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The Horrors of FANTASY ISLAND

fantasy island
12 times the cult TV show dabbled in the horror genre.


Words by Eric Hillis


The latest horror movie from Blumhouse is a big screen adaptation of the cult 1970s/80s show Fantasy Island. Wait, wasn't Fantasy Island a romantic show in the mould of The Love Boat? Well, that has become the common perception in the decades since the show aired, but the truth is Fantasy Island delved into a variety of genres – one of which was horror!

The premise of Fantasy Island saw guests (played by a mix of up and coming young actors and fading veteran stars) travel to the titular Pacific isle in order to have their fantasies play out. Their wishes were facilitated by island supremo Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban), a seemingly centuries old aristocrat who somehow possesses the ability to perform miracles like allowing guests to travel back in time or visit exotic parts of the world while remaining on the island. Think of a hodge-podge of Westworld, Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and the Love Boat, and you'll have some idea of how the island functioned.

Each episode gave us two, sometimes three, separate stories, but unlike other anthology shows, the stories played out in parallel. This led to striking tonal shifts, with romantic plotlines intermingling with creepy tales, which could prove very frustrating if you were only interested in one particular storyline. Regardless of genre, the stories usually fit into the old trope of "Be careful what you wish for," with guests leaving the island comforted by a newfound view that the life they viewed as dull and everyday wasn't so bad as they had previously believed it.

So, as Mr. Roarke would say, "Smiles, everyone! Smiles!" It's time to look at 12 times things got spooky on Fantasy Island.


Reunion (Season One, Episode 11)
fantasy island reunion
Fantasy Island's first dabbling with the horror genre came in the middle of its debut season with Reunion, boasting a premise that pre-empted the wave of slasher movies that would arrive in the wake of 1978's Halloween. Four women in their late twenties arrive on the island for what seems like an innocent high school reunion. Their stay at a perfectly reconstructed replica of the beach house where they summered as teens is disrupted when a black-gloved killer begins bumping the young women off one by one. A very giallo-esque touch sees the killer keep track of his kills by breaking the heads off dolls that resemble each of his victims. The episode takes a surprisingly dark turn when one of the women recounts her experience of being sexually assaulted during her school days, an event that has left her friends racked with guilt ever since for their inaction. Horror fans will be pleased to see a genuine genre icon among the cast of this one in Pamela Franklin, whose genre roles include The Innocents, The Legend of Hell House and Satan's School for Girls.



Nightmare (Season Two, Episode Seven)
fantasy island nightmare
A quirk of '70s TV that seems odd to modern viewers is how actors would return as guest stars, playing completely different characters, sometime two or three times in the same season. Pamela Franklin was one such recurring guest on Fantasy Island. In Nightmare she plays Janine, a young woman whose childhood was plagued by a recurring nightmare, one which has returned since her recent wedding. At midnight, Roarke takes Janine to a replica of her childhood home, where she falls asleep in her old bedroom, surrounded by her childhood toys. Once the nightmare kicks in, those toys turn malevolent, with a clown doll coming to life, along with a cymbal-crashing monkey. It's a scene that plays like a cross between Poltergeist and Stephen King's It, but Nightmare aired in 1978, pre-empting both of those horror staples. While we're all terrified of clowns today (thanks in no small part to Poltergeist and It), back in the '70s they didn't have the same stigma, making Nightmare one of the earliest examples of the creepy clown trope. This one is directed by George McCowan, responsible for the slimy 1972 'man vs nature' thriller Frogs.



Vampire (Season Two, Episode 13)
fantasy island vampire
Actor Robert Reed was best known for his role as the loveable patriarch of The Brady Bunch, so this episode of Fantasy Island gave him a chance to shake off that sugary image. In Vampire he plays Leo Drake, a method actor whose latest role is that of Count Dracula. Determined to immerse himself in the role, and believing himself a descendant of the Count, Drake's fantasy is to live as Dracula for a few days. Roarke indulges him by recreating a Transylvanian hamlet, complete with virginal maidens for Leo to sink his teeth into. In Dracula's castle, Drake finds a portrait of the Count that bears a striking resemblance to himself, and when he dons Dracula's cape and a set of plastic fangs, he becomes a little too immersed in the role. This one boasts a twist (one of the villagers is framing Drake for the killing of a wench) that forces the viewer to wonder just how sentient the characters that Roarke creates for his guests' various fantasies really are.



Séance (Season Two, Episode 14)
fantasy island seance
Claire Conti (Eve Plumb) arrives on Fantasy Island with hopes of contacting her brother, who died in mysterious circumstances a year prior, through a séance. She brings along psychic medium Madame Estelle (classic Hollywood glamour-puss Marie Windsor, who would appear in Salem's Lot the same year), which begs the question of why they had to travel all the way to Fantasy Island? Anyhow, Roarke arranges for the séance to take place in a replica of Claire's childhood home, during which Claire's brother appears to make contact, with some disturbing revelations. Anyone with a healthy fear of snakes should probably look away, as during the séance a host of serpents slither their way over the hands of the participants. Yikes! It would be easier to take this one seriously if it didn't feature Leslie Nielsen, but of course this was made before he became known as a comic legend with his roles in Airplane and Police Squad.



Elizabeth (Season Three, Episode 15)
fantasy island elizabeth
The eponymous Elizabeth here is no less than Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noblewoman who murdered several women and is said to have bathed in their blood, believing doing so would gift her eternal life. Island guest Lisa Corday (Tina Louise) believes that the only way to rid herself of her nightmares involving the ghost of Báthory is to spend the night of her 30th birthday in the Countess's castle. Once there, she becomes possessed by the spirit of Báthory, who it is revealed was Roarke's lover centuries ago, and she's hoping to win him back! This episode features Roarke more than most, giving Montalban ample opportunity to ham it up. With the Mexican actor at the forefront here, you really appreciate just how good he was at selling this sort of hokum to prime time audiences.



Mary Ann and Miss Sophisticate (Season Three, Episode 21)
fantasy island maren jensen
A staple of the horror genre is the evil ventriloquist's dummy, which forms the basis of this third season episode. Annette Funicello, best known for a series of 'Beach Party' movies in the '60s, plays Mary Ann, a ventriloquist who fears her dummy, Valerie, is attempting to take her place. Valerie does indeed come to life, in the human form of Battlestar Galactica's Maren Jensen. Part of Fantasy Island's appeal to '70s audiences was no doubt its liberal amounts of female flesh, and Mary Ann and Miss Sophisticate is one of its kinkier episodes. Clad in a fetishistic top hat and tails ensemble, the human Valerie teases and torments the mousy Mary Ann in a seductive manner, with more than a little hint of lesbianism.



With Affection, Jack the Ripper (Season Four, Episode Six)
fantasy island lynda day george
Jack the Ripper popped up in almost every genre oriented TV show at some point, and Fantasy Island was no different. A feature of the show was a special door that allowed guests to travel through time. It's through this door that criminologist Lorraine Peters (Lynda Day George, whom slasher fans will know as the heroine of Pieces) journeys back to Victorian era Whitechapel, hoping to solve the mystery of the Ripper's identity. Trouble is, old Saucy Jack (Victor Buono) discovers the door and escapes onto Fantasy Island, leaving Roarke and Peters to track him down before he kills again. Sadly, the episode fails to live up to such a juicy premise, thanks to the limitations of '70s prime time TV, but the Victorian segments do boast a moody atmosphere, with the requisite amount of fog and horse drawn carriages on cobbled streets.



Man-Beast (Season Four, Episode 23)
fantasy island man-beast
Actor David Hedison was the star of the '60s fantasy show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and in one episode his character, Captain Crane, transformed into a werewolf. Hedison returned for more lycanthropic larks in Fantasy Island's Man-Beast. Here he plays a man convinced he is doomed to transform into a werewolf at the next full moon. His fears are well founded, as are those of the audience when the werewolf transformation turns out to be little more than a few dissolves that add hairy mittens and facial hair to Hedison. You can shrug this off as a product of its time, but this was 1981, the year that gave us the still unsurpassed werewolf transformations of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.



The Lady and the Monster (Season Five, Episode Four)
fantasy island lady and monster
With Dracula and a werewolf having already appeared, it was inevitable that Frankenstein's monster would eventually show up. In The Lady and the Monster, Lynda Day George returns as Carla Frankenstein, a geneticist who swears that Baron Frankenstein did indeed exist and that she is his descendant. Roarke takes her to a replica of Frankenstein's castle, where she discovers the Monster (William Smith) has been living peacefully for 150 years. This one descends into cringy comedy when a pair of bumbling goons attempt to kidnap the monster, who just wants to be left alone to look after his chickens.



Night of the Tormented Soul (Season Five, Episode Nine)
fantasy island night of tormented soul
To solve the mystery surrounding the murders of their uncle (The Six Million Dollar Man's Richard Anderson) and his housekeeper (Elinor Donahue), siblings Jason (Stephen Shortridge) and Beth (Dianne Kay) visit a reconstruction of their uncle's home. There, the ghosts of the victims reenact their tragic faith. The creepiest element of this episode is the incestuous attraction between Jason and Beth. When it's eventually revealed that they aren't actually brother and sister, Jason and Beth don’t waste any time in hooking up. Only in the '70s, huh?



The Ghost's Story (Season Five, Episode 22)
fantasy island tanya roberts
A haunted mansion offers a reward of $100,000 to anyone who can spend two hours within its walls. Taking up the challenge is Amanda (Charlie's Angels' Tanya Roberts), and once inside she is untroubled by the lame collection of moving furniture and apparitions that lamely attempt to assault her. This one mixes the supernatural with not so super laughs, as the mansion is revealed to be 'haunted' by a cowardly ghost, Timothy (Dack Rambo). Amanda helps Timothy overcome his fear of standing up to his father, who cursed his son when he dishonoured the family by fleeing from a duel.



Island of Horrors (Season Six, Episode 20)
fantasy island Island of Horrors
The final horror themed episode of the show goes all out, throwing zombies and voodoo into the mix. Gayle Hunnicutt (another star of The Legend of Hell House) plays Erica, who travels to an island off Fantasy Island where her fiancé Richard (Christopher Connelly) has seemingly disappeared. There she finds the island is under the control of Richard's evil rival Christopher, who has discovered a way to turn people into zombies. This one features a pretty effective zombie resurrection sequence in a graveyard, and horror fans should look out for an appearance by Elvira herself, Cassandra Peterson, as a sexy zombie.


So, you see, it's actually not all that unusual for Blumhouse to turn their big screen adaptation of Fantasy Island into a horror movie. The horror was there all along.

Fantasy Island is on UK Digital June 29th, and DVD/blu-ray July 13th.