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Film

‘The Fanatic’ is Creepy and Unsettling

This guy exists. You see him at just about every Comic-Con, at celebrity book signings or personal appearances, and at film festival Q&As. You also see him around certain sections of New York and Los Angeles, and get the impression that he chose to visit or live in that particular city for no reason other than the chance for celebrity sightings. And yes, you see him on the Internet, personalizing all of the worst traits of fandom. The fanatic is the guy (and yes, it’s almost always a guy) who doesn’t have much of a sense of propriety — no boundaries when it comes to how to interact with famous people they’ve never met.

Sometimes that guy is a journalist, or someone playing at being one, which was best illustrated in film writer Scott Wampler’s classic Twitter thread earlier this year littered with horror stories about inappropriate questions asked at junkets and public events — one heavy on people propositioning actresses, trying to hand off their screenplays to directors, or asking for autographs and/or selfies in situations where they absolutely shouldn’t.

The new horror thriller The Fanatic represents something of a worst-case scenario for that tendency. It’s a strange, creepy, ugly, over-the-top movie that only intermittently succeeds at what it’s setting out to do, but does capture something very true — and very unsettling — about fandom today. The film stars John Travolta as a strange, awkward man who starts stalking movie star Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa), leading to eventual violence. The Fanatic was directed and co-written by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, who said at the time the film was first announced that he based the story on a real-life incident when a fan stalked him.

Travolta plays a character only referred to as “Moose.” Unemployed and living alone in a run-down Los Angeles apartment, Moose is something of a familiar type: overweight, clad mostly in Hawaiian shirts and other kitschy wardrobe, and sporting one of the most unfortunate haircuts in the history of cinema. His only apparent employment is as one of those costumed beggars on Hollywood Boulevard. More than two decades ago, Travolta starred in another movie, Get Shorty, about a guy obsessed with movies who shows up in L.A. and tries to ingratiate himself with movie stars — a quest that also involved occasionally getting violent. It helped, though, that Chili Palmer was smooth, cool, charismatic and had a decent haircut.

https://youtu.be/YRS6V8RXIKE

Moose, however, is none of those things. When the comic book shop he frequents hosts a signing with his favorite horror movie star, Moose makes a fool of himself. This leads him to a full-fledged campaign of stalking, with the help of a star maps app and a young paparazzo named Leah (Ana Golja), who appears to be Moose’s only friend. This isn’t Travolta’s greatest work by any stretch, but he succeeds at what he set out to do, which is come across as creepy and unsettling. Devon Sawa, best known for Final Destination and other ’90s movies, also has some fun with the role of the movie star.

The Fanatic

However, there are a few things here that don’t quite work. The movie does not say whether Moose is on the autism spectrum — although it’s somewhat hinted that he may be — and if he is, it’s not exactly a positive moment of representation for the autistic community. There’s also a subplot involving a dead body that’s handled awkwardly; it happens, and then the script ignores it for a long stretch in order to address things with lower stakes. In addition, the use of voiceover narration is silly and unnecessary, while the subplot involving the young paparazzo makes little sense. There’s not much explanation for why she would put up with Moose, and the role is cast with an actress who’s twenty-three but looks more like a teenager. 

The film also provides a version of Los Angeles that’s bland beyond recognition (probably because the film was shot mostly in Birmingham, Alabama). The location substitution isn’t quite as egregious as Travolta’s 2018 New York mob debacle, Gotti, being shot in Cincinnati, but it’s in the same ballpark. As for Fred Durst, making his third film as a director, he can’t resist the temptation to include his own music — and also characters praising said music. 

Ultimately, The Fanatic is reminiscent of The Fan (both versions), Misery, Big Fan, and other cinematic examinations of fandom-run-amok, but it gives an even creepier air to the proceedings. Though it isn’t likely to end up on a lot of top ten lists this year (and in fact the early reviews are notably brutal), The Fanatic does offer recent cinema’s most realistic view of a certain type of Comic-Con creature.

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