‘Fantasy Island’ Basks in B-Movie Craziness Before Becoming a Regular Action Romp
There’s always been a certain merit to the way good camp uses its exaggerated style to explore simple yet meaningful ideas. “Fantasy Island” starts off with some oddball but not unengaging themes before going off the rails. It’s a film update of an ABC television series that ran from 1977 to 1984, now filtered through the trademark Blumhouse style of B-movie cinema done with slick production values. Like its lavish mansion it’s fun, until you go further and further down its corridors.
Into a lush island land a group of special guests, Elena (Maggie Q), Melanie (Lucy Hale), Brax (Jimmy O. Yang), Bradley (Ryan Hansen) and Randall (Austin Stowell). Each has come with the hope of having a fantasy come true courtesy of the island’s owner, the enigmatic Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña). Immediately paradise seems to be revealed. Brax and Bradley get to endlessly indulge in hot female models for Bradley and buffed studs for Brax, Randall can finally live his dream of being a soldier, Elena gets the husband and child she’s always wanted, and Melanie finds herself in a dungeon with the chance to torture her childhood bully. But the fantasies start getting dark fast. Soon it becomes evident that the fantasies Mr. Roarke promises come with a possibly deadly price, because everyone is unaware they are all part of someone else’s vengeful desires.
Longtime fans of the Blumhouse catalogue will instantly recognize many of the familiar characters and themes in “Fantasy Island.” Director Jeff Wadlow was a producer on another typical offering from the studio, 2018’s teen fest “Truth or Dare.” He takes the premise of the original “Fantasy Island” TV show and polishes it to the full Blumhouse spirit. The first act is not bad camp, with every character representing some kind of moralistic or social commentary. Brax and Bradley are biracial siblings and Brax is gay, but they both fall for the old sin of sexual/partying vice, Elena is the woman in her 40’s longing for marriage, Melanie is the flirtatious blonde who is still scarred from being a late bloomer while Randall wants to play soldier, not realizing the violent truth about his masculine fantasies. This is all in good B-movie fun. We get some set pieces that are absurd but entertaining, like Melanie finding her old bully Sonja (Portia Doubleday) tied to a torture chair for her own pleasure, or Randall coming across a band of real soldiers on a secret mission who then take him captive. Inevitably Bradley and Brax find a room full of fancy weapons, you can imagine where this is going. Pretty soon men in masks invade the house and the movie goes into full action mode. Before the bullets start flying there are some scenes of good campy drama, like Elena being guided into a restaurant by Mr. Roarke where the fiancé she never got married to is waiting, ready to rekindle their romance. Randall discovers one of the soldiers who have taken him captive might be his father. But is any of it real? That’s the charm of the premise.
Aesthetically the Blumhouse films veer from simple to enticing nostalgia. “Fantasy Island” has the lush cinematography of a melodrama in its first scenes, and a music score by Bear McCreary that harkens back to studio hits like “Upgrade” by having a tinge of ’80s synth grindhouse. Everyone is good looking of course. Michael Peña fits the role nicely of island magnate Mr. Roarke, taking it just seriously enough to always be appropriately deadpan. The rest of the cast are essentially in charge of convincingly doing rehash. While the characters can be interesting representations of the ideas the film wants to explore, by the end they get stuck in action scenes that feel recycled from countless other low grade thrillers.
The third act of “Fantasy Island” is standard material as everyone realizes their fantasies are traps of death. Mr. Roarke has been playing with strange forces centered on an underground well, so everyone, at least those who have survived until this point, make their way into dark caves where strange threats might emerge from between cobwebs. The final revelations about why all of the guests became targets is overly complicated, even for soap operas. It doesn’t even matter when all you need is a grenade to solve any lingering conflicts in “Fantasy Island.”
How does one go about recommending or not recommending “Fantasy Island”? It’s almost designed to cater to Blumhouse aficionados who will hoot and holler at specific moments. Other audience members might wish it had actually basked in cheaper grindhouse thrills than just more standard action fare. Fans of the TV show will roll their eyes at the final scene, where a certain important character is revealed in the most ridiculous use of a tattoo in many a moon. Its proper home might just be suited on a streaming device or an On-Demand option for a certain number of cable channels, where guilty pleasures have a way of entertaining you when insomnia strikes.
“Fantasy Island” opens Feb. 14 in theaters nationwide.