A filmmaker whose inspired dark poems suggest borderlands between fragmented realities and the supernatural, Dante Tomaselli whispers of a world where there is little difference between the real and uncanny. Tomaselli's descents into the delirious are as atmospherically rich as they are visually disturbing, and it is near impossible to leave one of his films without feeling some shadow of transformation. Marrying subversive subtexts with unapologetically exploitative surface action, his assaults against expectation and social taboos are also contradictions of conservative order, taste, and form. In his worlds of nightmare and wonder, reality and fantasy are simply terms whose effectiveness fade like hope. More disturbing, characters in his anti-stories often find perception -- the very tool by which we rationalize the universe and our place in it -- deconstructed. Seeped in psychological complexity and impressive depths of philosophical speculation, Dante's vision is original in its ability to capture experiences and characters, settings and phenomena that belong to neither the dead or the living, the mad or the sane, but an emotional and aesthetic territory whose true well-spring is the unreasoning, intuitive panic of the human heart when confronted with the unknown. In Satan's Playground horrors of an unknown, malignant supernaturalism join the naturalistic depravity of 'human' monsters, resulting in a first rate thriller that employs both visceral shocks and suggestive atmosphere.

Combining the grimly serious premises of 70's and 80's exploitation with an organic ability to find the surreal in the midst of the seemingly everyday, Dante uses a deceivingly simplistic plot to focus on the terror of an emotionally realistic family as they face cosmic nightmares and the dark heart of their own consciousness. Satan's Playground is a modern fear fable equal parts adult faerie tale and scathing condemnation of our species. We are immediately forced to care about the family; each character is presented in a naturalistic manner wherein we know something of their relationships, histories, and motives. The script offers honest-to-god characterization in a genre usually devoted to little more than caricature. Travelling through New Jersey's Pine Barrens region (an environment pregnant with superstitious folklore) to a much-deserved camping retreat, a family's car breaks down. As darkness falls, so do morals. Arriving, by chance, at a decrepit house whose depleted exterior (along with the gothic-like credence of the woods) mirrors the dark internal characteristic soon to appear, one-by-one the family meet Mrs. Leeds (Irma St. Paule), who resides in the house with her deranged children. Soon the family is trapped between an evil as old as time and a ferocious country clan. Deliverance as told by Lovecraft, there really is no simplistic comparison or category to place this film in -- a very fine, very admirable thing.

If anything, this wonderfully well written and confidently directed feast of terror more closely resembles an oral folktale. While one can certainly make nods to the degenerate families and barbaric sensibilities of such films as Hills Have Eyes and the supernatural terrors of the seventies, Tomaselli makes this material his own, and develops for his characters a distinct personality. This said, one of the thematic and stylistic elements that make it such a successful atmospheric exercise is the basic primacy that it offers in its bare essence. A celluloid re-telling of -round-the-fire folklore, Dante is little different than a shaman of old, re-inventing and expanding upon our essential fascination with the unknown by connecting it to, and reflecting it through, characters and events that, like his approach to evil in his other two films, are both timely and timeless. At the same time, he offers no clean-cut banalities of over simplified logic or one-sided morality.

Merging the frightful power of the unknown with the all-too-real, and the cultural resonance of archetypal legend with the immediate and intimate threats of both bodily harm and emotional instability, the director also refuses audiences the simplistic narrative structure we've been taught to rely on. Even more significant, he refuses to condemn or commend, forcing us, the audience, to do this for him. Mirroring the emotional and mythic characterization complexities of the story, the lens is employed as a character, establishing by carefully composed shots various layers of possible meaning. Lighting is an odd if nightmarishly successful orgy of drab rustic colors, earth and fern mingle with suggestions of an atmospheric Neverland.

Lending character-motivated tension to the original folklore of the Jersey Devil, a creature said to have been born, in just one of many accounts, by one Mrs. Leeds after she denounced god for making her have so many children, this monster has long been seen (and feared) in the New Jersey's Pine Barrens region -- an area of largely untamed wilderness. The Jersey Devil, who has as many possible shapes as origins, is described by most witnesses as a hybrid of demon, bat-like animal, and misshaped human. Add to this rich legend of a horse-headed, bat-like creature Tomaselli's directorial panache, disturbingly offbeat frame-of-mind, and technological innovation and what you have is a movie as dedicated to the destruction of family, and the power of myth, as is to simply scaring the hell out of you. It succeeds equally well in all accounts.

As beautiful as it is disturbing, lending a nightmarish intensity and dream-logic to both scenery and themes that focus on the terrors of isolation, loss, and reoccurrence more than a creature, Anchor Bay presents this film with its characteristic attention to quality. The image is clean and sharp, colors bold, and while the cheapness of the film is evident, its low budget origins are a benefit to its gloomy, chaotic story.

Extras are well represented in this Anchor Bay offering. Extended and teaser trailers for the feature are accompanied with spots for Malevolence, The Garden, and Evil Dead. The poster and Still Gallery is attractive, featuring tasty shots of the actors and overall production (if not as comprehensive as it could have been), while a generous Behind-The-Scene Featurette displaying intriguing shots of the genuinely eerie location and crew hard at work is an enjoyable look at movie-making. Most substantial is "Dante Tomaselli and The Jersey Devil," wherein the director speaks about the origins of his story, the authentic folktale itself, and how he weaved both together into a screenplay.

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by Anchor Bay
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review