Photo: Sony Pictures
In its desperation to revive every scrap of dormant intellectual property, regardless of audience demand or interest, Hollywood has arrived at last to Fantasy Island. Maybe you remember Fantasy Island, though no one would blame you if you didn’t. Airing on ABC from 1977 until 1984, the Aaron Spelling TV series starred Ricardo Montalbán as the mysterious, white-clad overseer of an island that could magically grant visitors all the wildest fantasies that network Standards & Practices would allow. Despite a brief revival in 1998, the show hasn’t left much of a cultural footprint, which might explain how the intrepid haunted-house estate keepers of Blumhouse got their hands on the title. The hook of this new big-screen version, teased by a poster that makes the eponymous getaway look like a screaming skull, is that the supernatural undertones have been twisted into something unambiguously sinister. Still, “horror” is a stretch. To invoke that genre would be to deny the incongruous humor and melodrama fighting for real estate over a very long 110 minutes. It would also imply scares that stubbornly refuse to arrive, even once the island starts spitting out zombies, evil surgeons, and Michael Rooker.
The setup is as viewers might remember (or again, not). Like any given episode of the series, Fantasy Island begins with a plane full of seemingly lucky guests touching down on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific. Here, they are greeted by their magnanimous host, Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña), who promises the impossible realization of their deepest desires. For brothers Bradley (Ryan Hansen of Veronica Mars) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang of Silicon Valley), that’s the opportunity to party like kings. For police officer Patrick (Austin Stowell), it’s the chance to enlist like he planned to when he was younger, though that fantasy might mask a different, unacknowledged one. Melanie (Lucy Hale) wants revenge on an old classroom bully. And Elena (Maggie Q) dreams of righting a wrong, of saying yes to a proposal she once rejected. “Your life is about to change forever,” Elena is told on her first night, with so much ominous stink on the words that you wonder why she doesn’t immediately demand to scan the fine print in search of an inevitable catch.
This Fantasy Island isn’t quite the tropical-resort equivalent of a Monkey’s Paw; not every fantasy is a dickish ironic booby trap, though they all lead their recipients into danger eventually. Blumhouse, whose output runs the gamut from commercial and critical smashes like Get Out to disposable crap like The Gallows, specializes in economy fright fare. But the company’s projects rarely look as chintzy as this one, whose balmy luxury setting only underscores the transparent cheapness of its effects, photography, and production design. (If you wanted to be especially charitable, you could call it a throwback to the limited means of the small-screen version.) Big scares don’t require a big budget, but it’s a problem when your unstoppable bogeyman—a sadist in scrubs dubbed “Dr. Torture”—seems to have stumbled out of a seasonal funhouse attraction.
The PG-13 rating doesn’t help the fear factor. Jeff Wadlow, who directed Hale in another skittish Blumhouse stinker, Truth Or Dare, seems stifled again by the imperative to cut away from any genuine flash of unpleasantness. That includes the one moment that flirts, briefly, with genuine queasy suspense: the scene where Melanie finds herself at the control booth of an automated torture apparatus, unaware that the bound-and-gagged subject of her cruel whims is decidedly not a hologram. But the limitations of the rating doom Wadlow’s execution; like everything else here, it’s tame enough for primetime.
Fantasy Island’s plastic unreality extends past production values into the performances, delivered by actors who seem to be negotiating, on a scene-by-scene basis, how much effort they have to put in to justify a Sandler-esque vacation masquerading as a film shoot. What the movie fails most critically to convey is the actual fantasy of the premise—the wish-fulfillment of it all, which a better (or at least naughtier) movie would plug the audience right into, and then nightmarishly subvert once the guests start wishing they’d been more careful about what they wished for. This Fantasy Island instead gets hung up on all the convoluted rules of its reality-bending locale and the entwined, soap-opera backstories of the guests, which lead to a galaxy-brain twist that requires basically ignoring one character’s behavior up until the reveal. At least there are some solid unintentional laughs sprinkled among the failed stabs at intentional ones. Take, for example, the scene where a guest discovers that his fantasy has led him backward in time. The howler of a giveaway? Someone telling him that he “looks dazed and confused. You know, like the movie that came out last year.” Thriller framework aside, Fantasy Island probably works best as a comedy. At least when it’s not trying to be one.