Have you ever read Shirley Jackson's short story 'The Lottery'? Its about a fictional small American town which has an annual rite known as "the lottery" (implied to ensure the town's continued well being), during which a member of the community is selected by chance to be stoned to death. It's a cautionary tale of mob mentality and scapegoating.
There is a similar ritual of movie-trashing, where a popcorn flick (usually something mainstream) is singled out by a kind of media collective of critics and gets relentlessly beaten up. It has become a recurrent feature of the movie commentary landscape on the internet.
From the way that people wrote about it, 'Fantasy Island' (or 'Blumhouse's Fantasy Island') wasn't merely the worst movie of the month, or the summer, or the year. It wasn't just the most critically reviled film in history to gross $US47 million. In essence, it was that week's Worst Movie Ever! It was an example of a critically bashed motion picture that was meant to provide a catharsis - under safe cover - for the bespectacled dorks doing the bashing. And it worked. They got their rocks off by kicking director Jeff Wadlow in his. "Dumb in ways that range from inane to insulting, but always growing duller by the minute, this new "Fantasy Island" is only a few minutes old before your greatest wish is to be watching literally anything else," wrote David Ehrlich, a critic whose signature snide tone suggests that he might fade into nothingness without the attention provided by Indiewire's readers.
So, imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying the film. It even made me laugh a few times.
Aaron Spelling's 'Fantasy Island' aired on TV from 1977 until 1984. It starred Ricardo Montalbán as the mysterious, white-clad overseer of an island that could magically grant visitors all of their wildest family-friendly fantasies. Hervé Villechaize's diminutive sidekick Tattoo would screech "Ze plane, ze plane!" - a big draw was seeing which actors would step off the charter airline at the beginning of each week's episode. The series had an enjoyably creepy undertone and some supernatural elements (time travel was common, and ghosts, genies, and the devil himself made appearances), particularly in later seasons, with hints that Mr Roarke was quite possibly immortal.
Wadlow's 'Fantasy Island' prequel/reboot 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 (an underplaying Michael Peña, 'Dora and the Lost City of Gold'), who promises the impossible realisation of their deepest desires at his tropical resort. For dude-bros J. D. (Ryan Hansen, 'Central Intelligence') and Brax (a very funny Jimmy O. Yang, 'The Happytime Murders'), that's the opportunity to party like kings. For handsome police officer Patrick (Austin Stowell, 'Bridge of Spies'), it's the chance to enlist as he planned to when he was younger, though that fantasy might mask a different, unacknowledged one. Thirsty bad girl Melanie (a fun Lucy Hale, reunited with Wadlow and Blumhouse after 'Truth or Dare') wants revenge on an old classroom bully. And Elena (Maggie Q, the 'Divergent' series) dreams of saying yes to a proposal she once rejected.
Roarke greets his guests and outlines the rules: "There is only one fantasy per guest, and you must see your fantasy through. No matter what."
At first, everything seems cool. The horny stepbrothers lounge poolside with a bunch of tanned, toned hotties: J.D. has a statuesque blonde named Chastity, while gay stoner Brax is up to his neck in bongs and dongs. Gwen gets a second chance with Alan, the man who got away, and ends up too-happily married with an adorable five-year-old daughter. Patrick becomes a POW in the 1980s, then realises his captor is actually his own hero dad (Mike Vogel, 'The Help') who died overseas when he was a boy. Melanie finds herself in a dungeon with her childhood bully, Sloane (Portia Doubleday, 'Carrie'), tied to a chair, ready for torture at the hands of a masked surgeon (former NRL player Ian Roberts). Each dream universe has its own unique look and vibe, from 'The Hangover' to 'Saw', with Fiji providing a stunning backdrop for all of the action via cinematographer Toby Oliver.
This 'Inception'-esque scenario becomes even more complicated by bodies that squirt black goo out of their eye sockets.
The film uses a "be careful what you wish for on that wrinkly old Monkey's Paw" premise. None of the guests know how Mr Roarke achieves his miracles. Tupac-style holograms, suggests Melanie. Or maybe the imported rum drinks are spiked with hallucinogens, guesses J.D.. In most cases, the reality-warping powers of the island introduce some creative ways to gradually poison the guests' fantasies - as one male guest complains, "The island is twisting what we asked for."
An interesting wrinkle is that the fantasies are all intertwined i.e. a bomb goes off in one fantasy and you can hear it in the other one. This 'Inception'-esque scenario becomes even more complicated by bodies that squirt black goo out of their eye sockets. The guests encounter terrorists, zombies and other obstacles as they attempt to escape their shared nightmare.
'Fantasy Island' is an adventure movie, not unlike 'Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle', but with some mild horror elements. It is clearly aimed at teenagers, so those expecting, say, the new 'Midsommar' might be disappointed. The story is utterly silly but the concepts being blenderised are quite cool, actually. It's the wish fulfilment of 'Westworld' on the mysterious island from 'Lost', with some of the horror of Mike Flanagan's 'Oculus'. It's also the best film Jeff Wadlow has ever directed, far better than his previous Blumhouse horror, the contrived 'Truth or Dare'. That may not be the highest praise, but it does indicate some evolution in his skills as a filmmaker. The next Wadlow/Lucy Hale joint might very well be epic.
It's hard to say why any one film becomes that week's Worst Movie Ever! I guess it's a ritual of instant cred. It's also a way for critics and social media "stans" to let off some toxic guilty steam in reaction to their own previous overpraise ("a masterpiece!") of one movie or another. Maybe 'Us' or 'It Chapter 2' or one of A24's horror films got way too free a ride?
In any event, 'Fantasy Island' is a surprisingly fun, undemanding, slickly-filmed diversion that will keep its target audience entertained.