Sometimes, the most potent horror fare comes from the arthouse rather than the grindhouse. If a director with the proper artistic mindset taps into the dark fascinations of the horror genre, there is the potential to create a work where shocking content attains a new potency because it is handled with the kind of subtle, sensitive artistry that you’d never get from a go-for-the-throat horror flick. The Fan, a German film from 1982, represents this approach to the genre and it’s more unnerving than the last dozen bloodbaths you’ve seen combined.
The Fan begins as a tale of romantic fixation: teenager Simone (Desiree Nosbusch) is totally obsessed with R (Bodo Steiger), a gloomy new wave crooner who is dominating the pop charts. She is totally convinced that he is her romantic destiny and doesn’t care if she alienates teachers, her parents, prospective boyfriends or anyone else who infringes upon her fantasy world.
Simone makes a desperate bid for R’s love, hitchhiking to the big city in hopes that she can meet with him while he performs on a television music show. Against all odds, he singles her out and takes her to spend the night with him. Unfortunately, the reality of such a liaison doesn’t live up to her dreams… but Simone is willing to go to bizarre lengths to help her dreams triumph over reality.
The Fan shapes up as a memorable variant on the psycho-horror genre because it bypasses the expected tropes of horror or psychological thrillers in favor of creating an artful, smartly observed portrait of all-consuming obsession. Writer/director Eckhard Schmidt favors a gradual, smoldering approach, getting us deep into Simone’s psyche via her deadpan yet obsessive narration while carefully contrasting her thoughts with the world around her to slowly reveal how her sullen exterior harbors dangerous extremes of emotion, including a sharp temper.
When the film delves into horror during its third act, the buildup gives it an intense potency – and extremes of sex and violence are handled with a disarming artistry that makes their boldness all the more shocking. Schmidt cleverly orchestrates his crew’s efforts to set up this knockout punch: Bernd Heinl’s cinematography gives the film a dreamy, arthouse glossiness, cleverly using slow, sinuous camerawork that deftly offsets the increasingly dark subject matter. The new wave score by Rheingold helps develop the film’s minimalist, obsessive mood without ever utilizing stock horror movie musical stylings.
It also helps that the film has two impressive performances that give the fan and star characterizations a believable depth. Nosbusch is revelatory as the obsessed girl: she’s adept at expressing blankness to those her character doesn’t want to deal but is equally capable of digging into dark, primal emotions when her quest for love fails her. The third act of the film requires a lot of bravery from her and she dives into the work without fear (in fact, she goes so far that it scared her and she later tried to have the film reedited).
Staiger provides a staid contrast to Nosbusch’s work, creating a pop star who is able to use a chilly remoteness as a tool of seduction for his fans. He brings a uniquely mysterious charisma to the role that makes it easy to believe him as a target of obsession.
In short, The Fan is an arthouse excursion into horror that uses element of the genre to its own ends. It’s not interested in scaring you. Instead, it wants to haunt you – and it achieves that ambition with icy, artfully rendered skill.