Stalker movies - The genre that just won't go away

As Patrice Chéreau's 'Persecution' premieres at the London Film Festival, Geoffrey Macnab looks over his shoulder and sees the stalker movie lurking in the shadows of movie history

This paltry thing – our lives – he wanted it," the middle-aged heroine (Stockard Channing) observes of the young confidence-trickster (Will Smith) who inveigles his way into her home in the film Six Degrees of Separation (1993). She's a sophisticated New Yorker with a big Manhattan apartment. He is a street hustler who pretends he is movie star Sidney Poitier's son so that he can gatecrash her world. It is the classic set-up in what has become its own mini-genre: the "stalker" movie.

In film history, there have been many films made about stalkers who want to force their way into the lives of their prey. They may be driven by envy, lust, ambition, malice or a simple desire for friendship but the result is always the same, The stalkers leave havoc in their wake.

French director Patrice Chéreau's Persecution is the latest stalker movie. In the film, Daniel (Romain Duris) is giving his girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a very tough time. He's angry and emotionally immature. Just as he victimises her, he in turn is tormented by a stalker: a stranger (Jean-Hugues Anglade) who spots him on the Metro and becomes besotted with him. This stranger claims to be in love with Daniel, watches him intently, and breaks into his apartment.

The storyline is directly based on an incident in Chéreau's own life. "It happened to me exactly like that," the French film-maker and opera director recalls. Two decades ago, Chéreau was harassed over a period of three years by a stalker. "He said I was the man of his life." At one stage, he found this stalker in his apartment. "I had to fight with him physically. If you say to someone, 'please leave and take the door', and he doesn't listen, what do you do? You push him. He was very strong physically – incredibly strong and incredibly nervous." Chéreau likens evicting the stalker to moving a block of concrete. "But I did it."

Eventually, a restraining order was placed on Chéreau's tormentor, who wasn't allowed to come within 500 metres of him. The director still doesn't know what drove his stalking. "It was flattering for 10 minutes and then not flattering at all."

Arguably the greatest depiction of stalkerdom ever shown in the movies comes in Joseph L Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950). The stalker in this case is the deceptively demure would-be actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who clings, limpet-like, to celebrated stage star Margot (Bette Davis.) We think she's an ingénue: a poor little theatre-struck girl from Wisconsin. In fact, her intentions are entirely predatory. Unlike many other movie stalkers, Eve is rational. Ambition drives her, not psychosis. Even so, the film follows the trajectory of the classic stalker movie. This paltry thing – Margot's life – she wants it and she will do what is necessary to take it. Mankiewicz's zinging one-liners, beautifully put over by Bette Davis ("I've seen better days, but I'm still not to be had for the price of a cocktail – like a salted peanut"), don't hide the rottenness at the heart of the film.

In a very different register but sharing many of the same themes is Martin Scorsese's King Of Comedy (1982). In All About Eve, Anne Baxter at least has a real relationship with Bette Davis. In Scorsese's film the mediocre would-be comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) only knows Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) through television. That doesn't stop him thinking that he has an intimate relationship with him. "I'm just a human being", Langford pleads to Pupkin. That's not an argument that has ever cut any sway with a stalker.

King Of Comedy seems premonitory. It was made before the explosion in reality TV and shows like I'm a Celebrity. The maniacal behaviour of Pupkin and his fellow obsessive, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who end up kidnapping Jerry, seemed extreme in the early 1980s. It underlined the ambivalent relationship that fans have always had with their idols. Their devotion comes tinged with hostility and, in extreme cases, a will to violence. They can feel hurt and betrayed very easily. The difference now is that it's TV producers who kidnap the celebrities on the fans' behalf – and the celebrities collude.

Of course, the resentment works both ways. You sometimes get the sense that the reason Hollywood makes so many stalker movies is to express the exasperation that the stars and the film-makers feel toward their fans. As they go on the publicity trail, sitting reluctantly at press conferences or on round-table interviews, the "talent" can give the impression that they feel just as trapped as James Caan, when he is tormented by the fan from hell (Kathy Bates), in Rob Reiner's Misery (1990).

The "stalker" movie is a very versatile genre. Noir-ish thrillers (often with an undertow of misogyny) will show the femme fatale preying on or stalking the male hero. This was certainly the case in Fatal Attraction (1987). Glenn Close's famous line, "I am not going to be ignored!" stands as a rallying cry for stalkers everywhere. Like Fatal Attraction, Clint Eastwood's Play Misty For Me (1971) focuses on a male character who brings the furies down on himself by having a one-night stand.

Only rarely do "stalker" movies take a downbeat, realist route. Even a literary adaptation like Roger Michell's Enduring Love (2004), based on the Ian McEwan novel, ended up with a bloody, Grand Guignol-style final sequence that wouldn't have been that much out of place in a slasher movie. In the film, Rhys Ifans plays Jed, who becomes obsessed with Joe (Daniel Craig), a tough-minded middle-class academic. They were both witnesses to a freak ballooning accident in which a man died. Jed is still the bogeyman, though. As played by Ifans, he is a shambolic but increasingly sinister outsider whose irrational behaviour offends Joe as much as it threatens him.

That is why Chéreau's Persecution is so unusual. It is not judgemental. The stalker is clearly ill. His conviction that he loves – and is loved – by a man he has never properly met underlines the fact that he is utterly delusional. However, the way he persecutes Daniel is mirrored in the way Daniel torments his girlfriend. Anglade doesn't just play him as a pantomime-style villain but makes us aware that he is suffering too.

"It's scary," Chéreau recalls of his experience at the hands the stranger who indirectly inspired Persecution by stalking him. However, his fascination with the character is also self-evident. "Nobody can change his mind," the director says of the movie version of his tormentor. "For him, this is true love at first sight. He doesn't ask Daniel whether he agrees or not. He loves him." The French director pinpoints just what makes stalkers such sad and forlorn figures, even at their most vengeful: they're incapable of seeing from any perspective other than their own.

'Persecution' receives its British premiere at the London Film Festival on Wednesday 28 October