Review: ‘Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island,’ starring Lucy Hale and Michael Peña

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell and Michael Peña in “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (Photo by Christopher Moss/Columbia Pictures)

“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” 

Directed by Jeff Wadlow

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional South Pacific locale, the horror film “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (inspired by the 1977-1984 TV series) follows a racially diverse cast of middle-class characters who go to a luxurious island to fulfill their biggest fantasies.

Culture Clash: The fantasies turn into nightmares, as the island visitors end up in terrifying life-threatening situations.

Culture Audience: “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” will appeal mostly to horror enthusiasts or curious fans of the original TV series who already know that the movie will be filled with over-the-top entertainment.

Lucy Hale, Maggie Q, Austin Stowell, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen and Parisa Fitz-Henley in “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (Photo by Christopher Moss/Columbia Pictures)

Here’s one thing that “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” movie has in common with the 1977-1984 TV series “Fantasy Island” TV series that inspired the film: There’s plenty of cheesiness to go around. The premise is still the same: A group of strangers fly on a private plane to a beautiful island, where they meet their host: the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, who always wears a white suit. All of the strangers are there to fulfill their biggest fantasies. And one by one, they begin to regret that their wishes came true.

The TV series had so much over-the-top ridiculousness (including Mr. Roarke fighting the devil) that people who’ve seen the show might already sense that the movie isn’t going to have any aspirations of being an arthouse film. However, the movie, which was filmed in Fiji, is a pretty good advertisement for the South Pacific country’s gorgeous landscape. The brand name for Blumhouse (the production company whose specialty is horror, with franchises such as “The Purge” and “Insidious”) might be an added attraction, but the quality of Blumhouse films is hit or miss.

Case in point: Blumhouse was the production company behind writer/director Jordan Peele’s 2017 Oscar-winning horror blockbuster “Get Out.” But Blumhouse also did 2017’s “Truth or Dare,” one of Blumhouse’s worst horror movies, directed by Jeff Wadlow, starring Lucy Hale, and written by Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs. And guess what? All four of them have reteamed for “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island,” which is only slightly better than “Truth or Dare,” because at least “Fantasy Island” made some attempt to be a horror film that’s a little more intricate than a cliché slasher flick. Too bad that attempt results in a convoluted mess.

Who are the strangers who’ve gathered on this island and what are their fantasies? They are contest winners who, when they first arrive, cynically speculate about what kinds of elaborate stunts will be pulled to make their fantasies look realistic. Sarcastic beauty Melanie Cole (played by Hale) wants revenge on former schoolmate Sloane Maddison (played by Portia Doubleday), who bullied Melanie in their childhood. Nerdy stepbrothers JD Weaver (played by Ryan Hansen) and Brax Weaver (played by Jimmy O. Yang) want to live out their wildest party fantasies.

Patrick Sullivan (played by Austin Stowell) is a good-guy cop who has a military “Call of Duty” type of fantasy that involves someone from his past. Insecure and sad Gwen Olsen (played by Maggie Q) wants to go back in time to change a decision she made years ago in her personal life. They are greeted by Mr. Roarke (played by Michael Peña), who tells them that once they’ve started living their fantasies, they can’t go back and change their minds.

The “Fantasy Island” TV series famously had an energetic character named Tattoo (played by Hervé Villechaize) as Mr. Roarke’s assistant. In this movie, Mr. Roarke’s assistant is a woman named Julia (played by Parisa Fitz-Henley), who’s as calm as Tattoo was hyper. This movie’s Mr. Roarke is much more serious and aloof than the TV version of Mr. Roarke (played by Ricardo Montalbán), although one thing is still the same: He greets his staff by saying, “Smiles, everyone. Smiles.”

Speaking of the Fantasy Island staffers in the movie, they are some of the biggest clues that all is not so wonderful on Fantasy Island. Julia gets mysterious nose bleeds and has a vacant stare. (And later in the movie, some of the employees bleed black bile from their eyes.) One of the staffers is so creepy-looking that he looks like he walked straight from an audition for playing Riff Raff in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Because the movie has numerous twists and turns, there’s only so much that can be described without giving away spoiler information. Melanie is taken to a high-tech room where she thinks she’s seeing a hologram of her former nemesis Sloane, who’s tied up and gagged and sitting in a torture-chamber chair. Melanie has fun pushing certain buttons on the control panel that cause Sloane to go through various forms of torture. But then Melanie figures out that the Sloane she’s seeing isn’t a hologram but the real person.

JD and Brax are taken to a massive pool party that looks like a commercial for a Hedonism II Resort, where they’re surrounded by gorgeous people (women for JD; men for Brax, who is openly gay) and whatever they want to get intoxicated. JD and Brax provide most of the comic relief in the film, although some of their poorly written jokes fall flatter than Mr. Roarke’s emotionless voice.

Meanwhile, Patrick isn’t having as much fun as the Weaver brothers. He’s been taken into the jungle by soldiers who start off by treating him like a prisoner, and he has to earn their respect to be part of the squad. As for Gwen, she wakes up to find herself reconnecting with someone she thought she would never see again.

The movie switches back and forth between all four fantasies until some of the fantasies start to overlap with one another. Some characters come and go without much explanation. Some characters might be real or they might be part of a fantasy. And the last 20 minutes of the film are absolutely bonkers with all the plot twists that try to tie in what happened earlier in the story.

“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” is like a giant tangled, rotting ball of yarn that keeps gathering dustballs of bad ideas on top of more bad ideas. You can try to untangle it to sort it all out, but it’s not worth it, and it’s best to avoid it altogether.

Columbia Pictures released “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Swallow’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Haley Bennett in "Swallow"
Haley Bennett in “Swallow” (Photo by Katelin Arizmendi)

“Swallow”

Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

People familiar with reality TV might know about the TLC series “My Strange Addiction,” which was on the air from 2010 to 2015. Every episode documented people with unusual compulsions and obsessions, and a great deal of these episodes featured someone addicted to eating non-food objects. That eating disorder is called pica. The dramatic film “Swallow” is a disturbing fictional look at a young woman who has that disorder.

In “Swallow” (written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis), Haley Bennett plays a housewife named Hunter, who seems to have it all: a wealthy and handsome husband who dotes on her, a baby on the way (her first child), and a beautiful home that she can decorate any way she pleases. But underneath her meek and soft-spoken surface, Hunter is a very disturbed person, and her husband Richie (played by Austin Stowell) is a control-freak perfectionist who treats her like a trophy.

Richie is the type of controlling spouse who gets angry at Hunter because she didn’t iron a silk tie the way he wanted it ironed. Hunter is also living a fairly isolated existence. She seems to have no friends of her own because the people with whom she and Richie socialize are Richie’s friends. Image-obsessed Richie wants the world to think he has a perfect marriage.

It’s widely known that people who develop eating disorders do so because they don’t feel in control of their lives, and their eating habit is their way of trying to feel in control. Hunter’s descent into self-harm begins when she reads a book called “A Talent for Joy” by Bing Roden. (The book and author have been fabricated for this movie.) The book advises readers to try new and adventurous things.

We get the first hint that something is off with Hunter when she’s having dinner at a fancy restaurant with Richie and his snooty parents, Katherine (played by Elizabeth Marvel) and Michael (played by David Rasche), who treat their son like a prince and treat Hunter like a minor inconvenience. However, they seem to be happy that pregnant Hunter will produce an heir for their family. At the dinner, Hunter seems to get excited, perhaps sexually aroused, when she begins chewing on something uncomfortable—ice.

During the course of the movie, we find out that Richie’s parents don’t really approve of the marriage because they think he could have married someone from a better socioeconomic class. Hunter used to work as some sort of clothing retail clerk before she married Richie—something that Katherine sniffs about in hushed tones when she brings up Hunter’s past.

Meanwhile, eating that ice triggers Hunter into consuming several objects that might be too disturbing for some people to see it portrayed on screen. (There were a few people who walked out of the screening I attended, apparently because the idea of a pregnant woman doing this was just too much for them to handle.) The objects that Hunter swallows include a marble, a tack, a battery, paper, a thimble, a button, dirt and a safety pin. The fact that she’s harming her unborn child is of little concern to her, because she apparently doesn’t want to be pregnant.

It’s no surprise that Hunter ends up in the emergency room, where her secret is exposed. Richie and his parents are naturally alarmed and furious. Because she is pregnant, they’re going to do whatever it takes to get her to stop harming herself. They immediately put Hunter into therapy, where she tells her therapist Alice (played by Zabryna Guevara) why she likes to swallow inedible objects: “I like the texture in my mouth. It makes me feel in control.”

And where is Hunter’s biological family in this crisis? That’s an answer the movie reveals but it’s best not to include that spoiler information in this review. However, it is enough to say that her family background has a lot to do with her eating disorder. Even though Hunter promises Richie that she’ll stop, she can’t get rid of her eating disorder that easily. Richie and his parents then take extreme measures to get control of Hunter’s disturbing obsession, which results in Hunter confronting her past.

“Swallow” has a very small cast, which is a reflection of how small and insular Hunter’s world is. In her portrayal of this troubled soul, actress Bennett does a chilling but impressive performance as someone who seems mild-mannered on the outside but has raging self-hatred on the inside. Hunter’s repressed desperation seems to seep through her pores and linger in the air, even in moments of silence.

“Swallow” writer/director Mirabella-Davis says that the Hunter character was inspired by his real-life grandmother Edith, who was afflicted with pica. Like Hunter, Edith was a housewife who was stuck in a miserable marriage, according to Mirabella-Davis. The director also consulted with Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, a leading psychology expert on pica. All of that background information makes a difference, because the movie has a level of authenticity that will make people very uncomfortable and might leave some haunting memories.

 UPDATE: IFC Films will release “Swallow” in New York City and Los Angeles and on VOD on March 6, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release expands to more U.S. cities on March 13, 2020.

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