‘Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island’: Film ReviewVariety — Peter Debruge
Somewhere, someone has been desperately hoping that Hollywood would get around to making a movie adaptation of the late-’70s TV show “Fantasy Island.” Meanwhile, it would seem that the rest of us — that is, the filmgoing public — are just extras in an elaborate cautionary tale designed to teach that person a lesson. The point being: Be careful what you wish for; such corny old TV series are better suited for reruns than for reboots. As suave yet sinister host Mr. Roarke warns the half-dozen expendable douchebags — er, guests — who’ve traveled to this enchanted retreat to live out their wildest dreams, “Fantasies rarely play out as you would expect.”
This one at least packs the novelty of having been reconfigured into a Blumhouse horror movie (producer Jason Blum previously delivered such low-budget, high-concept hits as “Paranormal Activity,” “The Purge” and “Get Out”). That means a chance to explore the shadowy corners of a property originally designed to accommodate a parade of flashy guest stars, à la “The Love Boat” before it — although that show doesn’t accommodate a zombie outbreak nearly so easily. In remaking Gene Levitt’s primetime series, “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” leans into the natural darkness of its namesake while mistakenly assuming that millennials know or care the slightest thing about it.
Will they appreciate Michael Peña’s thickly accented homage to Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban, who played the original Mr. Roarke? Will they miss the character of Tattoo, played by the inimitable Hervé Villechaize? (Frankly, “imitable” would be a more appropriate word to describe Roarke’s diminutive henchman, whose trademark “Ze plane! Ze plane!” became a popular catchphrase.) On one hand, Blumhouse’s “Fantasy Island” seems unlikely to satisfy anyone who remembers the vintage ABC show or its short-lived 1998 revival, swapping out the weekly pleasure of watching Roarke torment the revolving cast of has-beens (TV stars like Peter Graves and Maureen McCormick found intermittent work after their hit series were canceled) for a more convoluted plot in which the island engineers a series of deadly scenarios for a bunch of shallow nobodies (over-actors like Lucy Hale, Maggie Q and Portia Doubleday).
Director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow (who earned a shot at this more extravagant project after delivering Blumhouse’s “Truth or Dare” for a mere $3.5 million) must have impressed someone with his take on the material, with its “Cabin in the Woods”-like ambitions. The finished film plays at times like an out-of-control pitch meeting, lurching from one ostensibly clever idea to the next without taking the trouble to connect the dots, or even to remain consistent with the two simple rules it sets out for itself. First, only one fantasy per person (no do-overs, unless the do-over itself happens to be your fantasy). Second, each guest must see his or her fantasy through to its natural conclusion — and they inevitably “turn twisted” after a time.
That last bit of analysis comes from a wild-eyed, machete-wielding loon played by Michael Rooker, who might be trustworthy — or he might be another manifestation of the supernatural force that governs Fantasy Island. His character watches ominously from the bush as “ze plane” arrives bearing five Instagram-ready hot bodies, who look like they made a wrong turn en route to Fyre Festival. As Melanie, Hale harrumphs that there’s no signal, while high-fiving step-“bros” JD (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) reek of Axe body wash. After flirting with Gwen (Maggie Q) on the dismount, ex-cop Patrick (Austin Stowell) heads to his room and instantly removes his shirt. Cue gratuitous camera pan down to his pecs. Gwen also changes into her skivvies, getting something of a shock when she spots a creepy figure in her bathroom mirror.
Whose fantasy is this, again? Oh right, yours. And if such titillation does it for you, then the ensuing assortment of cheap thrills just might suffice. For a horror remake of “Fantasy Island,” however, the PG-13 rating doesn’t allow for much in the way of actual scares. It may be more practical to think of the movie as a hybrid of various genres, as each character’s fantasy takes the shape of a different kind of film.
JD dreams of “having it all,” so Roarke leads him and Brax to a crazy backyard bash cribbed from pothead house-party movies like “Old School” and “This Is the End” (minus anything that would have pushed the film into R-rated territory). Gwen regrets turning down a boyfriend’s marriage proposal five years earlier, so Roarke conjures a soft-focus romantic scene straight out of the Nicholas Sparks playbook. Patrick always wanted to be a soldier, so he gets to play “Platoon” alongside the hero dad he never knew.
The only one who seems to be sticking to the horror genre is Melanie, who longs to get back at the girl who bullied her in high school, Sloane (Doubleday). Roarke instructs her to take the elevator to the basement of the island mansion (whose exterior does a fine job of matching the one seen on the show), where a torture-porn scenario awaits: Sloane sits strapped into a dental chair, while a diabolical surgeon (Ian Roberts) with an autopsy saw is prepared to make her pay. Again, things can only go so far within the confines of a PG-13 rating — which comes as a relief in this particular situation.
It takes the characters nearly an hour to understand the idea that they’re getting to experience their fantasies. Maybe that’s because, instead of paying $50,000 for the privilege the way they did on TV, they are all winners of a contest whose details are never divulged. Given that change, few will be surprised to learn that they’ve been assembled for the amusement (or revenge) of someone else, although the movie doesn’t explain why that person is allowed to violate the first rule of Fantasy Island.
No matter. Wadlow has designed the experience like a ride, whisking audiences along quickly enough that they’re not meant to dwell on plot holes. Granted, it’s hard to predict where the plot is headed when the core premises are constantly in flux and one’s ears are ringing with Bear McCreary’s overemphatic score, although by the end, as certain characters are brought back to life and others are turned into “black-eyed zombies,” audiences will most likely be wishing they’d bought a ticket to another movie.