JULY 7, 2007
A lot of the 70s movies we all love don’t really have complex stories. Halloween, Chain Saw, Hills Have Eyes... they are all essentially one line ideas, maximized to their full potential by the ingenuity of their creators. So when a film like Satan’s Playground attempts to recreate that feel, one can’t really fault it for being pretty thing in the story department. You CAN, however, fault it for being repetitive, padded, and eventually sort of pointless.
The repetition in this film is almost unparalleled. We have at least FOUR scenes of someone coming up to the obviously “bad” house in the middle of the woods and asking to use the phone, only to be attacked by one of the two crazy women who live there. Hilariously, at one point, a girl we’ve never seen before runs up and, of course, asks to use the phone, and Felissa Rose, the film’s Final Girl who actually answers the door, basically says “that’s what I’m here for!” The random girl then tells Rose that she “obviously has a lot of things to deal with” or something of that nature and takes off, never to be seen again.
That’s just one of many segments in the film that is simply there to pad the running time to a feature length. At one point, Edwin Neal, playing one of the crazy family members (way to stretch Ed), cuts Felissa Rose loose, only to tie her up again somewhere else. He then unties her AGAIN and lets her go AGAIN later on in the film. Why? Well, if he just killed her, like everyone else, the movie would be about 60 minutes long. We also have a cop showing up out of nowhere (4 minutes), another cop taking his sweet ass time looking around the house (4-5 minutes), a mute character coming up to the door, presumably to sign “Can I use the phone?” and just standing there looking off into space (3-4 minutes)... etc. Since there’s no actual story, all of these elements just stick out even more.
The film is also horribly cast. Not that the acting is bad (it ain’t Oscar-worthy either) but it’s rare I’ve seen a supposed family look so little alike. Felissa Rose and Ellen Sandweiss (who has barely aged since Evil Dead, if anything she’s even better looking) are supposed to be sisters, Rose has a son that looks about 2 years younger than her, and she’s married to a guy that looks old enough to be her dad, plus a few extra years for good measure. They also have zero chemistry with one another, which is kind of a problem when a good chunk of the movie revolves around one trying to save one of the others.
The Jersey Devil is given short thrift. We don’t really see it (which is fine) but it doesn’t really do anything either, it kills two non-main characters and is then forgotten. Coupled with the inherent scariness of the legendary New Jersey Pine Barrens (best Sopranos episode ever!), this would be more than enough backdrop to make a good breakdown/survival horror movie, but writer/director Dante Tomaselli also tosses in a cult and backwoods crazies.
At least, he sort of does. The Satanic/cult aspects of the movie are so limited and inconsequential that they feel like they are left in from another movie (hey, there’s an idea – maybe Tomaselli can make a film that revolves around the cult members and the random girl who shows up for a single scene). I still can’t even tell if the crazy people are with or against the red-robed cult folks (Neal sort of saves Rose from one the first time he unties her only to tie her up again). But does it matter?
Of course, if you are to believe the commentary track or the interview with Tomaselli on the disc, the film is supposed to have a dream-like quality, which, to be fair, could explain all the random elements that aren’t really explained. But it’s not implemented strongly enough – movies like Suspiria really sell this idea because they are so out there, but Playground is otherwise rooted firmly in reality, with only light “dream” elements. And since Tomaselli is certainly no Argento, it comes off as poor screenwriting more than anything else. Still, watching the film with that knowledge from the getgo might increase your enjoyment of it.
Also, since that’s about all the useful knowledge you’ll gain from the commentary and extras, you can skip them entirely if you know about its alleged “dream” status. Otherwise, Tomaselli just blandly rattles off pretentious babble (“The music here really captures the circular crescendo-like structure of the film.”) without any emotion, like he’s reading from cue cards. It’s like a commentary on a Criterion disc by some film scholar; from the detached way he talks, there’s absolutely no evidence he’s even involved with the film, let alone its creator. He also continuously mentions his other two films by name (descriptive name in fact, it’s not “Desecration”, it’s “my first film Desecration”), which gets incredibly annoying. I will give credit where credit is due though – he gladly points out the (superior) films where he got a lot of ideas from, everything from Mother’s Day to Halloween to, YES!, Tourist Trap are namechecked here. On the interview (which I watched first) he wears sunglasses even though they are indoors, which instantly made me think he was a douchebag, and other than his occasional honesty, the commentary didn’t really change my mind. There is also a pair of trailers – a teaser and an extended one. Apparently, an “actual trailer” was never cut, if so it’s not on here. Take your pick – do you want a trailer that doesn’t tell you the slightest thing about what the film is about, or one that spoils just about everything?
It’s technically well done (the Super 16mm film wasn’t given the best transfer to DVD, but still looks good and evokes the right feel) and the cast gives it their all, but as usual, it all comes down to the rather lousy script. And the almost laughable number of antagonists here (the cult, the crazy family, the Jersey Devil, the simple fact that they are lost in the woods, etc) makes it even more disappointing that it simply lacks suspense. There are good bits here and there, but it’s all so disjointed and random that it fails to ever be compelling or exciting, and there are far too many similar movies that are just plain better. For breakdown completists only.
What say you?