Judge David Johnson once had a run-in with The Jersey Devil. The two ended up being good friends.
Enter if you dare.
A throwback to twisted '70s and '80s survivalist horror, Satan's Playground gathers an impressive crop of actors who've appeared in mega-popular horror films. Does their combined karma work to separate this low-budget shocker from the pack?
Facts of the Case
The Bruno family ends up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens on a wayward shortcut, unsuspecting that a whole night of pain and craziness awaits them. It all starts when they find themselves stuck in the mud and spooked by what appears to be flapping wings in the distance. Prompted by the matriarch of the Bruno family, the prone-to-screaming Donna (Felissa Rose of Sleepaway Camp fame), dad gets out to track down some help. He happens upon a decrepit old building that screams "Run away from me now, as fast as you possibly can!" A crazy old lady appears, lures dad in, who, before getting smacked with a mallet, catches a glimpse of a Satanic ritual.
But, alas, the mallet does fall, and dad becomes the first victim in an onslaught of supernatural (?) havoc. Systematically, the Bruno family is stalked by the old crone, her evil-looking daughter, and her lunatic son (Edwin Neal, from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It will fall to Donna to elude the evil schemes of this backwoods family…though there might be something out there worse.
This is a decent little horror film, featuring some nasty little surprises and a handful of genuinely disturbing sequences. What eventually keeps the experience from soaring is the enigmatic nature of the storytelling. But let's leave the negativity at the door for now and focus on the good.
For one thing, this movie looks terrific; about as good as a lot of horror features with much higher budgets (the asking price for Satan's Playground was a paltry $500,000). Writer/director Dante Tomaselli has some serious moves, and was able to squeeze every dollar's worth out of the production. The lighting is consistently excellent, the camerawork top-notch and the production design is tight. While I'm sure his small cast and limited location work (it's pretty much all filmed on location in New Jersey's freakish Pine Barrens) contributed to some savings, I was still shocked by how low his budget was when he revealed it in the commentary. This is a top-shelf production.
There are a good amount of scares to supplement the back of the film, and Tomaselli wields a deft touch when translating unnerving circumstances on the screen. You'll get a lot of frantic chase scenes, some nutty devil worshipping, the go-to money sequence of a victim trapped in a cramped hillbilly house of horrors, and some well-orchestrated gore shots; there's a scene at the end where some sucker gets sliced by an unseen flying predator and the eruption of blood from his neck is one of the better effects I've caught in some time.
Acting-wise, Ellen Sandweiss (The Evil Dead) probably earns the most kudos as a mother panicking over her missing child, though all three members of the killer freak family are super-whacked in their roles. Rose screams a lot and the physical demands placed on her during filming are notable, but her relentless "terrorized victim" shtick grew weary. And at the end, her character makes one of the more moronic decisions I've ever seen in a horror film, and that's saying something.
As for the story—as a nonsensical bit of horror mythology, it's okay, but there's very little reconciled once you're done. Tomaselli injects plenty of potentially interesting plotlines into his script (the mysterious Satanists, the Jersey Devil), but these are never paid off. It was all intentional, of course, but I need a little closure in my movies.
A very nice 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is accompanied by an active 5.1 mix. Tomaselli delivers good commentary track, and shows up again in some brief making-of featurettes. A good package, as usual, by Anchor Bay.
Satan's Playground sets up a lot of ripe horror possibilities, but can't stick the landing on most of them. The insane, murdering family of jackasses is done well, and the reveal is somewhat satisfying, but the purposeful vagueness of the rest of the film didn't work for me, though.
How about some community service, picking up trash in the Pine Barrens?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Director's Commentary
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