Dreams and nightmares. Reality or fairytales. Loss and lost. Welcome to Dante Tomaselli’s “playground” and abandon hope all ye who enter there. In Tomaselli’s current film, “Satan’s Playground”, a horrifically frightening film with strong echoes of “Evil Dead”, “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Mother’s Day”, “The Shining”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and many of our scarier fairytales and which was recently picked up by Anchor Bay for distribution, the viewer is treated to all of these genres, themes and more.
The film starts out, after a brief shocking prologue, with a family, the dysfunctional Brunos, on a wilderness vacation and getting lost in the very sinister New Jersey Pine Barrens, home to the legend of The Jersey Devil. There is already tension within the family itself – Donna (Felissa Rose) and her husband Frank (Salvatore Paul Piro) are bickering because Frank keeps dozing off at the wheel. Donna’s sister, the newly divorced Paula (Ellen Sandweiss) is concerned about her baby, Anthony, and keeps thinking she sees things outside the car window. And Donna and Frank’s son Sean (Danny Lopes), who is autistic, begins to sense things out in the woods the others aren’t aware of. The family stop at a general store for directions but the place is deserted, money still in the cash register and there are bloody claw marks on a door jam. Plus there’s a frighteningly familiar sound – something repetitively banging against the outside wall of the store. Only instead of it being a swing, as it was in “Evil Dead”, it’s the store front door but the sound is unnerving all the same. Get the hell out of there! Frank finally gets the car good and stuck and takes off to try and get help, against his family’s wishes, and now we know all bets are off and this family is about to have the vacation from hell.
One by one, as family members fail to return to the car, as they are lost to each other, the family members stumble upon the dilapidated home of the utterly creepy, witch-like Mrs. Leeds (Irma St. Paule) and her two homicidal adult children, Judy (Christie Sanford) and Boy (Ed Neal), asking to use the phone. There is even one moment of brevity when Paula is at the door and another lost soul shows up, also needing a phone but the teen freaks out at Paula’s distraught appearance and runs for the hills.
Irma St. Paule rules this movie – you never know who is going to open that creepily wet-looking dark red front door with the satanic doorknocker. Will it be the sweet little old lady who would seem to have just come from baking cookies or the coke-snorting lunatic ready to sacrifice you to some hellish god or something even more horrific? And her all-but-mute children are equally nightmarish – Christie Sanford as an adult who dresses like a doll, is vicious with a mallet and has a cackle that still gives me chills is like some alternative-world version of Mrs. Rulo in “Horror”. Ed Neal, who I would have liked to see more of, is great in his scene where he terrorizes Felissa Rose who is tied to a tree with what looks like a vortex of trees (probably to hell) behind her. This is a family that is very lost – in time, if they ARE the original Leeds of The Jersey Devil legend – and definitely in place as they seem to live in another era anyway. An era of evil fairytales with a witch for a mother.
I felt sorry for Felissa and Ellen as it was apparent this was a VERY physical film for them. LOTS of running and screaming in those damn spooky, freezing cold woods and in that creepy house, which really exists in the Pine Barrens. And poor Ellen’s character experiences the brutal loss of her child at the hands of the Leeds’ family which was a hard scene to watch as it slowly unfolded to it’s denouement.
Danny Lopes, who does an excellent job as the autistic Sean, also comes to a bad end but like Christie Sanford’s character, Sean reminded me of Bobby from Tomaselli’s “Desecration” as well as Luck from “Horror” only sort of an alternative-world version. When you see the film, you’ll know what I mean.
Two lost families, both suffering losses but the act of them coming together creates what seems to be hell on earth. There is a brief scene of what appears to be Satanic worship, one room of the Leeds’ house looks like an abattoir – “Satan’s Playground” is a film that requires repeated viewings as after the shock of the first viewing wears off, you want to go back and see all of the things you missed. And there are a lot of little details.
Made for a minuscule $500,000 budget with a running time of 81 minutes, the film looks and sounds incredible. The score, soundtrack and sound design are superb with Tomaselli and Kenneth Lampl contributing everything from an eerie music box theme to Tomaselli’s trademark layered sound design from hell. The woods even seem to be breathing and whispering amongst themselves at times! Turn this movie up LOUD to get the full horrific effect. The cinematography by Timothy Naylor is also amazing. Shot on Super 16mm, the colors are intense with red the color of choice for the Leeds family and the shadows of the woods and in the house are notched up so you never really know where to look – WAS there something just there, in the corner?? There are also some great shots a la “Evil Dead” and the point of view shots of what we are led to believe is The Jersey Devil are dizzying and scary. The gore is there, more so than is Tomaselli’s previous films, but it is not excessive although one kill did make me cringe and I’m pretty hard to make cringe.
All in all, “Satan’s Playground” is Tomaselli’s best film to date (can’t wait to see what he does with “The Ocean”) and I know that I will never look at any autumnal woods in quite the same way again. Nor will I go knocking on some creepy, dilapidated house’s front door looking for a phone. I’ll take my chances and keep walking. And watching the sky.