When one thinks of the original Fantasy Island series, it’s often in comparison to that of The Love Boat, as they both had a somewhat anthology-like format and a variety of guest stars every week, but the pilot movie for Fantasy Island, which aired on ABC back in 1977, was a rather darker animal than what the show would later evolve into. In this first made-for-television movie, the audience had no idea whether or not the enigmatic Mr. Roarke was a good guy or some kind of bizarre villain, and with the show’s basic premise being “Be careful what you wish for,” it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to assume Roarke was the Devil.
The structure of the pilot sets up the formula that later episodes would follow; a seaplane would come in for a landing and the diminutive character of Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize) would ring the bell so as to inform his enigmatic boss Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) that “De plane! De plane!” had arrived. A group of guests would then disembark and be greeted with a hearty, “My dear guests! I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island!” We would then learn what particular fantasy each guest was willing to pay $50,000 to fulfill — that’s over $200 thousand in today’s money — and with that, we were off and running, but what was a little off-putting in this first pilot was that after Roarke had greeted all the guests, and sent them off to their respective bungalows, he coldly muttered to himself, “Welcome to Fantasy Island, indeed,” and Montalban’s delivery of that line was so chilling that if we were told this was a horror movie it wouldn’t be at all surprising.
As this was a feature-length television movie we have the time for three fantasies to be explored – the series with its sixty-minute run-time would quickly cut this down to just two – so let us take a look at what kind of people would fork out such a large sum of money to a visit to a mysterious island. First off, we have wealthy businesswoman Eunice Hollander Baines (Eleanor Parker) who has asked Mr. Roarke to stage her funeral so that she can discover who’s loyal to her and can be trusted with her business after her death. There is her philandering husband Grant Baines (Peter Lawford), who could be having an affair with her personal secretary of six years Connie Raymond (Tina Sinatra), and then we have Eunice’s brother Charles Hollander (Dick Sargent), a rather meek and mild-mannered individual guilty of only being the wrong Darren. Finally, there is Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Hollander (Carol Lynley), the long-lost sister to Eunice and Charles and who is your classic stone-cold bitch. It’s later discovered that Liz was not only kicked out of the family business but out of town as well.
Mr. Roarke provides Eunice with a pair of glasses, a fake nose and a maid’s uniform so that she will be able to eavesdrop on her family during the fake funeral. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work out too well as Liz puts on an Oscar-winning performance declaring her love for her dear departed sister which causes Eunice to reveal to her “grieving” sister that she is still alive. Sadly, it turns out that this was all an act and that Liz was the one having an affair with Grant. Now with Eunice already declared dead, she teams up with the asshat husband to murder her sister for real. Needless to say, things go awry and it’s Liz who goes plummeting off a cliff instead of Eunice, having slipped while attempting to push her sister off, but then Eunice oddly doesn’t have Grant immediately arrested as an accomplice to attempted murder. Instead, she wants him to be her loyal arm candy with a jail sentence forever hanging over his head. Damn, but that is some cold-ass shit.
The second fantasy is a twist on the classic tale of “The Most Dangerous Game,” only in this case world-famous big-game hunter Paul Henley’s (Hugh O’Brian) fantasy is to be the hunted rather than the hunter. He is informed by Mr. Roarke that three “dedicated” hunters have been chosen to participate and that Henley will have to survive three separate hunts over the weekend, with each day a different hunter being assigned to take him out. Roarke throws a rather nasty wrinkle into the first hunt by having Henley drugged and waking up chained at the wrist to the woman (Victoria Principal) Mr. Roarke had provided him the night before as some kind of high-class escort. What is really odd here is that this poor woman had no idea she was to be part of some kind of “Most Dangerous Game,” so we have to assume Roarke hired a prostitute with full knowledge that she could end up dead. Even worse is when she falls into a pit trap, saved only by still being manacled to Henley a the time, Henley pulls out a knife to gain some leverage when we hear Roarke’s voice over a loudspeaker giving some rather nasty advice, “Good boy! Cut her arm off!” What a sadistic bastard.
As the hunts proceed, we learn that each of them has a history with Henley and very personal reasons to see him dead. One of them he cheated in a land deal, the second hunter had a child who was crippled when a drunken Henley crashed his car, and the third hunter’s wife had an affair with Henley before running off never to be seen again. By the end of this particular fantasy, we come to the conclusion that it was Henley’s guilt over these incidents that had driven him to this bizarre form of punishment, but then Roarke throws a little twist in things by revealing that it was Paul Henley who was cheated in the land deal, that he wrongly took the blame for the child’s injuries, and he wasn’t the only man with whom the married woman had been cheating on her husband with. He explained that, deep down, Henley knew all along that this was the case. In fact, it was his guilt over the countless animals he had brutally killed over the years that was the real reason he desired to be hunted.
The third and strangest fantasy concerns World War II veteran Arnold Greenwood (Bill Bixby) who wants to relive a romance he had with a woman named Francesca (Sandra Dee) all those many years ago. Greenwood is brought to a perfect recreation of the British pub where he first met Francesca Hamilton in later days of World War II and, as it happened originally, a German air raid throws the pair together. What is rather interesting here is that this is the one fantasy that is rather harder to explain without some kind of supernatural element being involved. It’s one thing to build a perfect replica of a British pub, but are we to believe that Roarke was able to find a woman who was a dead ringer for Greenwood’s long-lost love?
But finding a lookalike actress to play the part of Francesca isn’t the strangest part; we learn through one of many flashbacks to the real events that Greenwood was a bit of the jealous type, and when he discovered that Francesca was actually married after she clearly told him she was unattached, he goes nuts and strangles her to death and then covers up the murder by making it look like she died during another German bombing. Then we jump back to the current timeline and find that poor Greenwood has once again discovered that this Francesca has also been deceiving him about being single and so he proceeds to, once again, strangle her to death.
The next morning a distraught Greenwood goes to Mr. Roarke to confess his murdering of Francesca, but Roarke seems confused and states that he saw her board the seaplane that very morning. Greenwood drags Roarke over to the “scene of the crime” to prove what he had done, but there is no evidence that murder of any kind had taken place. The last we see of Greenwood is him boarding the plane to leave the island with a somewhat catatonic look to him. Seriously, he’s a murderer and his only punishment was to relive the events again? And what kind of sick fantasy revolves around reliving a weekend where you murdered your first love? Did he hope it would turn out better this time?
The network wasn’t the only ones a little put off by the darker aspects of this pilot, and thus, later fantasies would have a much more whimsical and fun feel to them, with goofy fantasies outweighing darker, more dangerous ones. Also, the fantastical elements of Fantasy Island would be broadened greatly as to allow guests to travel into the distant past or to far-flung locales, where they could become victims of the Salem Witch Trials or be sentenced to Devil Island, but more often than not, their fantasy would be something more mundane like having a threesome with a couple of supermodels. Which, to be fair, is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of something called Fantasy Island.
Note: It was this darker element of Fantasy Island that made me excited when I heard Blumhouse was making it into a horror movie, but that film turned out to be a complete mess and a travesty on all counts.
Fantasy Island (1977)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Ricardo Montalban was a case of perfect casting in the role of the enigmatic Mr. Roarke and though the series decided to go with a lighter tone for later episodes it still holds up as one of the more interesting television ventures.