If only because his company also made The Love Boat, the campy dramatic series Fantasy Island cannot be deemed the worst television show for which producer Aaron Spelling was responsible. That faint praise being offered, the massive success of the show—which ran for 152 episodes from 1977 to 1984—underscores that much of Spelling’s career was spent manufacturing the audiovisual equivalent of junk food. From week to week, Fantasy Island served up C-list actors in ridiculous scenarios against the backdrop of a semi-supernatural vacation destination. Sentimentality, superficiality, and sexuality powered the show, together with the odd coupling of series stars Ricardo Montalban, as godlike host Mr. Rourke, and Hervé Villechaize, as Mr. Rourke’s diminutive assistant, Tattoo. Throughout its run, Fantasy Island presented escapism about escapism. That’s why it’s amusing to revisit the TV movie that served as the series’ pilot episode, because the first installment of Fantasy Island is quite dark.
Naturally, the picture begins with Tattoo climbing to the bell tower of the main building on Fantasy Island and yelling in his French-accented English, “Ze plane! Ze plane!” Once the seaplane to which Tattoo referred lands at the main dock, Rourke gives introductory voiceover to explain the wishes of new guests to Tattoo (and the audience). In the pilot, businessman Eunice Baines (Eleanor Parker) fakes her own funeral to determine which of her associates she can trust; World War II veteran Arnold Greenwood (Bill Bixby) revisits wartime France so he can see a lost love once again; and big-game hunter Paul Henley (Hugh O’Brian) asks to be hunted, ostensibly to test his virility. The Eunice storyline generates only bland soap opera, but the Arnold and Paul storylines are grim. It turns out that Arnold suffers from PTSD because he killed his wartime lover in a jealous rage, and that Paul is suicidal. As for Rourke, he’s like a capricious deity manipulating people’s lives for amusement. After casually describing his guests as being “so mortal” (implying that he’s the opposite), Rourke later proclaims: “There are no rules on Fantasy Island except as I make them!” In addition to magically re-creating Arnold’s horrific murder scenario, Rourke hires a shapely hooker named Michelle (Victoria Principal) to sleep with Paul, and then he handcuffs Michelle to Paul so she’ll share his fate. At one point, Rourke callously dismisses a husband’s rage at being cuckolded: “Your wife was used many times by many men.” Ouch.
Fantasy Island has all the hallmarks of a typical Spelling production, such as shallow storytelling and tacky production values (in most of the scenes, Burbank subs for the tropics), but the nastiness of the piece is striking. Things got more family-friendly once Fantasy Island went to series—notwithstanding the strange episodes in which Rourke duels with Satan, played by Roddy McDowall--so it’s possible to watch the pilot as a glimpse at an alternate version of the series that could have been. In fact, something akin to that alternate version materialized when Fantasy Island was briefly revived, with Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Rourke, in 1998. Produced by feature-film guy Barry Sonnenfeld, the ‘90s Fantasy Island went for paranormal black comedy and fizzled after just 13 episodes.
Fantasy Island: FUNKY