fans mistake an athlete being a human being with flaws for failing to show an acceptable level of deference for the folks in the stands. Unfortunately, with Robert De Niro coming into every scene snorting like an angry bull, it’s not this one. The Fan is also remarkably humorless, and tries to be a straightforward suspense thriller, without the camp delights of the earlier film of the same name. Plus, there’s not one single Broadway musical number!
And then there’s…The Fanatic.
The Fanatic is a giant middle finger to writer/director Fred Durst’s fans, a bold move for a musician who hasn’t had a hit in over a decade. He takes the curious step of not making a single character in his movie sympathetic, not even the actor being terrorized by an obsessed fan. That would be Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa), who’s repeatedly described as being a horror movie actor, but just seems like more of a generic, muscle-bound B-level action star. Hunter’s number one fan is Moose (just Moose), played by John Travolta, a 65 year-old actor with the clothing and mannerisms of a preteen.
Enough has already been written about Travolta’s baffling haircut in The Fanatic, which looks like an angry landscaper ran after him with a weed whacker. Anyway, it’s a distraction from his performance. Stalker thrillers live or die according to their performances, and Travolta really gives it his all here, plus more on top of that, plus some more piled on the side, plus wait, don’t go, he has a little more for you to take home in a bag. Is that your phone ringing? Answer it, it’s John Travolta acting some more.
Travolta, God bless him, performs as if he’s in Rain Man, rather than a straight to VOD thriller written and directed by a man most famous for recording an album with a title that references anal sex. Moose isn’t so much a character as a stumbling collection of tics and quirks, either mentally impaired or autistic or both. Durst doesn’t have the stones to actually use the word “autistic” to describe Moose’s behavior, otherwise he’d have to apologize for how much he relishes depicting other characters harassing him.
Hell, the movie itself relishes making Moose look like an idiot, like when he approaches a bartender at a party and asks for a strawberry milkshake, then later nearly sticks his face in a plate of hors d’oeuvres before reeling away gagging. It’s unclear if the audience is supposed to feel sorry for Moose, or repulsed by him, but you can tell what Durst and his co-screenwriter Dave Bekerman think of him, when the first line of dialogue he utters is “I can’t talk too long, I gotta poo.”
Travolta really gives it his all here, plus more on top of that, plus some more piled on the side, plus wait, don’t go, he has a little more for you to take home in a bag.
Moose is a Hollywood Boulevard street performer whose character is, for no discernible reason, a British bobby who speaks with an atrocious “ello guv’nor” accent and wears a fake mustache over his real mustache. Not surprisingly, he makes about $3 a night doing this, while another performer, bullying junkie Todd (Jacob Grodnik) rakes in the big bucks by doing gross fake blood party tricks. In addition to Durst working out his anger towards a real-life fan, The Fanatic also seems to be trying to say something about Hollywood, and how it only rewards mean and dishonest people, while innocent waifs like Moose get chewed up and spit out.
But here’s the thing: Moose is as big a jerk as very nearly every other character in this movie. He’s childish, temperamental, ungrateful to the precious few people who do show him kindness, and he refuses to take no for an answer. Every encounter Moose has with Hunter is increasingly hostile, with Hunter threatening Moose and Moose whining “I’m not a stalker, I’m a faaaaaaaan!” Yet, he continues showing up at Hunter’s house, accidentally killing his maid (whose body is just left in the yard out in the open) and sneaking around inside when he’s not there.
This scene is both the highlight and lowlight of The Fanatic. It’s a highlight because it’s hilarious to see an adult man running around a house like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone. And yet, it’s a lowlight because Durst is such an incompetent writer/director that it’s unclear how the audience is supposed to feel watching Moose pound on a piano while singing “You rock my head and you rattle my head” or putting deer antlers on his head and saying “Heeeeere’s Moosey!” Is it meant to be funny? Creepy? Scary? Is Moose just a harmless kook, or is he dangerous?
A moment when Moose, after reading a potential script for Hunter, throws it down in disgust and says “This is not a good script, he should not do it” suggests that maybe, possibly, Durst has the slightest bit of self-awareness, and yet the film ends on a bleak and serious note, with the suggestion that the movie isn’t just saying something about obsessed fans, but society itself. This is rich considering that, mid-way through the film, Hunter rocks out to a Limp Bizkit song, trying to impress his young son with how cool he used to be.
The movie concludes with Moose tying Hunter to his bed and taunting him with his vast knowledge of horror movies. “Night of the Living Dead,” he says at one point. “Why don’t you know that?” Hunter’s expression of perplexed exasperation matches that of the audience’s. Surprisingly, Moose does make it to the end, as much as the film suggests that he should be made to pay merely for his existence. He ends up short a couple fingers and an eye, though, but when he stumbles onto Hollywood Boulevard wounded and covered in blood, suddenly tourists can’t stop giving him money. He’s a hit. Because that’s what the fans want, blood, get it??
So, as you’ve probably surmised by now, 1981’s The Fan is, to my estimation at least, head and shoulders above other movies in its same genre. It’s clear cut, it doesn’t try any cutesy “but who’s really the villain here?” nonsense, it’s consistent in tone. Biehn is genuinely creepy, whereas De Niro is just loud and Travolta is…well, god only knows, but he’s not creepy, or scary, or intimidating or anything else that the antagonist in an obsessed stalker movie should be. More than anything else, it’s fun, which isn’t a word that can be applied to either the 1996 The Fan, which is rote and boring, or The Fanatic, which is exhausting. Put it up as a double feature with Alicia Silverstone’s The Crush, another camp classic about a troubled loner with a raging case of erotomania, and you’ve got a party. A party that only a few people might show up for, but at least you know they’re all going to be cool people.