All initial signs pointed to this modern Fantasy Island being a colossal mistake. It’s yet another adaptation of a classic TV show. Strike one. Even worse, they changed it to be a horror movie. Strike two. Although you recognize Michael Peña immediately and know Maggie Q and Lucy Hale, no major actor signed on to this project. Strike three. Despite these warning signs, something funny happened when I watched this film. I liked it. I didn’t love it, but it didn’t underwhelm me, either. Rather than deplane before you reach Fantasy Island, settle back in your seat and ride out this surprisingly entertaining horror flick.
Leave it to Blumhouse Productions to fund this unusual take on the television series that shared a night with and followed The Love Boat. Writer/director Jeff Wadlow and writers Jillian Jacobs and Christopher Roach comprise the same team who brought you 2018’s Truth or Dare, also starring Hale. Five people arrive on a plane to the titular location. The mysterious Mr. Roarke (Peña) welcomes these contest winners and lays out two rules — each guest is allowed only one fantasy, and the guest must play out the fantasy to the end. Gwen Olsen (Maggie Q) wants a redo on some bad decisions that she made. Melanie Cole (Hale of Pretty Little Liars and Katy Keene) dreams of retribution against a school bully (Portia Doubleday). Patrick Sullivan (Austin Stowell) plans to honor his late father, whereas boneheads J.D. Weaver (Ryan Hansen) and his brother Brax (Jimmy O. Yang of Silicon Valley) just want to drink and party with pretty people. The story switches back and forth between the characters as they live out their fantasies and eventually realize that there’s something more sinister going on.
The actresses command your attention here more than the men. Maggie Q’s years of experience with movies and TV series like Nikita and Designated Survivor help her bring sorrow tinged with regret to this role. Hale bounces all over the place with a perky attitude and blonde hair, so it’s a surprise to watch her change gears and cower when she faces her childhood nemesis. Doubleday makes the most with what is a smaller role and left me with the impression that maybe she should have had her own story. Nevertheless, five fantasies crammed into one movie approaches the limit. As much as I like Peña and even forgive him for his cringe-worthy moments in last year’s Dora and the Lost City of Gold, he’s not at his best here… because of his accent. RIP Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize from the original series. Montalban had a unique way of speaking that really shouldn’t be imitated like John Wayne, Matthew McConaughey or Woody Allen. The filmmakers probably wanted to cast a Hispanic actor in the role and insisted on the accent. Peña’s work is otherwise strong enough here without it. As an added bonus, a ragged Michael Rooker runs around the island and later helps the castaways, uh, visitors figure out what’s at the heart of their experiences.
How does Fantasy Island turn from comedy and romance to another genre entirely? Quite well, actually. Much like an O. Henry story, be careful what you wish for on this island. As the guests learn, fantasies can quickly turn into nightmares. Fortunately, Wadlow doesn’t rely on jump scares to deliver the terror. Instead, layers of fear penetrate the plotlines until the terror escalates to a reasonable finale. Dripping black stuff keeps you wondering until the explanation later on, and a plot twist that the writers keep hidden ramps up the anxiety as you wonder who’s really in danger and why. All of the tropes of a modern horror film coat the framework of the original concept for a concoction that blends the best elements of both. The PG-13 rating limits the intensity, yet the film grabs you with a powerful opening sequence and builds to an action-packed denouement.
Even though the series got put through a blender, watching the fantasies unfold felt familiar. Just like the show, how Roarke makes things happen as they do is not as important as the fun of stepping through a door and finding yourself in a location that simply shouldn’t be on the island. After enjoying every season of Lost, I would buy an explanation that this island might be a distant cousin of Lost’s island with all of the magic that happens there. (Wouldn’t that be a fun crossover?!) The fantasies sometimes coincide, which expands the plot beyond the individual vignettes. You know that there’s a Mr. Roarke, but is there a Tattoo (Villechaize’s role) as well? The filmmakers address this question, and it’s better than if they did the obvious and hired a little person actor to reproduce the vibe and visual of Montalban and Villechaize.
No matter what, I’d still rather see a movie that’s entirely new than a well-made reinterpretation or adaptation. Just because the filmmakers pulled off this one doesn’t mean that they should poke the bear and try again. Speaking of ursines, Bear McCreary continues to expand his work beyond The Walking Dead to compose music for motion pictures. His star continues to rise with compelling soundtracks like this one. My movie fantasy would be an entire year of no sequels, adaptations or reimaginings. Since I know that’s impossible with today’s Hollywood, I’ll accept an escape for a couple of hours to a Fantasy Island that at least offers the illusion of something new and tricks me into liking it.