Directed by Dante Tomaselli
It’s been a few years since Tomaselli’s last film, Horror, managed to bore the hell out of me on many levels and make me wonder what happened to the guy who made the interesting, twisted Desecration. I seemed to be one of the few who didn’t enjoy the movie, as fans across the ‘net raved about its visuals, its “nightmare logic”, and its bizarre message.
So when I heard that Satan’s Playground would be a departure from form, an actual straightforward horror film about the Jersey Devil, I was… well, let’s call it curious. And how did it turn out?
The story follows a family unit who experience car problems while driving through the infamous Pine Barrens region of New Jersey, a million-acre stretch of desolation that’s been home to the legend of the Jersey Devil for decades. Seeking some help, Frank (Salvatore Paul Piro) heads off into the woods, leaving his mentally challenged son Sean (Danny Lopes), wife Donna (Rose), sister-in-law Paula (Sandweiss), and her infant child alone in the care to freak out about every little sound they here. Eventually Donna heads off to find her man and discovers a cabin near where their car broke down, but no sign of her husband.
She meets the ancient Mrs. Leeds (St. Paule), who first mentions the Jersey Devil legend to her before drugging her and dumping her in the basement. When she wakes up, she’s attacked by Mrs. Leeds’ deaf and mute daughter, Judy (Christie Sanford, who also played St. Paule’s daughter in Desecration), and escapes to the woods where she’s caught, tied to a post, and menaced by a weird guy in a red cloak. Ah, those wacky Satanists… will they ever learn?
People die off and on, everyone overacts, and by the end of the film I was praying for an appearance by the Devil to at least give Rose’s character a good reason to freak out, which she does non-stop from the moment she wakes up in the basement until the last few minutes of the film. And by freak out I mean she freaks out, screaming and crying and begging for her life every second she’s on screen. Trust me, you’re not going to want her to live after a few minutes.
So what the hell does the Jersey Devil have to do with anything? Well, Mrs. Leeds is apparently the mother from the legend, which tells of a woman who gave birth to 13 children, the 13th coming out as a monster who still preys on everyone who finds themselves on his turf. The Devil does take some victims, but don’t hope to ever see it on screen; instead the monster appears as a swooping thing with claws who scratches and eventually cuts its victims open. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the creature’s attacks either as he’s apparently “playing”, hence the title. The most ridiculous death occurs when Donna comes across a random kid in the woods smoking a bowl and watches from afar as he get his throat ventilated in what serves as the film’s goriest scene.
Tomaselli has said many times, both in interviews and on the DVD’s commentary track, that he subscribes to a belief in “nightmare logic”, but to me it just comes across as a lack of the ability to tell a linear story. Characters show up and mug for the camera, maybe do or say something creepy, then they disappear again for a while, their actions never explained or referenced again. I got the distinct impression that none of the actors in the film were actually given any real direction either as there are scenes that go on for way too long with nothing whatsoever actually happening during them.
And don’t even ask about the acting; it ranges from tolerable to out and out terrible across the board. Dante was very excited to work with people like Rose and Sandweiss, giving them prominent roles again and allowing him to work with women he has great respect for, but unfortunately it seemed like not much thought was put into how good of actresses they actually were. Or maybe it’s just that, with nightmare logic, performances take a back seat to visuals.
That aspect is where the film shines, as has usually been the case with Dante’s films. It was shot in Super 16, but you’ll be hard pressed to deduce that by the film’s look, which is polished and stylish throughout with some great cinematography and memorable lighting. If only he could combine these aesthetic sensibilities with a coherent storyline and solid acting, we’d be in for a real treat.
Anchor Bay does a good job with the disc, as is to be expected, though there’s nothing in here you’ve not seen before.
As previously mentioned, Tomaselli does a solo commentary track, and I would like to just say now that he shouldn’t do again. Something about the way the man talks just has a way of lulling me off to dream land (which could very well be his intention considering his obsession with nightmares), and even though he does have some interesting stories from the shoot, he almost always follows them up with a mini-speech about nightmare logic or the characters’ existence in a flux of time and space or some such bizzarity. All in all it tends to be a bit disconcerting and would have probably been better if it were offset with someone else being there with him; Rose or Sandweiss would have probably been entertaining.
There’s 15-minute “behind the scenes”, which is simply on-set footage edited together to some original music, and a 5-minute interview with Dante in which he pretty much recaps all the points he makes during the commentary while wearing sunglasses in a dark room. Arty. A still/poster gallery and trailers round out the package.
At the end of the day, Satan’s Playground let me down, though not nearly as much as Horror, a fact that I attribute primarily to the bad acting, nonsensical storyline, and lack of an appearance by the monster that the film is supposed to be about. Perhaps watching it with a better idea of what to expect will help you enjoy it more, or perhaps I’m just destined to not like Tomaselli’s work since all the other reviews I’ve found out there for Playground have leaned far closer to positive than this one. In other words; maybe it’s just me…
Commentary by writer/director Dante Tomaselli
Satan’s Playground: Behind the Scenes featurette
Dante Tomaselli and The Jersey Devil featurette
Poster and still gallery
2 1/2 out of 5
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