Directed by Fred Durst
Well, it worked for Rob Zombie. You’ll presumably know director/ co-writer Fred Durst from his days with nu-metal outfit Limp Bizkit. Their juvenile humour, backwards baseball caps and shallow tough-guy shtick were behind one of the defining sounds of the early noughties: heavy metal meets hip-hop. Sure, it sounds naff nowadays, as it probably did at the time to anyone over 16. But for those now in their mid-thirties, or under, I’ve noticed an only semi-ironic nostalgia for them. Hell, as I write this, I got Chocolate Starfish And The Hotdog Flavoured Water blaring out. And it’s sort of ok, even if it’s also sort of shit at the same time. It’s a standard which can also be applied to Durst’s horror debut.
Moose (Travolta) is Annie Wilkes meets Ricky Gervais’ Derek: a middle-aged, obsessive loner who watches like a checklist of negative stereotypes about people with an Autistic Spectrum Condition. “Neuroatypicality” is never actually said out loud, though it doesn’t need to be either because of how much The Fanatic plays up Moose’s social impairments. For starters, his opening line is “I can’t talk too long, I gotta poo”. Rain Man, this is not. Anyway, Moose’s main love in life is the movies. In particular, he likes those that feature Hunter Dunbar (Sawa): a b-movie star who is allegedly “better than Jamie-Lee Curtis”. Fortunately, he’s doing a signing session at Moose’s favourite memorabilia outlet, but a visit from the actor’s nagging wife means he has to stop early. So, with his young paparazzi friend Leah (Golja), Moose sets out to stalk Dunbar and have him scribble on a pricey replica he’s got of one of his vests. Luckily there’s an app for it: Star Map shows him where all the famous faces live. Only the hot-headed jerk doesn’t take too kindly to Moose showing up on his doorstep unannounced. He’s going to have to work hard to get that autograph.
John Travolta’s casting runs the risk of being hugely offensive – and given his reliance on tics, stammers and whines, it probably is. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by how much energy he puts into it: this is an actor giving it his all. Whether he’s getting beaten up or leaping around Hollywood Boulevard in a knowingly bad impression of a British bobby for photos (his only visible form of income), he’s 100% in. This is very different from a lot of his lazier recent work and, against the other more subdued ones, his performance stands out due to his endearing energy. Something I expect was Durst’s intention, to mark Moose as being even more of an outsider. Also, credit to JT for ditching his usual baggage: this is a transformational movie for him. There isn’t a hint of the effortless coolness he’s best known for, and I honestly forgot it was him for the most part. Still, as much as he’s able to inhabit the role, not even he can make Moose’s motivations make much sense.
It’s tough to escalate these kinds of films since the protagonist’s actions have to seem a logical next step to audiences that have identified with them ’til that point. They’ll be on board with Moose because they relate to the bits of him that aren’t dangerous, so his switch must be worked seamlessly into the script. Here it isn’t, with him going from well-meaning to psychopathic when the story demands it. And no, his autism can’t just be used as a device to explain his often baffling behaviour. The other characters aren’t well realised either, with Dunbar being just too much of an asshole because a) the story needs him to be one to function, and b) so we stay loyal to Moose. There are attempts to give him layers, like when we see him as an affectionate dad – even if a scene where he introduces his boy to Limp Bizkit is even more cringe-inducing than it sounds. Still, for the most part, we only see his anger management issues. Leah is quite charming, though given how well she knows Moose her decision to tell him about the app is either wholly naïve or criminally reckless. Either way, as with the others, she’s written more as a vehicle for the plot than an actual person. It’s a shame since visually The Fanatic is quite good – with a combo of dreamy perspective shots and an intimate, over the shoulder style: both which fit in with the intended character study. But first and foremost, a character study needs an interesting character.
Some people have suggested this film’s so bad it’s good. I can see this. Yet aside from a few inappropriate uses of “dangerous” music, like when Moose gets attacked by a pen, and some OTT bullies, those looking for a horror equivalent of The Room won’t find it here. This isn’t so bad its good as much as an often bad attempt at making what could be a good film. It lacks the try-hard eccentricities of Tommy Wiseau’s one-off. Still, there are some unintentionally funny framing choices. First, Durst opens the flick with a line from its own awful dialogue. Then we have some odd but pointless doodles – which are neither frequent nor aesthetically pleasing enough to justify their use. Then there is a strange voiceover from Leah, who pipes up every 20 minutes to either describe what’s happening onscreen, or what is about to happen. Trying to tell it from her view is a non-starter, given the amount of information we get that she couldn’t possibly have. It leaves me wondering if Durst felt like he had to reassure viewers that stuff will happen soon whilst the plot plods along.
Not that I think people will need to be told it’ll all go wrong – they can probably predict all three acts before the title sequence is done. To an extent that’s fine – numerous horror fans watch slashers, rape-revenge and found footage flicks despite them generally working to a template. Hell, I’m not going to treat the first four Friday films as genre classics then moan about The Fanatic for being unoriginal. However, all of these have the benefit of being faster paced and upping the ante as they go along. Moreover, for many of these formulaic flicks, the ones that stand out are usually the ones that either include well-rounded roles or subvert audience expectations. Whereas The Fanatic is inconsistently written and, structurally, pretty much everything you expect it to be. Nevertheless, for many viewers, I don’t think this will matter. Those looking for a semi-guilty pleasure, or who want to see John Travolta doing something completely different, will get something from this. The rest of you should keep on rollin’.
The Fanatic is out now on VOD and on DVD/ Blu-ray from July 20th.