Monday, 9 March 2020

Review: Blumhouse's Fantasy Island

Blumhouse's Fantasy Island
Cert: 15 / 109 mins / Dir. Jeff Wadlow / Trailer

I was reminded this evening of a point mid-way through The Empire Strikes Back, where Yoda is trying to calm Luke Skywalker the fuck down before he steps into a cave overgrown with foliage and neglect. In his own cryptic way, the Jedi master cautions his young charge that anything is possible once he crosses the threshold, that reality is relative. That before Luke can commit to seeking any answers, he needs to fully understand the questions.

Similar to most people handed such an opportunity, Luke grasps it with both hands and little thought. And similar to most of those, he realises in short order that the deal was probably too good to be true. Typical.

Welcome, to Blumhouse's Fantasy Island*1...


A re-imagining of the classic TV show*2, Jeff Wadlow's movie sees the linen-suited Mr Roarke (Michael Peña) alongside his personal assistant Julia (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and a small army of burly minions as the custodians of the eponymous landmass. We join them as The Plane*3 touches down carrying new guests; Gwen (Maggie Q), Patrick (Austin Stowell), Melanie (Lucy Hale) and brothers J.D. (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang).

These are competition winners come to have their deepest wishes granted by means which haven't been revealed. Melanie's involves revenge on a high-school bully (Sloane, played by Portia Doubleday), while the surrounding jungle is being stalked by (among others) private-eye Damon (Michael Rooker, expertly munching through the scenery). The only rules in place are that each guest is only allowed one fantasy which cannot be changed, and that these must be played out to their natural conclusion. And so, the protagonists begin living their heart's desires in startlingly realistic fashion, as alarm bells begin to clamour around them.


So. With The Invisible Man also currently in cinemas, Fantasy Island is indicative that Blumhouse are happy to be the platform for a variety of approaches (not to mention margins of quality) to contemporary horror, rather than maintaining a position as fierce gatekeepers of the brand. Given the presence of Peña, Rooker and Maggie Q, I was quite surprised that the film received such a low-key release in the UK. Then I realised it had opened six weeks earlier in the US and had received a thorough drubbing. That I had to actively seek out this mainstream flick has 'Q1 tax loss' written all over it.

An exploration of longing, repression and contractual small-print, the film is batshit crazy and unfocused as hell and probably all the better for it.

It's a simple enough premise laced with foreboding, scripted (for the very most part) in a nuts-and-bolts way, but the intent is clear even if the direction feels erratic. Part of the problem is that after the setup, the quartet of intercut storylines feels like too many plates being spun slightly too far apart. Three may have been more manageable in terms of screen-time (particularly since two of the four deal with familial guilt), but they at least converge in the final act.


One slight twist on the expected format is that this isn't just a nerfed down Saw-like morality tale. The partying brothers J.D. and Brax are meant to be boorishly hedonistic, yet I liked them anyway with their genuine affection and support for one another. Ditto Melanie's initial high-school revenge fantasy; absolutely fine by me. And who's never wished they could change a pivotal moment in their past? Because writers Jeff Wadlow, Jillian Jacobs and Chris Roach take their time in explaining exactly why this is all happening, there's little room for the viewer's brain to rail against the how. And even when that reveal lands, the only logical reaction is 'well, I've seen it working, so...'

Yet the heavily established the in-universe rules do seem to shift and change as we move along. And not in ways which develop, reveal or subvert the audience's expectation of the plot; more as if the scribes have painted themselves into several corners, and hope that the audience won't notice the walls of the maze being moved while they're still looking at them. This is a solid second-draft screenplay, but definitely not 'finished'.

Convoluted to the point of incoherence, this feels a bit like it should have been made two decades ago, but too few studio-horror movies don't, these days. The performers are having a good time and it's undemanding in the long-run. I've certainly seen a lot worse lauded as much better.

Blumhouse's Fantasy Island plays out like a dream. There are points of familiarity everywhere, even though the overall direction seems to be out of control. And there's probably some meaning among it all, but the gut feeling is that it's best not to over-analyse this many influences jostling for subconscious position.

What's in there? Only what you take with you...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Think The Belko Experiment, Escape Room, The Cabin In The Woods and a little bit of Saw, all dusted with the spirit of Agatha Christie.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It's likely you won't get the opportunity, but if it's your thing then yes...

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
...because this will probably lose a lot of its charm on the journey to your living room TV.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Let's not go mad.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That seems likely, given its reception.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I heard.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Ganwick Trag and Lampay Fay are in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
I mean it's not a strong 5, but I don't do half-marks and it's more enjoyable than a 4. I don't need to see Fantasy Island again and certainly have no hankering for a sequel or spinoff, but it's diverting enough for its run-time.

*1 The BBFC card and film's own title-caption state "Blumhouse's", rather than just "Fantasy Island". What manner of intellectual property wrangling is this? Is the Blumhouse tag there to proclaim the darker tone in advance for potentially civilian audiences, or have they somehow bought the rights to the premise yet not the original name?? [ BACK ]

*2 I remember the programme existing, but don't recall ever watching it. And yet as bizarre as this film iteration is, everything within does seem like 'the natural conclusion' of the overall premise, and I can't imagine things going that wrong on a weekly basis... [ BACK ]

*3 Extra cojones-points for the number of times "The plane! The plane!!" is shoehorned into the script. Like I said, i didn't watch this and even I know the catchphrase... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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