Director: Robin Hardy
Scorpion Releasing

The “phone call killer” stalks Dublin ladies in WICKER MAN director’s sophomore effort (fifteen years later) THE FANTASIST, on DVD courtesy of Scorpion Releasing and Katarina’s Nightmare Theater.

Country girl Patricia (Moira Harris, BREAKDOWN) has just received her agriculture degree and passes on her Uncle Lar’s (Mick Lally, THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH) offer to run his farm in favor of taking a teaching job in Dublin. She takes up lodgings – including a shared bed – with virginal Monica (Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, RAWHEAD REX) in a boarding house and quickly finds herself popular with a series of intelligent if oddball men including a mother-obsessed fellow teacher with a balloon fetish (John Kavanagh, THE BLACK DAHLIA), a translator (Derek Halligan, RED MIST) who has just translated “The Great Gatsby” into medieval Irish, and American writer Danny (Timothy Bottoms, IN THE SHADOW OF KILIMANJARO) who turns out to be the husband of her artist neighbor Fionnuala (Deirdre Donnelly, TV’s BALLYKISSANGEL). Patricia enters into a flirty relationship with Danny that seems to be moving towards consummation when she is invited to join him at a vacationing friend’s cottage until she catches him making an obscene phone call to his own wife. She is merely put off at first until she discovers Fionnuala’s dead body the next day. She withholds the story of the phone call and her other suspicions that Danny may be the “phone call killer” (who has knifed a few ladies in a similar fashion after “romancing” them by phone and sending them a series of at first innocuous presents – including balloons – and then increasingly kinky presents) from investigating Inspector McMyler (Christopher Cazenove, HEAT AND DUST). Although there is no hard evidence pointing to Danny’s guilt, McMyler begins to shadow him and Patricia (she doesn’t mind since she finds the detective more charming and less odd than Danny). When Patricia starts receiving calls herself from someone she believes to the killer, Danny is just one of a handful of possible suspects among the pool of eccentric suitors and acquaintances.

Early on in the film, Patricia tells roommate Monica that she thinks what men really value in a woman is a “captive audience. They talk such a lot of bull” and that’s what she (and we) have to put up with for chunks of the running time as the male characters convey their red herring-ness to the viewer while bemusing our “pure of heart” heroine. Based on the novel “Goosefoot” by Patrick McGinley, the UK/Irish co-production THE FANTASIST is as much a thriller for most of its running time as the Simon Wincer’s Australian film THE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN/SNAPSHOT (1979) despite a splash of gore – courtesy of Nick Dudman (THE HUNGER) – and dollop of nudity. The identity of the killer is obvious enough that I really want to read the source novel to see if it’s a failing of the author or Hardy and his adaptation (just as THE WICKER MAN bore a possessory credit for screenwriter Anthony Schaeffer, THE FANTASIST is “Robin Hardy’s”). The climax involves the heroine being invited into the killer’s incriminating lair but it then tilts things sideways for a couple intriguing minutes before falling back on the usual ending to a “woman in peril” film (before an abrupt final WTF shot).

Bottoms is a rather flat romantic interest despite the number of opportunities the script gives him to be quirky, witty, and creepy (long before Patricia, we’re certain he’s not the killer no matter how many knives he wields or how many times he blows up at her or other people). Cazenove fares better as the wry detective unruffled by Danny’s attempts to bait him or the bad taste humor of his sergeant Farrelly (Liam O'Callaghan, EXCALIBUR) who remarks on the prone position of all of the victims that the killer probably isn’t a missionary. American actress Harris pours on the Irish accent a little too thickly, but that’s in keeping with Hardy’s general approach. Presumably the film’s primary audience was not going to be Irish; just as Hardy made exotic the Scots to outsiders in THE WICKER MAN, he slathers every transitional scene and montage of the Irish countryside to Celtic cues (to lesser effect compared to aforementioned film's collection of folk songs), and the alcoholism of Patricia’s relatives (and everything else involving her family) takes up an amount of screen time that could have been left on the cutting room floor for something more streamlined. The travelogue nightlife of Dublin, on the other hand, is accompanied by a live performance by British jazz-funk band Level 42 performing their “Top 40” hit (in 1981) “Love Games” as well as numbers from Kiki Dee and Private Lives. The suspense scenes (for what they are), on the other hand, are ably accompanied by atmospheric synth cues by Stanislas Syrewicz in the vein of his regrettably unreleased music for Ken Russell’s THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. That the end result often looks and feels like a particularly seedy episode of a British mystery series isn’t really the problem; although I’m guessing viewers at the time might have been forgiving had they watched it on TV rather than paying to see it on the big screen (or those who rented it stateside expecting a slasher from the cover art).

Unlike some of Scorpion’s ITV/Carlton acquisitions, THE FANTASIST’s anamorphic widescreen (1.72:1) transfer does not appear to be a 16:9 upscale version of a 4:3 master, and the results are attractive. The Dolby Digital 2.0 rendering of the Dolby Stereo track generally favors the original music and the pop tunes (some dialogue requires amplification but that may be a fault of the original mix). Katarina Leigh Waters appears in opening and closing segments touching on the principal actors’ other credits, the fact that star Harris is now Mrs. Gary Sinise, Hardy’s sole prior directorial effort, and the film’s misleading marketing stateside on video (courtesy of Republic Pictures Home Video). There is no trailer for the film, but trailers for DEATH SHIP, MORTUARY, NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, DOUBLE EXPOSURE, THE HEARSE, TERROR, THE SURVIVOR, and SATAN’S SLAVE are included. Like all ITV titles, Scorpion’s disc of THE FANTASIST is coded for Region 1 playback only. (Eric Cotenas)