The Nightmarish Journey of Dante Tomaselli
Why are Nuns almost as scary as Clowns?…a scene from Desecration
Dante Tomaselli was born October 29, 1969, in Paterson, New Jersey is an Italian-American horror screenwriter, director, and score composer. He studied film making at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and then transferred to the New York School of Visual Arts, receiving a B.F.A. degree in Advertising there. His first film was a 23 minute short called Desecration which was screened at a variety of horror and mainstream film festivals. Later on, Dante Tomaselli expanded Desecration into a feature length film and in 1999, the film premiered to a SRO audience at the prestigious Fantafestival in Rome, Italy.
It’s no wonder that he’s “just this guy from New Jersey with odd visions” and a life long supernatural / horror aficionado considering himself as a ‘supernaturalist, NOT a ‘satanist’, who also happens to be the cousin of film director Alfred Sole the director who brought us the edgy , cult Catholic themed horror favorite , Alice Sweet Alice (1976) which I loved,the clear mask, the yellow raincoat…and I only have one criticism of that film, which is the little psychotic brat killing the big greasy fat man’s kitten. That was heinous, and I could have done without that scene.
But I digress.
Dante’s 2nd feature film, is Horror (2002) which was Tomaselli’s first commercial success, and has maintained a wide release on DVD.
Tomaselli then made Satan’s Playground (2005), It stars 70’s and early-80’s cult-horror icons Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Ellen Sandweiss (The Evil Dead), and Edwin Neal (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The film is set, and was filmed in, New Jersey’s infamous Pine Barrens Forest.
Dante just completed his fourth feature, Torture Chamber the fourth installment in his nightmarish journey exploring the imaginations of Hell and damnation.
From Horror Movies.ca “Torture Chamber is about a 13-year-old boy possessed by unspeakable evil. It’s probably the first serious independent horror film in a long time that’s in the vein of The Exorcist. The demon is called Baalberith, which, if you believe in demonology, tempts its host to blasphemy and murder,” he told the site. “Jimmy Morgan is a pyromaniac, horribly disfigured from experimentation with drugs. This Catholic boy’s family is crawling with religious fanatics. His mother believes he was sent from the Devil to set the world on fire. His older brother is a priest who tries to exorcise him. When Jimmy murders his own father, he burns him to death. Because of this, the troubled boy is sent to an Institution for disturbed youths. While there, Jimmy has a Charles Manson-like hold on the other kids from the burn unit. Together, they escape and Jimmy finds an old abandoned castle for shelter. That’s where the burned kids find a secret passage way that leads to a medieval, cobwebbed torture chamber.”
First I have to start off by saying that I had the great fortune, or if you believe as I do in synchronicity, fate led me to a copy of Desecration (1999), Dante Tomaselli’s first horror film/ Hallucinatory project, which was being sold at our local indie video store in Madison Wisconsin, a very hip and fully stocked video store known fairly nationally as a outre funky ‘go to’ place where the clerks knew every film in existence and could spout synopsis on a dime if asked by a customer.
You needed to take a very grueling test to work at that place, which I passed with flying colors, yet I worked there for only one evening, before having a panic attack outside, when I couldn’t handle the pressure of helping undergrads and frat boys who had little patience for me training on the register. The experience shamed me away from Four Star Video Heaven for the remaining years that I lived in Madison, BUT.. came away from it with one great thing, which was I had an inside crack at the mark down videos there during my week of training.
A few scenes from Desecration
And there were many obscure gems there that I scored because of that. One of them was Dante Tomaselli’s Desecration on VHS. (Which I still own) I quickly took the video home and watched it by myself, taking in all the imagery and discovering that I had stumbled onto a new film maker that I admired and respected greatly.
An overall impression of Dante’s work I’ll give right now. I internalize the Tomaselli experience like one of my sleep paralysis episodes or any number of horrific nightmares I’ve had from childhood to adulthood.
A few scenes from Horror
NOTICE THE CHILDREN’S DOLL HOUSE JUXTAPOSED WITH THE SYRINGE OF HALLUCINATORY DRUGS
Dante’s work does come closer to examining a nightmare, than most dream sequences attempted by other film makers. The dreams that truly frighten us are the ones that are more REAL.
I’ve seen his work being compared to Argento and Fulci, and while I’m sure that Dante might take this as a compliment on one hand, it doesn’t give enough credence to his own originality as an auteur. I speak from experience since I’ve been lazily compared to Tori Amos, when I’d like to think of my work as it’s own very unique ‘thing’
I see Dante Tomaselli’s work as uniquely his own imaginary / hallucinatory vision. Dante’s works are like little filmic exorcisms, for childhood fears. Where the danger surrounds anyone who is young, and the adults become the monsters. Where religion becomes the monster, and where fanaticism, repression and abuse, drives people toward possession, damnation, and inevitably to Hell, or a hellish nightmare world where there is no escape nor salvation.
A few stills from Desecration
Here is an excerpt from The Inferno of Dante. It illustrates much of how I see a Dante Tomaselli nightmare world coming close to a reality of Hell, a more protracted vision from the descriptions of the classic Inferno Hell.
Dante’s Inferno Canto VII line 10
That savage beast fell shrinking to the ground.
So we descended to the fourth defile
To experience more of that despondent land
That sacks up all the universe’s ill.
Justice of God! Who is it that heaps together
So much peculiar torture and travail?
Classical Map of Hell by Bartolomeo
Saint Anthony’s Catholic Academy
Still courtesy of Dread Central.com and Dante Tomaselli. A scene from Torture Chamber
A still courtesy of Dante Tomaselli from the upcoming Torture Chamber…
Desecration and in particular Horror, are brutal nightmares that are underpinned by transgression, guilt, strong Maternal symbolism, fear of matriarchal control. Then add all the religious delirium,and the use of fetish. It’s all very primal...Tomaselli, coming from an Italian Catholic upbringing which inhabits it’s own magical realm within Christian dogma, the ferocious nuns and mysterious Saints, and austere priests. The abject fear of retribution by God… it’s all rather scary!
Some more scenes from Desecration
Brides married to Christ, but the candle wont light for Sister Madeline
Yet on a very Americana landscape, with a truly American Gothic narrative due to the fixation on Catholicism, Italian east coast Catholicism and the ordinary American family, the church and the surrounding childhood fears, perversion, fanaticism and madness. Which have manifested into these Surreal nightmarish paroxysms on screen.
Bobby’s Mother…and the repressed fear of matriarchal control. Mothers are scary when they don’t approve of us, or they want something that we as children cannot give them.
I also see amidst the imagery…agony, fixation, rage, desire , craving. frenzy, hysteria and desolation, as the proponents of the narratives, of Desecration and Horror.
I have not seen Satan’s Playground yet, but plan to very soon. I understand that Satan’s Playground is more linear and self contained. Based more on a particularly creepy family who live in the woods, and blending the mythos of the Jersey Devil, (Which I believe is just a fisher, which is in the weasel family..they eat cats..I hate them, they are Devils!) but I digress as I am apt to do…
In his films there lays bare a simplicity that straddles both surrealism and more of a realism.,which adds to the nihilistic atmosphere. And as I’ve said, he paints a landscape that is closer to the true nightmare experience, which taps into pain and unconscious guilt.
There’s an authentic American angst about ours sins swallowing us up and spitting us out into Hell. In Dante Tomaselli’s dream world, there exhibits a charismatic starkness, which exposes us down to a raw nerve and makes us feel closer to what might be a more straightforward Hell, than the depictions from classical paintings and literature.
“Torture Chamber, at the core, is about a family in deep psychic pain. All my films are about peeling back layers of pain and guilt buried in the unconscious mind.”- Dante Tomaselli
Now, that I’ve given some of my own impressions, I can continue with this next installment in the MonsterGirl Asks series. Dante Tomaselli has been extremely gracious in allowing me to ask him a question, in the midst of his busy schedule, after having just finished his 4th contribution to his hallucinatory works of horror art…this last film called Torture Chamber, which I have been given a special private screening of the trailer which will be up on-line in a few weeks! and I have to say, it will continue to brand Tomaselli a hallucinatory auteur and broaden his landscape a bit more, but does not scale back on the schadenfreude emotional shivers and psychic acrobatics that his earlier works cause the viewer to go through, definitely me for sure.
Desecration is an eerie psychological chiller about a young 16 year old boy named Bobby Rullo played by Danny Lopes. It also stars Christie Sandford as Sister Madeline/ Mary Rullo (Bobby’s mother) Sandford brings a certain arresting presence to both characters.
Bobby is an outsider, a loner. Bobby suffers from a repressive Catholic upbringing, and the emotional turmoil caused by his mother’s unexpected death. It is only after he inadvertently causes the death of a nun, that a series of supernatural chain of events begin to unfold. Bobby begins a journey through Hell, coming face to face with his dead mother. There begins a landscape of powerful childhood nightmare, where demons are unleashed upon the senses and innocence must find its way out of this decent, while the gates of Hell open wider.
The film acts as a set piece for our childhood fears, and the overpowering influence of abuse, fanaticism and repression, which wreak havoc on our innocence. You can call it surrealist, art house, abstract, experimental, what ever way helps you describe, a film that is more about evoking feelings, than supplying you with gratuitous gore, violence with no context or morality sewn into the seams of the plot, or loaded budgets with high gloss CGI but no substance.
Desecration is in effect a film you experience from the inside out. You’re not supposed to make sense of it. There is no sense to one’s madness, or one’s descent into a nether region, possibly Hell, possibly hallucination. It’s like trying to describe what you see in a series of colored splats on a canvas that doesn’t need to define a literal depiction of ‘something’. Modern Expressionism art is like that. a) You can not describe accurately what agency is behind a blue splotch, it is representational. And b) The experience will mean different things to different lookers, viewers, gazers.
Now Horror (2002), utilizes some of the same imagery as Desecration, in fact Danny Lopes plays the character Luck.
Here Dante Tomaselli merges two disturbing narratives. The two plot lines will eventually cross paths with each other. Teenage runaways abusing drugs escape from a drug rehab and follow the psychopathic Reverend Salo Jr. with the promise of salvation to the isolation of his family farmhouse.
Still more stills from Horror
There is an eerie connection to Salo Sr. and the existence of child abuse, and once again fanaticism and religion. Leading the group of teenagers is a boy named Luck played by Danny Lopes. He is already tripping on major hallucinogenics. They are led to the secluded farmhouse where the intersectionality of the plot begins.
Dante and Raine Brown
Living on the farm is Grace, Salo Jr’s sullen daughter played by Lizzy Mahon whom her father and his extremely peculiar wife Mrs. Salo (again the great Christie Sanford ) have enslaved Grace by forcing to her to take drugs and by means of psychic brainwashing.
Grace’s feels a psychic connection to her paternal grandfather Salo Sr, played by Kreskin, as Reverend Salo Sr. Is he the only salvation who appears to be guiding Grace? Or are his comforting visitations revealed to be luring her into more dangerous territory. Grace’s visions lead her to ultimately learn about her parent’s demonic preoccupations and devil worship.
Scenes from Horror
The painting morphs into a savage visage of Grandfather Salo The Reverend Sr. The scene is gripping and effective and brings me back to the Pilot episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, where Roddy McDowall kills his wealthy uncle and the painting which keeps changing, foretelling of his retribution on his murderous nephew. There are little pockets of powerful gusts of energy in Dante’s films.
Raine Brown plays Amanda, Jessica Pagan is Marissa, Kevin Kenny is Kevin and Chris Farabaugh (Satan’s Playground) is Fred. Felissa Rose plays an art therapist at the Rehabilitation Center. On another note Tomaselli’s casting is spot on. These actors truly bring to life these characters, make them believable and are absolutely perfect for the roles they’ve been given.
Salo Sr. is played by The Amazing Kreskin, who’m I remember from my childhood as a celebrity mentalist. I don’t remember if he was amazing!, but I think he was pretty cool, and I love that Tomaselli is utilizing his creepy vintage prestige to add to the film’s atmospherics as well as a nod to the good old days.
AND NOW FOR THE QUESTION I ASKED DANTE TOMASELLI
MY QUESTION IS THIS: (MonsterGirl and Daisy Asks)
What strikes me as a very key component to a Dante Tomaselli experience is the use of sound in your films, which you yourself do all the scoring.
The soundscapes and the utilization and presence of auditory ‘spirit’ add to the occupying level of concentration that attaches itself to your stories. It’s partly what creates a disturbing influence to the atmosphere. I’ve read that you compose the soundtrack like you were making an album.
Tell me about your experiences trying to bring to life another level of the senses ‘SOUND’ which inhabits your hallucinatory/nightmarish realms, what does the sound design mean to you? What does it add to the film or as you would say the ‘equation.’ ?
Dante Tomaselli – The Sound Hunter!
DANTE TOMASELLI’S ANSWER:
When I was a little boy, I used to play an electronic organ. I’d sit there for hours and imagine strange images: ghosts, witches, quicksand, nuns, bats and haunted houses. I’d see rolling hills…with graveyards. I had so many nightmares…endless nightmares…and I remembered them so clearly. I always imagined…or feared…another world poking through…the spirit world. Somewhere on the other side was a shadowy realm with a cage or deep hole or cobwebbed torture chamber. Now as an adult, once the film is shot, I’m left alone with my footage, I love sound mixing. I feel like I’m home. It’s like the missing link. It’s me as a child all over again…playing my horror music on the organ, seeing pictures. Channeling something from far away…or deep within, something demonic, something celestial. I’m a sound hunter. If I’m missing a certain effect, anything, then I’m on the hunt for it. I can’t rest until I find it. Since I’m the film’s sound designer, music supervisor and main composer, everything, sound-wise is my responsibility. I like that. In the studio, I work with the engineer, all alone, just like I’m making an album. It wouldn’t be my film if I didn’t design the soundtrack. It is 50% of the film’s equation. On Torture Chamber, I brought on a small group of eclectic musicians to create some additional sound fx, soundscapes and tones. These musicians didn’t compose to picture, per se. They didn’t see the film. I didn’t want them to. I’m more interested in what is in the imagination. I’ll send a section of the script with some direction. What comes back to me is sometimes totally off the mark and not usable but occasionally something really gels and there’s this odd, fresh dynamic at work. Something unexpected.
So once I choose another composer’s soundscape, I’ll grab the best moments. Then I’ll mix those highlights with my own music and sound fx, usually a lot of low tones and glacial stings.
It’s this mixture that feels like a witches brew. I like to be surprised by the result of all that swirling and stirring. I want it to feel unpredictable, a little dangerous. Composing the score, I listen to sounds individually and mix them in my mind. I fantasize and watch the footage. It stays in my head and I eventually write it down. Once in the studio, I mix and match and it feels very much like sculpting or painting. I’m painting with sounds.
A still from the upcoming Torture Chamber courtesy of Dante Tomaselli
Thank You so much Dante, for that very eloquent and enlightening answer that sheds a little more light on your working process as a film maker.
And there YOU have just a little hint at Dante Tomaselli’s world, his work. Please visit his official sites,
Watch one of his films, and see for yourself, what can be done with an intensely ethereal imagination and a low budget and an inner vision of the landscapes where nightmare’s live and breath.
It’s been a supreme pleasure chatting with Dante Tomaselli,
MonsterGirl thanks him, and wishes him good dreams and productive nightmares!
And Happy Nightmares To You All- Dream on- MonsterGirl