Satan's Playground

Satan's Playground (2004)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Felissa Rose, Ellen Sandweiss, Edwin Neal, Irma St. Paule, Danny Lopes
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Trailers, Still Gallery

The low-budget horror scene of the 1970s is paid loving homage by cult indie director Dante Tomaselli in his latest horror effort, "Satan's Playground." Known in small circles for his surrealist and artsy approach to horror, Tomaselli shifts slightly toward a more self-described "popcorn" feel with this movie, mixing plenty of grim humor in with the chills. Based on urban myths of the Jersey Devil, a demonic spirit said to haunt the forests of New Jersey, the film oozes the raw verisimilitude of old slasher flicks but still retains a touch of surrealism that is unmistakably the work of Tomaselli. A cast of cult horror film icons adds flavor to this entertaining feature from Anchor Bay Entertainment that stirs up a few shivers.

While heading for a vacation through the tranquil, New Jersey Pine Barrens with her family, Donna Bruno (Felissa Rose, "Sleepaway Camp") finds herself in the midst of a supernatural nightmare that will test her dedication as a wife and mother. Traveling with her loafing husband Frank (Salvatore Piro), autistic son Sean (Danny Lopes), and sister Paula (Ellen Sandweiss, "The Evil Dead"), Donna clearly has issues with her matriarchal duties, issues that quite possibly have led her down the path to hell on earth. When their car becomes stuck in the mud in the middle of the deserted woods, the family finds themselves at the mercy of an unseen force that swoops around them through the trees. Frank decides to leave the women behind to find help only to meet up with Mrs. Leeds (Irma St. Paule), a reclusive old woman who lives in a decrepit house deep within the forest. His demise at the hands of her insane daughter (Christie Sanford) is the first of many grisly misfortunes that will befall the family.

I will not continue with the story, as the film does not follow any clear plotline and to reveal more would be a disservice. "Satan's Playground" follows the logic and progression of a dream, with characters and events moving in a circular motion, coming in and out of the spotlight by various turns. The movie is very close in spirit to the relentless horror films of the 1970s that exploited unflinching depictions of violence and mayhem in gritty documentary-style. Although there are hints of something evil and omniscient lurking about, the true villains are the crazed Mrs. Leeds and her mentally disturbed children. None of the characters in this film are safe, including Paula's infant son, which makes the film all the more disturbing.

The acting in this film, while not pushed to the limits, is uniformly above the norm for direct-to-DVD releases of this sort. While Felissa Rose and Ellen Sandweiss are commendable in their roles and will certainly conjure up much excitement in their long-time fans, the honors go to the Leeds family for their unbridled insanity. The late Irma St. Paule is an absolute hoot as the creepy matron, gleefully throwing herself into the murderous antics while cheekily acknowledging the comedic aspects of her character. As her mute daughter, Christie Sanford is like a demonic cherub, projecting a child-like wickedness that makes your skin crawl whenever she's onscreen. The most highly anticipated performance without doubt comes from Edwin Neal (revered for his lunacy in "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre") as the dimwitted Leeds boy. Nobody can portray pure dementia quite like he can, and he gives it his all in a relatively small role.

Tomaselli builds up wonderful atmosphere in this film, effectively creating a dream world in which we are constantly pulled back just as we think we are at the brink of reaching reality. Some of the loose ends in his screenplay are dissatisfying, however, simply because they are not milked for their full potential. The myth of the Jersey Devil is skated around throughout the film, but it takes a backseat to the more immediate threat of the Leeds clan. There are also glimpses of satanic rituals, but their connection to the rest of the story is never fully explained, and they are neglected almost as soon as they are introduced. While the lack of conventional structure reinforces Tomaselli's penchant for surrealism, it left me wondering what he could have done had he further explored the possibilities of these loose ends. I wasn't expecting closure so much as wishing for some elaboration.

The good thing is that, as Tomaselli promised, he did in fact create a "popcorn" movie that is enjoyable in spite of its artsy approach. Accentuated by carefully designed black comedy, the film never demands that we take it seriously and works as a fitting tribute to the cult films that inspired Tomaselli. Some key visual quotations from such popular films as "The Shining" and "The Evil Dead" offer a playful wink to the audience without being conspicuous or distracting. This is no masterpiece of the genre, but its smart sense of humor and nostalgia for cult films of the past make this one of the more enjoyable direct-to-DVD releases I've seen in a while.

Anchor Bay delivers the film in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen image that looks considerably good. Shot on super 16mm film, the movie has the gritty look of an ultra-low-budget feature from the 1970s. Color saturation is very good, and the evident grain adds to the period flavor. Some shots have a noticeably digitized look to them, and backgrounds are not always stable, but this is not a major complaint.

You can take your pick between a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix and a 2.0 stereo track. On the 5.1 mix, dialogue is slightly subdued, but the surround distribution is a great advantage, sending background cackles and sound effects to the back for an immersive experience. The unnerving music sweeps through the back as well, creating a nightmarish atmosphere around you that adds immensely to the feelings elicited onscreen.

Dante Tomaselli sits down for an engaging commentary track. He discusses much of his inspiration for the movie and some of the technical aspects as well as the casting. His dedication to the project is quite apparent, and his articulate musings help us appreciate the final product a little more.

An eight-minute featurette, "Satan's Playground: Behind-the-Scenes," gives us a small glance at the production process. It's really more of a montage of video clips, with no interviews or structure to speak of. Fortunately, the commentary takes care of the background information any viewers may seek.

Much better is the second featurette, a five-minute interview with Tomaselli concerning his childhood recollections of the Jersey Devil legend. While he discusses mostly just that, he also talks a little bit about the actual filming.

Rounding out the DVD are two trailers, a still gallery, and an "Also on DVD" feature. There is also an Easter Egg, so keep your eyes open.

Dante Tomaselli is a filmmaker of budding visual and artistic potential that has yet to reach its peak. "Satan's Playground," while not perfect, presents some convincing evidence of this man's talent and flair for atmospheric surrealism. He has successfully crafted a movie that works on the level of sheer entertainment, thanks significantly to his cast of willing and dedicated actors. The scares in this movie are not in the same league as those in the movies he pays homage to, but credit must be given where it is due, and Tomaselli can deliver a few shocks and good laughs with equal aplomb. So make some popcorn and enter into "Satan's Playground" for some ghoulish fun.