By Jeffrey Sanzel
Few who lived through the late-seventies to mid-eighties could avoid an awareness of the two cultural − and, ultimately, cult − monoliths that dominated Saturday night television: The Love Boat (nine seasons; 1977 to 1987) and Fantasy Island (seven seasons; 1977 to 1984). Both were introduced in TV movies, played on ABC, and boasted a parade of guest stars, ranging in both level of celebrity and talent.
Each episode of Fantasy Island, the darker of the pair, featured two to three separate stories. The island’s visitors all came away wiser if a bit bruised from the experience. The theme, week after week, was clearly “careful what your wish for.”
Entering the realm of iconography was the spritely Hervé Villechaize as Tattoo, and his cry of “The plane! The plane!” This was complimented by Ricardo Montalbán, suavely raising a glass with his, “My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island.”
Directed by Jeff Wadlow (with a script by Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs), Fantasy Island has reached the big screen as Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island albeit a decidedly different incarnation. Blumhouse Productions gave us the cutting and insightful satire Get Out, but it also is responsible for more common fare such as Truth or Dare, Happy Death Day 2U, and others. Fantasy Island clearly falls into the latter category.
A group of disparate people believe they have won a contest and are brought to a remote island where they are each told they will received the fantasy of their choice. Gwen Olsen (Maggie Q) needs to undo what she thinks was the worst choice of her life: rejection of a marriage proposal. Former policeman Patrick Sullivan (Austin Stowell) aspires to be a soldier; his wish is wrapped up in a need to connect with his father who died saving men in his platoon. Stepbrothers and “bros” J.D. (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) want to “have it all.” Finally, Melanie Cole (Lucy Hale) desires revenge on her childhood bully (played by Portia Doubleday).
They are told at the outset by the not-so-mysterious Mr. Roarke (Michal Peña) that they must see their fantasies through to the end. The machine grinds to life.
All of this might − might − have worked had the film aimed for a modicum of subtlety. The idea of wishes always being a doubled-edged sword is not new but has great potential. Sadly, it is surprising to think that the rather kitsch television series was ultimately more sophisticated.
From the first moments of the film, “THIS IS A HORROR MOVIE” is not so much telegraphed as it is ballistically launched. Generically ominous music, a ghoulish staff that lopes and hovers like refugees from a Halloween walk-through, and images of snakes everywhere (a nod toward the invasion of the Garden of Eden? a sale on serpent knickknacks?), there is no possibility of anything other than waiting for the limp scares. How much more interesting it would have been to let the fantasies emerge and grow before changing into nightmares. For such a dark movie, it is almost completely lacking in tension; even the jump-outs and the mild gore seem lacking in any commitment to frighten.
Instead, the movie immediately devolves into the characters running around the island, hiding and escaping and then being caught … and then hiding and escaping and then being caught. What eventually comes to the forefront is a convoluted mythology of how the island works. It is both simple and overly complicated, dampened by a lot of dripping black blood.
It is not until late in the film that all the strands come together for a very nice “aha” moment of how the characters are actually connected. It is here that the story takes a brief up-tick with an extra twist before once again watching the characters hide and get caught and escape. For just a few clever moments, there is a glimmer of hope before it all slides back down into the mire of its own lore, winding toward a very anti-climactic dénouement. There is one humorous nod to the series in the last moments of the film but it was one of the very few shout-outs and seems a bit misplaced.
With the move toward constant reboots, the real fear is what will come next? Joanie Loves Chachi Loves Satan? Facts of Life: Tootie’s Revenge? One can only hide in the jungle for so long.
Rated PG-13, Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island is now playing in local theaters