Easter Egg: Go to Extras Menu, and move remote cursor until Christie Sanford's picture (left side) is highlighted. Press Enter, and a featurette (23:59) unofficially dubbed 'In Search of the New Jersey Devil' will play.
New Jersey filmmaker Dante Tomaselli returns to the horror genre with a more linear tale of bickering suburbanites being done in by local loons who've all the free time in the world to indulge in their own nasty peccadilloes. Unlike the more exploitive work of his contemporaries, Dante Tomaselli's films don't really exist as showcases for gore and outright sadism, as the writer/director tends to emphasize mood, and his own personal fascination for nightmare sequences.
Satan's Playground uses a familiar slasher template, but integrates the regional legend of the Jersey Devil: a winged, bat-like creature, living in south New Jersey's Pine Barrons for more than a hundred years, and forced to fend for itself because mom took one look at her thirteenth child, and said 'No-way!' The contemporary stranded characters are simultaneously affected by the mutant offspring and its mother, Mrs. Leeds, who remains an ambiguous presence that may or may not be a ghost, using the safety of her home as a trap to ensnare lost travelers.
Tomaselli's cast includes several genre icons: Ellen Sandweiss from Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, and Felissa Rose from Sleepaway Camp. Weiss is quite convincing as a divorced mother with a newborn that Leeds wants to possess (and then some); and Rose, who previously appeared in Tomaselli's Horror, plays the lead role of a mother who loses her husband and autistic son (played by Horror lead Danny Lopes, part of Tomaselli's unofficial stock company, which also includes fellow cast members Irma St. Paule and Christie Sanford, respectively playing Momma Leeds and her deranged daughter. Raine Brown, another Horror thespian, gets offed in the film's pre-credit sequence).
Minor genre actor Ron Millkie from Friday the 13th plays a concerned but scream-deaf cop who visits the Leeds homestead; and Edwin Neal, from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plays another bedeviled cuckoo, form-fitting a character of another dumb son who torments mama's latest sacrificial victim with some rope, and a few pokes with a knife.
By the sound of it, one would expect plenty of skin, blood, and sadism, but in spite of a few bloody scenes, most of the film's tension comes from Timothy Naylor's elegant cinematography (shot in clean Super 16, with a vibrant array of colours).
Tomaselli's leaning towards primary colours, grey shading, and dream-like sets clashes with more recognizable slasher film elements, and the results might be uneven for fans expecting something more mainstream. A strange occult sub-thread adds two moody sequences, but is abandoned when the plot flips back to the Chainsaw-inspired narrative of a dysfunctional family with a woman trapped in their cellar.
Unlike Chainsaw, the set decor in Playground is more symbolic, and Tomaselli eschews the usual mess of bones, unrecognizable rubbish, and decades-old dried blood and intestinal splatter for clean, newly painted walls, peppered with iconic crazy-people clutter. It all seems a bit too neat and clean for a weathered, disintegrating house, resting in a secluded clearing, but the design does give affected sets a strange, dream-like quality.
The director's commentary track is pretty straightforward and consistent, and unlike his prior track for the Horror DVD, Tomaselli makes a point in tracing the stylistic and aesthetic similarities that form his triptych horror output. One gets a sense he's cultivating a recognizable persona by commenting on the aesthetics of his work and style, but filmmakers often forget the more practical details that span a film's journey, from script to theatrical & home video release, can offer more compelling anecdotes than ruminations on personal style, although Tomaselli does cite some of his cinematic influences (which include Tourist Trap, and Pupi Avati's nutty House of Laughing Windows).
A fascination for nightmares is the recurring motif in Tomaselli's commentary, and it's an aspect that often dominates his work, sometimes linking thematic elements from prior films, and sometimes feeling like a jarring interpolation, as with Lopes' disappearance beneath the forest floor in one sudden gulp, first seen in the director's debut, Desecration. (The DVD includes a trailer for "The Horror of Dante Tomaselli," which probably traces the various links between each work, but having directed three feature-length films, a dissection of his canon seems rather premature.)
Anchor Bay 's DVD offers an excellent transfer of the film, and includes 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks that feature some effective ambient channels. The music score by Tomaselli and Kenneth Lampl often overstates obvious shocks, or otherwise feels like sound design with semi-conscious theme overlays that never capture the genuine dread of the film's main title music.
A behind-the-scenes featurette assembles some candid moments during the chilly location shoot, while a second featurette has the director discussing the legend of the Jersey Devil, and recapping some of the script and production details in the commentary track.
There's also a bonus featurette with the film's regional myth consultant, who takes us on a tour of the haunted Pine Barrons, and concludes with a campfire oration of the famous Jersey Devil legend, plus live music. At best, the featurette's archival in quality, but it's a nice bonus that explains the legend's enduring impact, and the elements that inspired Tomaselli's latest work.
For an interview with the director, click HERE !
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan