Tomb of Forgotten Film: The Fantasist (1986)

In the wake of my Wicker Man review a couple of weeks back, I was most interested to listen to one of my favorite pod casts, The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema, share their thoughts on the film in their most recent  episode. As always, it was a great listen, and the hosts were musing about the limited career of Wicker Man director Robin Hardy. Since the 1973 classic, Hardy has had a very limited career that has included one episode of a TV show and a single film. While he does have another film in the works, a continuation of the Wicker Man saga entitled Cowboys for Christ; my interest was peaked as to what his other film was like. So I cruised on over to Netflix and, lo and behold, they not only had the film, they had it as one of their “Watch it Now” titles. I was thrilled and immediately hit the play button hoping for a hidden gem that would hold up against Hardy’s more popular title, I eagerly awaited to be thrilled, but perhaps I was….
The Fantasist (1986) starring Moria Harris, Timothy Bottoms, Christopher Cazenove, and John Kavanagh. Directed by Robin Hardy. 

When a simple country girl, Patricia (Harris), moves from the Irish countryside to the city of Dublin, she takes a job as a teacher in a local school. After finding a place to live, Patricia goes on a date with English professor Mr. Foxley (Kavanagh), but she finds him to be a strange sort of fellow. Trying her luck by going to a disco she meets a man, Danny (Timothy Bottoms), but soon finds out that he is the husband of her neighbor upstairs. Soon after that Danny’s wife turns up dead, and Patty begins getting strange phone calls, the same type that women all over Dublin have been getting before they are killed. She begins to suspect the Danny is the culprit and shares her thoughts with police inspector McMyler (Cazenove), but all around her strange things begin to happen and she begins to think there’s no one she can trust. 

The Bugg Picture

There was 13 years between the releases of The Wicker Man and when The Fantasist made its debut, as to what Hardy did in those intervening years, I have no idea. One thing he did do was write the script on which he based his new film, and perhaps he had a little too long to work on it. The Fantasist is a film beset on all sides by problems. From the tone of the film to the acting, this was a film that was just all over the place. Where The Wicker Man was a deftly crafted story with tons of atmospheric goodness, The Fantasist seemed more of a loose collection of ideas that never come together to make anything happen. That’s not to say that it’s not an enjoyable film, but more on that later.

I want to start right off with the film’s biggest problem, tone. From the opening scenes of a ghastly rape and murder interwoven clumsily with the carving of a roast at Patricia’s family meal, I was not sure what to expect. Then in the very next scene, as the police find the girl, naked and raped, face down on her sofa, an officer quips that the killer “was not a missionary”. Not only is the joke in poor taste, but its poorly delivered. The latter of the two caused me to bristle where in another film I might have just thought the officer to be an ass, here it struck me that the film itself was the one with problems. As the story progresses her English professor date asks if he can rub her tummy because his mother did when he was a child with bad wind, Danny uses a dousing rod to try and get in Patty’s knickers, her roommate desires to discuss the merits of virginity, and Bottoms goes way over the top with all his reactions. Each of these scenes detracted from any tension that was building. There are copious other examples, but suffice it to say that Hardy’s story is broken by not maintaining a consistent tone throughout the film. 

It’s too bad because I can tell there is a good story here. In fact, it’s a very engaging story. It would have to be to keep me watching through all the problems it has. To understand the story let me take a moment to talk about the title. The word fantasist, meaning one who creates fantasies, or more aptly a person who grows, makes or invents things, refers to almost every character you meet in the film. Patty has come to Dublin to “look around” and has an ideal of a man that she is seeking in the big city. Danny makes obscene phone calls to his own wife because the man who used to call her stopped some time ago. Patty’s roommate, the Inspector, and the English professor all have little character quirks that fit the bill. It actually lead me for a while to my own fantasy where the script took a more bizarre turn á la Hardy’s Wicker Man, but it was not to be. The way the characters develop in the little lies and flights of fancy are the key to the film, but in the end, while the device pays off, it does leave you wishing Hardy had been more inventive himself. 

The other thing holding this film back is the acting. While many members of the cast are native Irish or English actors, Hardy cast then unknown American actress Moria Harris in the lead role. While she has appeared in many roles since, most notably in Terminator 3 and most interestingly in a couple of episodes of The Equalizer which starred Wicker Man lead Edward Woodward, Harris might be most well known now as the wife of CSI and Forrest Gump actor, Gary Sinise. While her acting was nowhere near the worst in the film, her on again/off again accent definitely hindered her role as a traditional Irish beauty. 

The worst acting award for this film definitely belongs to Timothy Bottoms. Bottoms broke out in the Peter Bogdanovich film The Last Picture Show, but he’s never had discriminating choice in film, case in point the 1997 gimmick slasher Uncle Sam. In The Fantasist, his character Danny is supposed to be a writer with a wild side, but to Bottoms, that apparently meant he should play the role with unrestrained enthusiasm no matter what else was going on. This leads to several scenes where the tone (here we go again) of the film was shattered by Bottoms taking it way over the top. There were some good subtle performances in the film as Christopher Cazenove and John Kavanagh both hit the marks perfectly as the tummy rubbing English professor and the one legged Inspector.

Coming in as another plus for the film is the cinematography. Frank Gell, who was only on his second picture. As Hardy’s Wicker Man captured the beauty of the Scottish countryside, Gell’s camerawork perfectly encompasses the pastoral quality of the Irish countryside as well as making Dublin seem like a metropolis. This dichotomy meshes with the inner struggle Patricia has between her simple upbringing and her new urban life. As she finds out that the picturesque country life can be as unsettling as the city, the shots reflect this as well. This is one of the strongest features of the film, but unfortunately the music composed for the film by Stanislas Syerwicz, who also scored Ken Russell’s 1988 The Lair of the White Worm, is forgettable at best and intrusive at worst. Seeming even stranger are the pop songs shoehorned into the film by English pop rockers Level 42 and sometimes Elton John collaborator Kiki Dee. Neither tune seemed to fit in with the film, and they are unnecessarily featured.

The Fantasist is half of a good film. It kept my interest and I was guessing the identity of the killer right up until the reveal. Unfortunately once the reveal does happen there is still more than fifteen minutes left in the film, and the ending has a tacked on “shocking” feeling which is neither shocking nor necessary. I think that’s the big problem with the flick. There’s much of the film that is not at all needed, and if it had gotten a tighter pass in either the scripting or editing stages then it may have turned out well. As it was, it came nowhere close to the majesty of atmosphere that Hardy created in The Wicker Man, but there’s enough there that I have hopes that he can return to form after more than 20 years have passes since his last feature. So until Hardy finishes his new film, I would recommend anyone who liked The Wicker Man check The Fantasist out, for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. 

Bugg Rating
 Sadly no trailer was available so in it's place here's a clip from a BBC Scotland doc about The Wicker Man. 

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