“Satan’s Playground” is the latest from horror auteur Dante Tomaselli, director of the hallucinogenic shockers “Desecration” and “Horror”. The film sees him continuing his single handed revival of honest horror values, once again proving that while so many directors love to mouth off about capturing the look and feel of 1970s style genre cinema, Tomaselli is one of the few who can do so without either showing off, or worse still, having the whole film punctuated with annoyingly referential quote marks. This time around, Tomaselli tackles the real life myth of the Jersey Devil, and has assembled a great cast of minor genre icons to delight fans, including “Sleepaway Camp” star Felissa Rose, “Evil Dead” tree victim Ellen Sandweiss, and Edwin Neal of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
After a brief prologue which features a poor woman apparently falling foul of the Jersey Devil, the film gets underway proper with a carload of bickering people getting stranded in the middle of the Pine Barrens forest. Having seen a house through the trees, Frank (Salvatore Paul Piro) heads off to look for help, ignoring the warnings from his wife Donna (Felissa Rose) and her sister Paula (Ellen Sandweiss) about having heard strange noises coming from the tress. After Frank fails to return, Donna decides to go and look for him, leaving Paula in the car with her baby and the couple’s autistic son Sean (Danny Lopes). Needless to say, Donna soon meets a similar fate as Frank, and as night falls, all manner of dreadful things start to happen.
Although the plot may suggest yet another “Texas Chainsaw” style torture fest, Tomaselli thankfully takes things down a far more interesting and individual route, working in all kinds of great stuff, including a mysterious gang of robed Satanists, pill popping psychos and an unseen, constantly lurking monster. These various themes and motifs are skilfully combined and compliment each other, making for a great genre goulash, and helping to keep the viewer interested. After a fairly slow start, the film moves along at a good pace, and is frequently unpredictable in a refreshing manner sorely lacking in similar films. There is plenty of action throughout, and though there is not much in the way of gore, the film is always intense, with a number of surprising and shocking scenes.
“Satan’s Playground” certainly benefits from a more professional sheen than Tomaselli’s earlier films, and the excellent grainy cinematography provides for viewing in the finest grind house fashion without ever looking cheap. As might be expected from the director, the film is visually very strong, and he brings out the best from the locations, giving the woods a creepy, baleful look without ever resorting to cheap trickery or too much dry ice. The grounded feel is an effective contrast with the film’s later stages, making for a believable and disorienting descent into madness and surrealism. As a result, the proceedings are atmospheric throughout, dragging the viewer into what amounts to a nihilistic drug-fuelled nightmare.
Tomaselli’s greatest skill is in the way he manages to weave the film’s more eccentric elements, and though some parts make little sense, they never come across as being simply thrown in for effect, and the film is firmly held together by a certain dream like logic. As such, “Satan’s Playground” works almost as a dark fairy tale, a feeling furthered by its woodland setting and bizarre set of characters.
It’s fair to say that “Satan’s Playground” is Tomaselli’s most accessible film to date, being far more coherent than “Horror” or “Desecration”, and basically follows a traditional narrative. However, the film is still likely to catch those anticipating a more straightforward genre experience off-guard, as Tomaselli makes few concessions to viewer expectations, and indeed plays upon them to produce some genuinely unsettling scares. Although the film is a little rough around the edges, it is gripping and hugely atmospheric, and again confirms the director as one of the most interesting and original filmmakers working in the genre, and it is hoped that he will be given the chance to expand upon his fascinating vision.
Dante Tomaselli (director) / Dante Tomaselli (screenplay)
CAST: Felissa Rose …. Donna Bruno
Ellen Sandweiss …. Paula
Edwin Neal …. Boy
Irma St. Paule …. Mrs. Leeds
Danny Lopes …. Sean
Christie Sanford …. Judy
Ron Millkie …. Officer Peters
Salvatore Paul Piro …. Frank Bruno