Pulpmovies Cult Film Reviews
When it was in production, a lot of the reporting around Dante Tomaselli’s Satan’s Playground was describing it as the writer/director’s most accessible film so far. But if you are expecting a simplistically linear splatterfest (which wouldn’t be unreasonable given the number of horror icons that he managed to sign up), you really are in the wrong place.
What Tomaselli excels at is atmosphere. With far from linear approach to plotting, a visual style that draws you in and a sound design that gets right under your skin, watching one of his films is like being trapped in a very vivid nightmare. And, although the look and feel is more in keeping with the classic horror films of the late 1970s and early 1980s from which Satan’s Playground takes many of its cues, this film is still very much a Dante Tomaselli production.
Satan’s Playground is set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and the plot revolves around the area’s legendary Jersey Devil. There are various versions of the Jersey Devil story, most of which – from what little research I’ve done – revolve around an unwanted child becoming a winged monstrosity. This is referred to, although the film is much more interested in the family that gave rise to the Jersey Devil than the monster itself.
The story centres on a family travelling through the Pine Barrens, lost, tired and becoming increasingly irritated when their car gets stuck. As night draws in, individual family members venture into the woods, initially to seek help but, later, to try and find each other. And, as they stumble around, they each find a dilapidated house and ask for help
As mentioned earlier, Tomaselli has managed to sign up a several icons of the genre. Felissa Rose of Sleepaway Camp fame and Ellen Sandweiss – who was notoriously ‘treed’ in the first Evil Dead film – play the sisters, Donna and Paula, of the haplessly lost family. They are joined by Salvatore Piro as Donna’s husband, Frank, and Tomaselli regular Danny Lopes as Donna and Frank’s autistic son Sean.
Also returning is Christie Sanford as a murderous adult child of Mrs Leeds. And she has a brother in the form of Edwin Neal – probably best known as the artistic one from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre - a silent psychopath who fits right in with the rest of his relatives.
In fact, all of the cast put in strong performances - with special kudos going to both Felissa Rose and Ellen Sandweiss, both of whom put in a very strong physical performance - and the scene in which Ellens character loses her baby son is both powerful and difficult to watch. I am not generally a fan of seeing children in horror films, mainly because too many filmmakers shy away from putting the children in any sort of real danger - this is most definitely not the case with this film.
However, the stand out performance this time around comes from Irma St. Paule who plays Mrs. Leeds the menacingly batty matriarch of the family. You really do have no idea what personality she’s going to present when she opens the blood red door of the house, or when her mood will switch. By turns, she manages to be creepy, demented and cloying, but always very unnerving.
Satan’s Playground is a homage to the horror films that many of us grew up with, but it’s much more than this. With a full throated scream-queen performance from Felissa Rose and an approach to violence that is shocking rather than explicit Tomaselli clearly knows and loves his chosen genre. And this is a taut, superbly paced shocker that really does keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
While distinctive, this film is different enough to his earlier two films that I’m not going to attempt to draw any comparisons, but he is certainly a talent to watch and Satan’s Playground leaves me with very high hopes for his next film, The Ocean.