My reaction to Dante Tomaselli’s debut, the mind-warping horror throwback Desecration, was one of unbridled enthusiasm. While I wasn’t blown away by the movie itself, the young director’s potential was obvious, and something every horror journalist found themselves talking about. The New Jersey-bred filmmaker’s penchant for lush, dreamlike imagery and saturated colors invited comparisons to the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, but, with his follow-up feature, Horror, Tomaselli once again put eye candy before solid storytelling, leaving many to wonder if the auteur was capable of telling a lucid story at all. With his latest offering, Satan’s Playground, Tomaselli set out to make his most accessible film to date; a take-no-prisoners horror film that would be welcomed by both the cineastes and the casual popcorn crowd. However, while Playground is certainly a more straightforward affair than his previous films, one doubts that this will be the film that will win over the mainstream audiences it was supposedly made for.
A trip through New Jersey’s haunting Pine Barrens turns into a nightmare for Donna Bruno (Rose) and her family when, after experiencing car trouble, the road-trippers encounter the bizarre Leeds clan inhabiting a remote home. Inside the house, the Bruno family is terrorized by Mrs. Leeds (St. Paule) and her “children” (including an overacting Christie Sanford portraying the mute “Judy”), while outside the fabled Jersey Devil patrols the skies, picking off anything in its path (that is, anything not already laid claim to by the group of Satan worshippers milling about the Leeds’ property). Oh, and then there’s the quicksand.
Satan’s Playground is a schizophrenic affair that can’t decide whether it wants to be The Last House on the Left or The Blair Witch Project. While the Leeds clan has a supposed connection to the Jersey Devil, it’s not really explored, and makes either plot device a disposable one. Had Tomaselli simply told a tale of survival against the mythical creature, or chose to focus on the family’s encounter with the Leeds, the end-result would have been a less convoluted film. However, as it is, Playground is mired down by a surplus of characters (like the wasted Edwin Neal, whose only purpose here seems to be so that the producers could stamp “from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” somewhere on the box art), and a sort of half-hearted attempt at combining his villains in a way that makes next-to-no sense, and drags us back into the surreal “nightmare” territory he’d already explored with Horror.
To make matters worse, Tomaselli’s genre veteran cast just isn’t up to the task, with the aforementioned Sanford chewing up scenery like some sort of refugee from the silent film era, and Rose turning in the sort of performance that will have viewers begging for her demise. Sandweiss and Neal do what they can with their limited screen time, but one has to wonder just how much material they even had to work with, as Playground looks and feels like much of it was made up as they went along. There are numerous “chase” scenes that seem to go on forever, endless bouts of ear-piercing screams, and lots of hokey evil laughter meant to unnerve but only serving to annoy. In other words, it’s pretty much the same stuff I didn’t like about Horror, but to a slightly lesser degree.
So what’s good about Satan’s Playground? Well, just like all of Tomaselli’s films, it’s a remarkably well crafted movie, with a look that belies its budget, and is chockfull of the sort of iconic imagery we’ve come to expect from the director. Shot on Super 16mm for a fraction of your average horror flick, every dollar of Satan’s Playground is apparent on the screen, but, sadly, we are shortchanged when it comes to the very core of what makes a great film; the script and storyline.
Anchor Bay offers up Satan’s Playground with a really low-key feature-length commentary by Tomaselli, a short collection of behind-the-scenes material, and a brief interview with the director that pretty much summarizes what he says on the commentary track.
Not long ago, Tomaselli’s name was thrown out there as a potential helmer for the next chapter in the Halloween series. I was really jazzed by the news (and, honestly, would still rather see this than Rob Zombie's proposed reboot), not only because I’m a Halloween nut, but because I would love to see what a guy with the obvious skills of someone like Tomaselli could do with a solid script and a little bit of reigning in. We know what he can do with the camera, but I think that, until he is paired with an equally gifted writer, it may be a long time before we get to see the best this talented filmmaker has to offer.