Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
The concept of the sophomore slump is something most associated with artists — filmmakers, singers, writers — who’ve followed up an acclaimed debut with something far less stellar. Robin Hardy‘s debut, The Wicker Man (1973), had a bumpy premiere but quickly found its footing as a folk horror masterpiece and cult favorite among genre fans with a taste for cruel, atmospheric slow burns, and it’s a fixture now on lists of the best horror films from the 20th century. Hardy’s follow-up, though, wouldn’t see the light for another thirteen years. The Fantasist came and went in 1986 with no one the wiser, but while it can’t touch its predecessor on even a single front it remains a memorably weird creation all the same.
What’s it about?
“I’m the one who’s supposed to do the heavy breathing, Cathy,” says the elegant caller as the exhausted young woman answers her phone. She’s used to these calls and no fan, but as far as anonymous, stalkerish phone calls go this guy sounds fairly polite and erudite. He still breaks into her flat, strips her nude, and stabs her to death, though. The murder stuns Dublin, but it’s not enough to stop young Patricia (Moira Sinise) from leaving the country behind for a teaching job in the big city in the hopes of expanding her horizons. She soon finds herself entangled with a trio of oddball men as she explores her romantic options, but could one of them be the killer? Probably.
Patricia’s no shy, virginal wallflower, though, and she’s just as likely to slam a beer with the boys as she is to flash her underwear to a sleazy American (Timothy Bottoms) after she overhears him making a dirty phone call. Danny’s knife collection is equally suspicious, but could a writer trying to pitch a story to The New Yorker actually be a murderer? Maybe. Then there’s Inspector McMyler (Christopher Cazenove) whose breath smells of basil and whose limp suggests a man who’s known pain. Weird enough to be a madman? Possibly. And let’s not forget her fellow teacher, Robert (John Kavanaugh), who wants to impregnate a particular woman and hands out balloons similar to one found at the most recent murder scene. Off-putting along the lines of a killer? Could be. Or maybe, and bear with me here, maybe Patricia herself is the one stabbing women in the back!
Look, anything’s possible in Ireland.
What makes it sublime?
The Fantasist is part giallo, part character comedy, and part coming of age movie as a young woman finds her way in the real world. Does all of it work? That’s going to be up to you to decide, but for my money even a flawed attempt at trying something different can often be more interesting than something that’s successful at being more of the same. Hardy, who writes and directs here, may not have been fully aware of what he was aiming for tonally, but if you’ve seen any of his three films it’s equally possible this result is exactly what he intended.
Patricia is the film’s focus, both because she’s the lead and because it’s her journey that viewers are following along with, and Hardy’s goal seems to include making her a fully formed character. We see her family struggles as an uncle falls into the bottle when she leaves for the city, we watch her attempts at engaging with men around her, and we follow her efforts to navigate a world where her next date could end with a sharp knife in her bare back.
There are a handful of killings here, but Hardy never focuses on blood or gore and instead seems more interested in other characters’ responses to the murders. Patricia is understandably disturbed, especially as she discovers one of the victims, but she’s also direct about confronting men who get out of line. She shuts them down with a smooth mix of grace and anger, but that said, she’s also clearly up for a little fooling around with these sketchy characters too. One tells her to strip to her knickers so he can show off his skills with a dowsing rod — yes, of course it’s the American — and she’s not having it. Later, when she comes to believe she’s in the presence of the killer, she uses her feminine wiles to blindside him with sex allowing her to get away after. It’s atypical and arguably progressive, but it also marks her as a fresh character in a sub-genre highlighted by virgins and ass-kickers.
The film does an interesting job with its red herrings making it wholly believable that any of these guys could be the killer, and to that end it’s saying something as much about men in general as this man in particular. Patricia’s uncle falls apart because she leaves, another gets offended by her resistance to his “charms,” and yet another attempts to claim something of an ownership over her beauty — and she’s not having any of it.
There are laughs throughout, but two of the biggest occur in the third act. First, after convincing — ie threatening — a woman into stripping naked and lying on his couch, the killer’s rambling reaches the point where he voices concern for her skin growing too cold. So, like the gentleman that he is, he proceeds to play bongos on her butt cheeks. And the scene… goes on… forever. The woman moves from scared to confused to determined over the course of what feels like several minutes, and it seems unlikely that Hardy didn’t envision audiences laughing at the absurdity. The second lands in the film’s final moments and features the most hilarious rendition of “man overboard” that you’ve ever heard. It’s ridiculous, but even as you’re smiling Hardy throws one last beat at viewers that leave them rethinking most of what they’ve just watched.
And in conclusion…
As was the case when The Fantasist first released back in 1986, its tonal ambiguity will still leave most viewers cold. The opening kill is tense and disturbing, but later character interactions feel playful leading to a finale that delivers both a laugh and a note of uncertainty. It’s an odd film, but it works if you can get on its slightly skewed wavelength as an offbeat thriller more interested in character choices than the expected thrills, and it’s well worth checking out for fans of Irish shenanigans.