A storybook fairy tale on acid, Satan’s Playground filters the familiar tale of a family car breaking down in the middle of an oppressive enchanted woods through the sensibility of emerging horror director Dante Tomaselli. The film is more in keeping with the look and feel of classic 1970s horror films, less avant-garde hallucinogenic than his previous work. Though there are plenty of images of women running and screaming through the woods (New Jersey’s tangled Pine Barrens), there’s a psychic lash of pain in the way Tomaselli shows violence. One of the characters, the mother of a young child, runs through the woods hysterically in search of the lost baby, and actress Ellen Sandweiss convincingly does a full-on desperate freak out that is disturbing because it taps into her character’s maternal instincts. (Genre fans may take delight in seeing her sprinting through the forests like her famously unlucky victim in Sam Raimi’s classic The Evil Dead.) When the victims encounter a family of backwoods degenerates, things take a turn toward the non-narrative as strange sounds and spooky atmosphere take over, and the dialogue starts fragmenting off into mostly nonsense speak. Heroine Felissa Rose (you’ll remember her as the creepy Angela from Sleepaway Camp) becomes a classic scream queen in the third reel, but is memorable also for how her character seems to be disoriented and underwater as she blurrily tries to escape a boarded-up house and impenetrable woods. Though Tomaselli shows signs of discomfort framing his story within a traditional narrative (every now and then, logic kicks in and it feels as out of place as the psychiatrist wrapping things up at the end of Psycho), his movies are taut and fast, careening along with the camera as stand-in for supernatural force and oppressive dread. He’s a talent to watch.
The multi-layered sound design is beautifully mixed in Dolby Surround 5.1 and 2.0, and is as crucial to the atmosphere of the film as its 1970s image quality. It's an assault on the senses, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. The image quality is excellent, capturing the colors and textures of the '70s without feeling muddy or faded, and the widescreen 1.85:1 presentation is effective.
The commentary track by Tomaselli is informative, particularly with regard to how he drew out such strong performances from his cast. He encouraged them not to sleep very much toward the end of the shoot, so we could feel their exhaustion and disorientation. He coasts along when describing onscreen action such as characters walking into rooms and down hallways, but it's clear he has a deep passion for the rules of genre and audio-visual storytelling. His brief onscreen interview and the behind-the-scenes footage are less informative, though it's fun to see how positively off-the-wall Edwin Neal (the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre hitchhiker, who plays a crazy mute here) comes off in real life as well as on the screen.
Satan's Playground announces filmmaker Dante Tomaselli as a horror talent to watch out for.