Fanatic

Pressing ahead with more Hammer, let’s step forward a few years to look at the next stage in the development of the studio’s thriller output. The influence of the early films noir could still be seen in the black and white, Jimmy Sangster scripted suspense yarns with their trademark twist in the tail. Fanatic (1965) was something of a departure, shot in color and taking an entirely different thematic tack. If the previous template had been the noir-edged Hitchcock homage, then the new version was more in line with the “crazy old lady” sub-genre popularized by Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at the beginning of the decade.

Generally, I like to give an overview, or at least some flavor of the plot at this stage. I tend to simply touch on details as I reckon it’s poor form to drift into spoiler territory for those who may not have seen a given movie, and it’s also a lazy and slightly pointless way of writing. I’ll be brief here too but for perhaps different reasons on this occasion, namely the simplicity and directness of the plot. In essence, it concerns Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers), a young American girl who has come to England to be with her fiance, but who also has in mind a short visit to the family of a previous lover who passed away suddenly. That family is limited to the mother, Mrs Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead). At first, the old lady in her crumbling home and surrounded by the oddball help appears a mild eccentric with too little company and too many religious hangups. Later though, Patricia discovers that those convictions are of the deep-seated variety, of the fanatical type in fact. And the plan is for Patricia to spend  a lot more time in the house…

OK, I’ve a confession to make here: while I’d say I was a fan of Hammer studios and all their varied films, I’m not at all fond of this particular sub-genre. I remain adamant that the likes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is vastly overrated, and I far prefer Aldrich’s more subtle, and ultimately more affecting, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Now when it comes to Hammer, I’d rate The Nanny far above Fanatic in the “crazy old lady” stakes, and for broadly similar reasons. I think the issue for me is the level of camp involved. Films of this kind tread a fine line between grotesque farce and a more genuine brand of psychological tension. In my opinion, the greater the camp quotient, the greater the risk of tipping over into a mean parody. Fanatic starts off with what I feel is a broad and farcical tone, before plunging into deeper and darker waters. However, I think that detour towards meanness then appears magnified. Essentially, there’s too much mean – the heroine becomes objectified via her ordeal and the villains are too stylized to ever seem real.

Fanatic looks like it had been, and probably continues to be, heavily reliant on the presence of Tallulah Bankhead in the role of the demented Mrs Trefoile. Now, if I’m honest, I’ll have to say I’ve not seen much of this actress’s work. Aside from Fanatic, I’ve seen (and liked) Hitchcock’s Lifeboat but that’s it. I suspect that’s the extent of most people’s experience of Bankhead as an actress but her legend, driven by a range of professional and personal activities, is such that her name was and is a strong selling point. However, I reckon a performance should be evaluated on its own merits rather than any other influence and, on that basis, I’m going to probably go against received critical response here and say I wasn’t overly impressed. Frankly, there’s an archness and an air of aloof knowing that severely limits the credibility for me – where I longed for cool menace I got pantomime instead.

I’m guessing Stefanie Powers would have been regarded as more of a lightweight at this stage but, conversely, I found her performance more successful. It’s a difficult role – her character is driven right to the edge – but she handles it very well, going from carefree to desperate, and finally emotionally numbed with ease and confidence. Yootha Joyce is fine too as the repressed and nervy housekeeper but I feel Peter Vaughan, as her husband, is a little mannered and consequently less convincing. There’s also an early, undemanding, part for Donald Sutherland.

Fanatic is another title in the first Hammer box set released as a limited edition by Powerhouse/Indicator. Once again, I found the visual presentation to be of a typically high standard with a clean, sharp transfer and exceptionally fine-looking color and detail. The supplements are as usual a big part of what makes these releases so attractive, featuring newly filmed pieces on the movie, on Bankhead, the composer and interviews with crew members. I admit I’m not as enamored of the film itself as some will be but there’s no denying the quality of the package presented here.

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14 thoughts on “Fanatic

  1. Like you, I find this less easy to like, bit too intense and inherently depressing maybe? But having said that … A good froend of mine wrote the booklet notes for the Blu-ray so everyone should get a copy 😉

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    • I have some problems with the film, that’s true. I think this type of abduction/confinement drama needs some kind of relief to make it more watchable for me – but I’m well aware not everyone will share that view. However, I remain impressed with the presentation, and the quality of the supplements both on the discs and in the booklets.

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      • I know some of the people who worked on it well, so can’t comment on that side fairly as I’m bound to just say it’s fab. This particular title is not my favourite – but same team is working on TASTE OF FEAR and I am really, really excited about that one!

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          • I will say, the thing about FANATIC is that it of course is more prosaic but almost more plausible. I suspect my sense of unease stems from this – as you say, such stories of imprisonment and mental torture from people who are completely unstable are not that out of the norm. I guess I like my horror expressionist and not real. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is an utterly brilliant film precisely because I believed every horrible second of it. I have only seen it the once and may eventually watch it again, but its power and basic reality to me is undeniable.

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            • Yes, aside from the ultra-camp eccentricity of the earlier scenes, the film does grow more plausible as it goes on.
              I think you and i are coming at things from a similar perspective when we speak of what we prefer in the psycho-thriller/horror stakes. I think there is much to be said (and remember I’m looking at this stuff primarily as a source of entertainment rather than any type of broader social commentary) for material which is what could be termed expressionist. The act of stepping sideways into a vaguely fantastic and therefore less realistic set of circumstances adds that slight distance that makes the events on screen more palatable, or more easily enjoyed. While a move closer to situations that could more conceivably take place no doubt ramps up the terror quotient, I also feel it lowers the entertainment value – I feel a touch nearer the events and that’s not (for me) so much fun when the events in question are rather unpleasant.

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  2. I saw most of these films as they were released and I remember the “crazy old lady” thread that followed the success of the “BABY JANE” film. As you say, Colin, with varying degrees of success. I also preferred “HUSH HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE”, then there was “LADY IN A CAGE” which also starred Olivia De Havilland but was more of an ‘old lady in peril’ story.
    I was not a fan of Tallulah (too much of a ‘star’ turn) but Stefanie Powers was good.

    We also had Joan Crawford in “BERSERK” alongside Ty ‘Bronco’ Hardin and even, loosely, “THE NIGHT WALKER” which brought Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck back together. I really liked that one. The best of the lot, I thought, was Bette Davis as “THE NANNY” where she gave one of her best, most understated performances.

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    • Jerry, I’ve not seen Lady in a Cage for a long time but I know I had issues with that too – I found it extremely grim and there was, once again, that feeling of relentless mean-spiritedness which I struggle with.
      Of the other titles there, I think Berserk is much more enjoyable in its kitsch way, and you come away from it feeling much better. I actually rewatched William Castle’s The Night Walker the other day and enjoyed Stanwyck and Taylor together. I wouldn’t put it in the same category – Stanwyck was still far too glamorous or one thing – and feel it belongs more in quasi-supernatural “gaslight” territory.

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  3. “Fanatic” was shown here as “Die,Die, My Darling” in honor of Tallulah Bankhead”s habit of calling everyone “Darling”. I believe this movie is what got Stephanie Powers the role of the campy “Girl From UNCLE”. I mainly knew Tallulah Bankhead from her appearances on “I Love Lucy” & “Batman”. It helps if you think of the movie as “camp”. That’s how I approached it when it was showing at theatres.

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    • I can see how this could have been a useful stepping stone in Powers’ career, she’s very good in a challenging part.
      Yes, I definitely regard the movie as an example of camp, but it remains a bit too rich in that area for my own palate.

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  4. I’m very happy with the Mill Creek edition of FANATIC coupled with
    MANIAC-great transfers,good graphics,slimline packaging and
    a bargain price!
    I will certainly get Mill Creek’s next coupling BERSERK/STRAIGHT JACKET.
    Oddly enough in the UK FANATIC was paired with Siegel’s THE KILLERS
    or should I say,totally overshadowed by.

    Colin-don’t know if you have noticed but Kino Lorber with their newly
    struck deal with Universal have just announced Joseph Pevney’s
    excellent FOXFIRE making it’s Worldwide Blu Ray debut.
    It’s always heartening when a re-issue imprint announces
    a title that has been otherwise unavailable.
    Just for fun,and please forgive the hi-jack I thought I would indulge
    in mentioning a raft of Universal titles that have thus far (to my knowledge)
    not had “official” releases on DVD or Blu Ray.
    A couple of these titles are out of my comfort zone but I’ve included them
    because they have most interesting casts.

    JOHNNY STOOL PIGEON,LARCENY,UNDERTOW,
    SADDLE TRAMP,RAILS INTO LARAMIE,LITTLE EGYPT,
    YANKEE PASHA,SLIM CARTER,FOUR GIRLS IN TOWN,
    AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’,THE SECOND GREATEST SEX,ISTANBUL,
    APPOINTMENT WITH A SHADOW,THE TATTERED DRESS,
    MAN AFRAID,NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL.
    OUTSIDE THE LAW,….and that’s just off the top of my head!

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    • John, I hadn’t heard that about Foxfire but it’s a most welcome piece of information so thanks very much for sharing it.
      I hope we do see more “lost” Universal titles hitting the market now as your list here and chats on the matter we’ve had before highlight just how many interesting movies from the studio remain AWOL.

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