Fantasy Island is a “re-imagining” (to use one of Hollywood’s favorite words) of the semi-iconic ABC television series that ran for seven seasons between 1977 and 1984. The show starred Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) as Mr. Roarke, a mysterious and possibly supernatural character who welcomed guests to his fabulous island where, for a price, they could live out their fantasies–although those scenarios didn’t always turn out as the guests expected.
Montalban’s Roarke and his assistant/sidekick Tattoo (the late Herve Villechaize) would welcome two new guests to the island each week, with Tattoo ringing a bell at the top of a tower and shouting, “The plane! The plane!” as the aircraft bearing the visitors would descend. “Smiles, everyone, smiles!” would be the order from the urbane, cultured Mr. Roarke as he gathered the staff to greet the new arrivals.
I mention all this because the original Fantasy Island has faded somewhat in the pop culture zeitgeist, but a few trademark signifiers from the show remain and they have been mostly transferred–with some notable differences–to the this movie. The biggest difference between the series and the film, which should not be surprising given that it’s the latest entry from the Blumhouse Films genre factory, is that this iteration of Fantasy Island sits squarely in the horror genre. The show, which often could get quite dark, nevertheless stayed more in the terrain of magic realism.
Directed and co-written by Jeff Wadlow (Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare, Kick-Ass 2), Fantasy Island retains a lot of the basic structure of the show, as Mr. Roarke (played here by Michael Peña) and his staff (minus Tattoo or a comparable sidekick character) welcome a planeful of guests to indulge their deepest wishes. The movie focuses on four stories and, unlike the show (which kept its storylines separate so that the series could be broken into shorter half-hour chunks for syndication), the four weave in and around each other in occasionally unexpected ways.
Gwen (Maggie Q) is there to replay a decision she made regarding her future while Melanie (Lucy Hale) arrives on the island to get revenge on a childhood bully. Patrick (Austin Stowell) is a cop who wants to meet his long-dead father, a soldier killed in combat, while J.D. (Ryan Hansen) and his adopted brother Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) are simply there for a bacchanalian weekend of partying, drinking, sex, and hedonism. Once the fantasies begin, and Roarke tells the guests that they cannot be halted once they’re in progress, the fun really begins.
On paper, Fantasy Island easily lends itself to a horror take, and Wadlow is effective at balancing the screentime and narrative flow for all four storylines. But the characters are thin as that paper I just mentioned, and there are more elements to the story–including hidden aspects of the island itself–that make no sense. In fact, the longer the movie goes on, the less sense it makes, even if the film seems to mildly concede that.
Make no mistake: Fantasy Island is not a very good movie, nor is it especially well-acted, with the exception of Peña. The Ant-Man actor plays it mostly straight but still manages to make his Roarke funny. The reliably nuts Michael Rooker is also amusing in a role that is best left undiscussed.
The rest of the cast seems unsure of whether to go for broad strokes or keep it relatively serious. The results don’t add up to anything very coherent, even as I found myself entertained. The lack of any real logic and the superficial nature of the story help to keep the film moving along in a satisfying C-movie fashion, but “elevated” horror this is not.
Horror is a wide-ranging genre: one can enjoy the sublime terrors of films like The Innocents or the epic, character-driven horror of a movie like It: Chapter One, and yet kick back with any number of kitschy, exploitative, drecky slasher films or “animals run amok” cheapies. Fantasy Island is a glossy, more slick version of that latter category, and while it’s not scary or meaningful in the slightest, one can have a good time watching it. Or maybe I’m living in a fantasy gone wrong.
Fantasy Island is out in theaters this Friday (February 14).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye