Playground of Dark Dreams: The Nightmare World of Dante Tomaselli

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

“I’m on fire to transcribe my nightmares through cinema and music. After creating four films and four instrumental albums, I’m pregnant with The Doll, my next horror picture and it’s clawing at my insides. The upcoming horror shocker concerns a haunting at a family owned wax museum in Salem. Co-writer Michael Gingold and I recently completed the screenplay and had a couple of false start-ups, like all my films have had – but I’m very close now to securing the proper funding. As a cult filmmaker, I don’t go to Hollywood for my financing. I live in a world where independent films are funded through private investors. It’s an unstable realm for sure and I plan to get to the point where I can fund my own films as well as other independent filmmaker’s works. As with all my projects, I’m purchasing and acquiring some of the special fx and props before actual official pre-production. Right now I’m working with a sculptor, Jason Bakutis, on the the doll itself…An antique porcelain doll. Jason created the eerie ancient tribal mask that Jimmy, the lead character wore in my last film, Torture Chamber. My projects may take years to mount but I’ve learned that if my intentions are pure and I visualize the film and soundtrack enough the universe has no choice but to open the gate. It’s just a matter of alignment. Every one of my films has been a struggle to create and if I would have given up then there would be no DESECRATION, no HORROR, no SATAN’S PLAYGROUND or TORTURE CHAMBER. I see THE DOLL looming when my eyes are open…or shut. The film is always projected like slides in my inner eye. Not to mention, the sounds…I tend to plan my actual soundtracks before filming. I did it on every one of my films. The sound…first. Which I guess makes sense since I have sound-color synesthesia. When I was younger and the very loud school alarm would go off – I’d see little grey spirals, like mini tornadoes, every time. The sound induced the patterns, the visuals. One time I saw what looked like three giant dragonflies hovering over the side of my house. There was bombing going on in the neighborhood and the explosive sound produced these strange blobs of color. I thought they were real flying giant-sized insects and I remembering running in terror. The sound of rain…I don’t need to see rain, just hear it…and it’s involuntary…I see little fiber optic dots, floating specks of light.” —Dante Tomaselli

I first stumbled onto Dante Tomaselli’s work when I purchased a VHS copy of Desecration from one of the oldest video rental houses in Madison Wisconsin, known for their extensive collection in Indie, obscure and art house films. I was struck by the artwork on the cover and the story seemed fascinating to me since I’m a classic horror film nut who will always remain faithful to the sacred classical horror genre style from Mid 80’s all the way back to the Silent Era.

One of the many things that strikes me about Dante Tomaselli’s work– is the Nightmarish Beauty that feels vintage. The Hallucinatory, Religio/Horror style is how he manages to create a perfect sense of place in his film’s surroundings, that is not only otherworldly in ordinary spaces but also possess a throw back to earliest horror films without being derivative.

There is a reminiscent atmosphere of older films as if he’s found a conduit to the good old days and his own appreciation for the classical style of horror film-making in his own work and succeeds in adapting it with an original flare on screen. The effective and evocative sound design is also something that creates another layer to Tomaselli’s films. Even the sets are meticulous, Tomaselli has a grasp of how to set the scene that hints at another time period. This is also what makes Tomaselli’s films more frightening than most contemporary horrors. Satan’s Playground truly has the authentic feel of a late 70s early 80s classic horror film, I mean he used a wood paneled station-wagon in Satan’s Playground, it doesn’t get better than that! not to mention his eye for casting special actors that fit his characters perfectly. The same goes for all of his other three feature films, Desecration, Horror and Torture Chamber.

In particular I have come to adore Irma St. Paule who sadly passed away in 2007. Irma has presence. She added something special to Desecration 1999 as Grandma Matilda and as the wicked Mrs. Leeds she was superbly macabre in Satan’s Playground 2006.

Dante Tomaselli has tapped into his primal dark spot, his id and found a way to connect the dots to the outer world. Upon re-watching all four of his feature films, I became reacquainted with some of the elements that drew me to his work in the first place. Tomaselli within all four works has created one continuous nightmare realm. A Möbius Trip of time and space. A string of interconnected events, interchangeable, with their own symbology and iconography. One connected journey with thematic threads that weave a familiar tapestry– painting the entire picture as a unified message, and an alternate realm that is woven together with pieces from the same puzzle. Hallucinatory, non-linear, surrealist, nihilistic, visceral, east coast Americana Gothic, a 70s vibe with raw simplicity, transcendental & primal horrors. There is a definitive pattern, a cyclical nihilist fate where none of the characters manage to survive their journey, their ordeal. There are no real protagonists, just puppets in a modern Greek tragedy.

Sound in Dante Tomaselli’s masterful works are extremely key to the aura of his work. He painstakingly sculpts each soundscapes that breathe, lo-fi undertows, waves and tones that shade the atmosphere along with his dynamic color palate. The use of color and lighting is also reminiscent of great horror films of the 1970s & 80s, I might add.

Tomaselli also prolongs his character’s sense of ‘outsider-ship’ The Outsider theme is also continuous throughout his work, in particular the gangs of children, forgotten and disaffected children, angry, having suffered at the hands of abuse and torture, they band together with their collective angst, as in Horror and Torture Chamber. While society is trying to cure them, or figure them out, or repress their identities, or force salvation on them –they are caught up in their private hell again and again.

And there is a perfect sense of place that Dante Tomaselli establishes in all his films…

As in the old abandoned house filmed in the Pine Barrens featured in Satan’s Playground, the simple woods, a place of the natural world becomes an almost unreal hellish domain. A rustic limbo-land. And what I’ve come to realize, but I must give first credit to my partner Wendy who watched this chilling film with me together once again, this haunted Halloween month is that Mrs. Leeds (Irma St. Paule) and her demented kinfolk don’t even really live in that broken down abandoned place.

She gets the sense that the house really is empty, it’s uninhabited for real. She figured that they only appear when someone comes knocking at the door. Then the hellish realm opens up and they materialize, like phantoms, like demons. And you know what! –I believe she’s right.

Because getting to know Dante Tomaselli’s work, means realizing that there are dimensions, levels of hell here on Earth. The creepy Leeds clan are just like the elusive Jersey Devil himself, swooping in and out of the picture to take people out of this life! Even as poor Sean Bruno falls into the hole in the ground (much like Bobby in Desecration-again revisiting common themes) it’s like he is being sucked out of life and down into the bowels of hell, or falling into ‘nowhere’. And one of the most striking observations for me was Tomaselli’s use of Trees… trees representing the ‘natural world’. which Dante and I will discuss further into this post. There are trees uses as figures, as the embodiment of an elemental force in each of his four films.

From Matthew Edwards essay The New Throwback: The FIlms of Dante Tomaselli “…watching Poltergeist, how many people would feel comfortable keeping a doll of a clown in their room? In both Desecration and Horror, Tomaselli likewise uses familiar objects, or childhood toys, as a means of driving conflicting emotions.”

There are many moments of recurring iconography throughout Dante Tomaselli’s four timorous mind-blowing works of art. ‘The Devouring Mother Archetype”-Christie Sanford who is fantastic continued her demon mother entity in Desecration’s respective sequel Torture Chamber. In all four films, Sanford’s incarnation displays this rabid motherhood, not only with the symbol of a little boy trapped in a cage and the religio-horror aspect but her character Judy’s maniacal abduction of Paula’s (Ellen Sandweiss) baby, Anthony in Satan’s Playground, and then her violent Folie à deux relationship with the vicious Reverend Salo Jr. (Vincent Lamberti) and their treatment of Grace in Horror.

There is the re-appearances of the goat (a symbol of arcane Gods & supernatural significance), boils (damnation from hell) boy size cages, used in Desecration as the badly abused Bobby is imprisoned in one in his dreams, as is Jimmy in Torture Chamber. The torture rack used in Horror is brought back in Torture Chamber once again, illustrative of the themes of agony and punishment. There is a dark swirling, gaping black vortex, a circular menacing field that not only appears in Satan’s Playground out in the dark sky in the night time woods and we see it once again in Torture Chamber inside the castle structure. There are invisible bogs, holes to nowhere that Danny Lopes continues to get sucked down into, in Desecration and then again in Satan’s Playground. And of course there is Atmo Royce’s incredible artwork that Tomaselli commissioned specifically for his films, that are significant to each story. Even the puzzle that Grandma Matilda (Irma St. Paule) works on at the dining room table in Desecration has a story to tell, it also contains the grassy oubliette that Danny Lopes falls into.

Dante makes the lower-budget work to his advantage. Films with vast amounts of surplus funds wind up having no soul, yet Dante Tomaselli manages to convey what’s in his head by staying close to the art of intuitive style and not by using big money shocks. He is not restricted at all, but stays true to his vision.

I see Dante Tomaselli’s work as uniquely his own imaginary / hallucinatory vision. Dante’s collective 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.

Yet on a very Americana landscape, with a truly east coast American Gothic narrative due to the fixation on suburban Catholicism, with Medieval emblems, Italian east coast Catholicism and the ordinary American family, the fixture of the church as in Desecration , Catholic idols and statuettes of the virgin Mary, all surrounding childhood fears, perversion of religion, fanaticism and madness. This all seems to manifested into these surreal nightmarish paroxysms on screen.

I also see amidst the imagery…agony, fixation, rage, desire, craving, cruelty, revenge, frenzy, hysteria and desolation, and outsider-ship as the proponents of the narratives, in Desecration (1999) Horror (2003), Satan’s Playground (2006) and ultimately Torture Chamber (2013).

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.

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.

Dante Tomaselli was born October 29, 1969, in Paterson, New Jersey- is an Italian-American horror screenwriter, director, and electronic score composer. He studied filmmaking 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 his screenplay Desecration into a feature length film and in 1999, the film premiered to a SRO audience at the prestigious Fantafestival in Rome, Italy.

The release of Desecration (1999) on DVD by Image Entertainment was praised by reviewers for its unique vision for a independent horror production.

“I’m just this guy from New Jersey who has odd visions. I do have an obsession with replicating childhood nightmares, fears, anxieties. With my films, I’m trying to construct some kind of nightmare where we experience the protagonist’s damnation.”

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 atmosphere of dread and that iconic clear mask of the killer, the yellow raincoat… The entire vibe is memorable.

Dante’s 2nd feature film, is Horror (2003) began it’s initial filming in January 2001 in Warwick upstate New York, which was Tomaselli’s first commercial success, and has maintained a wide release on DVD.  Tomaselli also has a keen eye for casting the right people for her work. In an interesting & quite nostalgic maneuver the film cast celebrity mentalist/magician, Kreskin who maintained notoriety as ‘Amazing’ in the 1970s! Dante Tomaselli’s Horror was released on DVD in the United States and Canada by Elite Entertainment.

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 that truly has its own eerie mythology in real life.

In his fourth installment Dante Tomaselli released  Torture Chamber (2013) yet another of his nightmarish journeys exploring the imaginations of Hell and damnation. Torture Chamber had its World Premier at Sitges 2012 Festival in Spain.

Dante Tomaselli’s work is being featured in an excellent edited volume released by the outstanding publishing company McFarland — FILM OUT OF BOUNDS. There’s a chapter (pg. 112-125) titled: The New Throwback: The Films of Dante Tomaselli.

Twisted Visions: Interviews with Cult Horror Filmmakers by Matthew Edwards

From IMDb – About Dante Tomaselli’s musical compositions link below to his music company.

Dante’s Halloween Haunted Attraction

The director/composer’s first audio CD of electronic horror music, ”Scream in the Dark” (2014) was released by Elite Entertainment & MVD Audio January 14, 2014. Its follow-up, ”The Doll” (2014) described as “a ghoulish experiment in fear,” was released on CD and Digital download by Elite Entertainment & MVD Audio April 15, 2014. Tomaselli’s third dark ambient album, “Nightmare” was distributed by the same label January 13, 2015. TuneCore released his fourth and most successful dark electronic album, “Witches” March 24, 2017. Rue Morgue Magazine awarded Witches five skulls, “A meticulously crafted work…Tomaselli takes us on his most lurid sonic journey to date.” Rock! Shock! Pop! added, “Pulsing John Carpenter-esque keyboard work…Dante Tomaselli releases his fourth album of spooky soundtrack inspired instrumental music.” Videoscope Magazine’s music critic, Tim Ferrante stated, “All of Witches’ 13 tracks are praiseworthy…Each cut ignites theater-of-the-mind wonderment, fear and the spiritual world by deeply boring into the psyche…Tomaselli has produced a fiendish and furtive album for fans of ‘mood music’ of a different kind.” Dante Tomaselli’s Witches was nominated for Rue Morgue magazine 2017 album of the year.

Desecration (1999)

“You Will Burn in Hell!”

Written and directed by Dante Tomaselli. With cinematography by Brendan Flynt, film editing by Marcus Bonilla, Art direction by Michelle Lang, Production design by Michele La Rocca.

Stars Irma St. Paule ( 12 Monkeys 1995, Trees Lounge 1996, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her 2000) as Grandma Matilda, Christie Sanford (Horror 2003, Satan’s Playground 2006, Winter of Frozen Dreams 2009, Torture Chamber 2013) as Sister Madeline / Mary Rullo, Danny Lopes as Bobby Rullo, Salvatore Paul Piro (Joe’s Apartment 1996, Sleepers 1996, Night Falls on Manhattan 1996, The Sopranos (199), Find Me Guilty 2006, Satan’s Playground 2006) as Mr. Rullo, Vincent Lamberti as Brother Nicolas, Maureen Tomaselli as Sister Rosemary, Gene Burke as Father O’Leary, Ruth Ray as Reverend Mother, Helen Palladino as Mrs. Cannizzaro the psychic, Nora Maher as Sister Rita, Mary Fassino as Sister Veronica.

Desecration is an eerie psychological chiller about a young 16 year old boy named Bobby Rullo played by Danny Lopes. It also stars Tomaselli regular Christie Sandford as Sister Madeline/ Mary Rullo (Bobby’s mother) Sandford brings a certain ‘arresting presence’ to both characters.

The setting for Desecration is appropriately placed at St. Anthony’s Catholic Boarding School-St. Anthony is the Patron Saint of the Lost. And Desecration is the story of one lost boy’s journey through Hell! The film winds around a non-linear movement and flashbacks with soundscapes that are striking.

Bobby Rullo (Danny Lopes) is an outsider, a loner. He is emotionally scarred by his mother’s sudden death. Christie Sanford, simultaneously plays Sister Madeline and Bobby’s mother Mary. The two women it could be said are one in the same, both are Bobby’s tormentors.

16 year old Bobby Rullo suffers from a repressive and outright abusive Catholic childhood. He seems lost within the emotional turbulence since the unexpected death of his mother when he was five. 11 years later, at his Catholic boarding  school, while playing with a radio controlled plane, it collides with Sister Madeline causing blunt force trauma to her head and killing her instantly on the grounds of the school. It is deemed an accident, but Bobby is failing school and he is told to pack his bags and go home. Bobby quietly utters- “Some people are blessed and others are just cursed.”

It is only after he inadvertently causes the death of the nun, that it unleashes a series of brutal and supernatural chain of events. As a premonition, at the opening of Desecration, during mass, sister Madeline can not get her candle to light, she runs out of the room seemingly afraid and ashamed, as the other nuns stare at her. There is an expression of shock and of dread on her face as she is not meant to be blessed, but as Bobby says, some people ‘are just cursed.’

Bobby begins his journey through Hell, where he sees visions of the dead nun and his dead mother. Bobby’s descent summons demons, and evokes powerful childhood nightmares and primal fears.

Desecration acts as a set piece for our childhood fears, and the overpowering influence of abuse, fanaticism and repression, which wreak havoc on our innocence. 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 regions of Hell while the gates open wider. The dead sister Madeline who becomes more grotesque with time as she is book-ended by demon clowns who stand at the ‘gates’. She taunts Bobby with visions of her lurking about the grounds.

Bobby is also mistreated by Brother Nicolas (Vincent Lamberti who is quite intimidatingly sinister in this role and as Reverend Salo Jr. in Horror 2003 with his well chiseled fiendish grin) who manhandles him and slips him a Valium to relax, a queer thing to do as an elder figure of the church. Bobby asks him, “Can priests take Valium?” With a menacing tone he tells Bobby, “priests can do many things…” 

Bobby becomes groggy, he begins to hallucinate, as he looks at the painting of a nun, it morphs into a blurry face like sister Madeline who appears to the Reverend Mother out on the grounds, faceless, then the painting of the nun becomes an unearthly skull. The use of Atmo Royce’s paintings is perfection, as a pinion to the surrealism of the film.

Bobby begins to hear the voice of a priest, “No description can be adequately revealed to the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked…” The sins of the mother, not the father  are exacted on the children. The transformation of the nun painting becomes a skull as its final transformation, turns itself into a clown’s face.

Bobby wanders the halls in a daze, he gazes through the window of the classroom door and sees brother Nicolas’ eyes burn demonic as he turns to look at Bobby. Finally as he makes his way back to his room, lights a candle and says his prayers, he falls asleep and vines and dirt begin to envelop the room. The earth and the natural world are trying to swallow him up. He dreams of sister Madeline in her most frightening incarnation standing at the entrance of a gate, in between a set of demon clowns. Sister Madeline is now trapped in Hell and Hell is coming for Bobby. He is marked for damnation by the evils of the world.

Bobby has only one person he can trust and that is his dauntlessly pious Grandma Matilda who is wonderful in the role. Matilda’s devotion to her Catholic faith drives her forward to try and protect Bobby from his mother, her own daughter Mary who is haunting and terrorizing him from the grave. Grandma Matilda is part of the supernatural events that were triggered by his killing sister Madeline. Madeline is grotesque in death, but Bobby’s mother was an abusive monster in life, and how he processes the abuse he endured as a little boy is dreaming of her having locked him in a cage. Bobby’s father mentions how he’d come home and find his hands and feet tied to the playpen.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is where Grandma Matilda is putting together a strange puzzle that is an odd painting of trees in the woods, almost a primitive style artwork. There’s is one piece left to fill in and suddenly it becomes Bobby’s face as he is about to sink into a hole, another premonition of things to come. Grandma Matilda also discovers her daughters spirit in the house, “She’s a here (with an Italian accent, though Irma St. Paule is from the Ukraine, she does a wonderful job as an old world Italian Catholic) She’s a here!!!”

There is also a great sequence where Matilda wants to consult the psychic she plays Bingo with to help try and find Bobby who is missing. Mrs. Cannizzaro tells Matilda “I see a very deep hole” Matilda-“the hole in the puzzle” “Yes it is a puzzle” Matilda also asks if his mother Mary has him, Mrs. Cannizzaro is fearful of the energy she is picking up on, the psychic is afraid to proceed. Mrs. Cannizzaro tells Matilda “Your daughter is using him to escape” “Escape from what?” “From Hell!”

Bobby is run through a maze of physical persecutions and emotions. During biology class he sees the dead nun, drive up in a hearse and beckon to him to get in. Bobby hates confinement, he complains that there are no locks on his bedroom door at the school. We see a flashback or dream/nightmare sequences that he was kept in a large cage in his bedroom as a little boy. The room is filled out with creepy toys, clowns and an even creepier giant Humpty Dumpty doll and balloons and a hovering mother who reeks of inherent sadism and evil, as she is holding balloons and a bottle of formula while he is trapped in the cage crying.

It is a disturbing image as we see Bobby at 16 years old, lying in the fetal position in the cage, his mother splashing the baby formula all over him and cackling. When Bobby tells his Grandma that he had the worst dream about his mother again, and wants to know why there aren’t any photographs of her around the house. It is Bobby’s father who doesn’t want any pictures of his wife in the house! We hear Bobby’s father (Salvatore Paul Piro, who is fantastic as Bobby’s ill-tempered father) talk about his wife having had a breakdown after he was born and that “She was sick!”

While running in the woods, surrounded by trees, (trees which I’ve come to learn are very significant as a trope in all of Tomaselli’s films) he meets up with his friend Sean who suddenly falls into a hole. Bobby can hear unholy growling coming from the abyss. Or is it Bobby himself who has fallen in the hole?

There are moments of the right amount of gore, when sister Rita is looking through sister Madeline’s art portfolio, she sees the dead eyed nun outside the window, then the statue of the Virgin Mary falls off the shelf. Suddenly, sister Rita is attacked by a pair of shears, and she is literally stabbed to death, by these ordinary scissors that are animated by an unseen force, her wrists and limbs slashed and her throat stabbed. Perhaps this horrifying moment is as evocative as a moment from Lucio Fulci, yet Dante Tomaselli never cannibalizes other directors work, the mood is quite original and very much his vision. An abject sequence of fright that is startling, with each frame of Desecration a photo-play in classical horror. There is such a raw absence of adornment with Brendan Flynt’s cinematography which is alternatively balanced with the surrealism of the nightmarish sequences.

Desecration is not only Bobby’s journey through Hell, it encompasses everyone in his orbit. His grandma Matilda told him, “you were an angel Bobby” but is this enough to save him from being damned?

Horror (2003)

Written and directed by Dante Tomaselli, with music by Dante Tomaselli. Cinematography by Timothy Naylor, film editing Marcus Bonilla, Art direction by Maze Georges, production design by Jill Alexander, costume design by Nives Spaleta. And some amazing special effects, make up and evil pumpkin head puppetry by Monsters, Madmen and Mayhem Make-up Creations.

Horror stars Kreskin as Reverend Salo, Lizzy Mahon as Grace Salo, Danny Lopes (Desecration 1999, Satan’s Playground 2006, Torture Chamber 2013) as Luck, Vincent Lamberti (Desecration 1999) as Reverend Salo Jr., Christie Sanford (Desecration 1999, Satan’s Playground 2006, Torture Chamber 2013) as Mrs. Salo, Jessica Pagan as Marisa, Raine Brown as Amanda, Kevin Kenny as Kevin, Chris Farabaugh as Fred, and Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp 1983) as the Art Therapist.

Horror (2003), utilizes some of the same imagery as Desecration, in fact Danny Lopes plays one of the characters, a troubled delinquent teenage drug user named Luck.

Horror, is a visually striking masterpiece of well–horror, about a group of runaway teens who escape from a drug rehab facility. Luck (Danny Lopes) shoots and kills the guard and takes his gun and a huge bag of candy and magic mushrooms which the van of teenagers proceed to partake in on their way to the Salo farm. In another nightmarish odyssey the teens encounter demonic forces at the rural family farmhouse owned by two sadists who imprison their daughter Grace, inject her with drugs to keep her compliant. Reverend Salo Jr is a phony preacher and faith healer and possibly the pair are murderers who run an odd religious cult.

Like so many of the scenes in Horror, there is another powerful sequence where Grace is looking out her bedroom window at her father holding one of his fire and brimstone sermons in the snow, during the cold white light of day, while people with crutches and boils are gathered round in a circle. Her father looks up and points at her, and that singular moment sends shivers up my spine. Lamberti is absolutely menacing as Revernd Salo Jr. And while the scene takes place in broad daylight, there is a feeling of claustrophobic terror and dread because Grace is truly trapped.

There is a hint that they might have even abducted Grace (she finds a strange scrapbook of pictures, one with a little girls legs sticking out of a bag, I think that’s the impression I got), who are these people, are they the Salo’s victims and are these photos trophies?)

And are they keeping Grace drugged so that she will not remember her past before she was abducted. The opening scene illustrates a form of abduction, as she is knocked out and brought back into the house. I also consider the fact that her Grandfather who was a mentalist and could hypnotize people, bending their will to his might have played a part in her captivity. Did Reverend Salo Sr. brainwash her into believing that they were family? Grace seems to have a psychic connection to her Grandfather, but is that because he has imposed his will on her consciousness.

There are flashback sequences of the Amazing Kreskin performing his mentalist act, the presence of this nostalgic celebrity adds another vintage sensation that we’re watching an authentic older horror film from the 1970s decade.

From the starling opening of Horror, Grace is stringing Christmas lights up on the front of the quaint little house, when she is accidentally shocked by a live wire and burns her hand, and as she comes down the ladder, she is struck by a dark figure who puts her in a body bag, throws her over his shoulder and dumps her on a bed like a rag doll, while her mother (Christie Sanford) laughs with a streak of cruelty. Her abductor we come to learn is the Reverend Salo Jr. her own father. The scene is chilling and brutal in it’s old fashioned simplicity. Again, Dante Tomaselli manages to bring me back to that eerie & uncanny sensation you get when watching a good 70s horror flick.

My first impression of this sadistic couple and Salo Sr (Kreskin) was the name that instantly made me think of the nightmarish fascist torture film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) directed by Pasolini. I asked Dante if my association was correct and this is what Dante told me-I was looking for a name that conjured depravity and Salo matched the vibration of the characters” (Reverend Salo – (Kreskin) and Reverend Salo Jr. – Vincent Lamberti)

After the opening where the pale and melancholy Grace (Lizzy Mahon) is attacked by her father and back inside the house and injected with a hypodermic to keep her submissive because she is acting up again (meaning –being independent of their will only by leaving the house and decorating for Christmas), eventually the teenagers who have escaped cross paths with Grace and the terrifying circumstances at the farmhouse intersect.

There is the presence of a black goat who is fixated on Grace, coming into the house and gazing at her. There is also a goat headed hooded figure in the woods that attacks one of the teenagers, yet another chilling scene.

The two disturbing narratives begin to integrate into one converging nightmare. The teens had escaped with the promise that Reverend Salo Jr would lead them and its the beginning of a new life, while handing out magic mushrooms in their shopping bag of goodies and a pamphlet from the Reverend with words that say- the End is near, Famine and the Anti-Christ.

While the teens are tripping out on hallucinatory drugs, we are getting images of the abuse Grace has been subjected to, and the collection of cult followers who are ravaged by boils and become almost zombie like. In fact, the teens, Luck Amanda, Marissa, Fred and Chris succumb to their own nightmare out in the woods, surrounded by violent visions, drug induced or supernatural forces at work both are simultaneously true.

Once in the farmhouse the violence continues, and Grace has a vision of the painting of her Grandfather Reverend Salo Sr (the amazing Kreskin) morphing into a frightening visage, as she discovers a hidden room in the attic with church candles and an Iron Maiden! Is she hallucinating from the drugs or was this where she was subjected to a medieval style torture –we see her being stretched on a rack, screaming in pain until she passes out. The rack will be seen once again in Torture Chamber (2013). The duplicity of religious fanaticism and hidden sadism and child abuse is ever present in Horror.

Again Atmo’s artwork plays a stunning visual role in the film. The painting in Grace’s room morphs into a savage visage of Grandfather Salo The Reverend Sr. The use of paintings that metamorphose into horrible versions of their former image puts me in mind of the Pilot episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, in the first installment the wicked and murderously greedy Roddy McDowall kills his wealthy uncle (George Macready) and is then plagued by the painting that keeps changing to show his uncle climbing out of his grave and pounding at the front door of the estate, coming back in death to claim his revenge on his murderous bastard nephew. It’s one of my favorite episodes of the series.

Horror is an atmospheric & disorienting chiller, another hallucinatory journey that coils around you like a snake head devouring it’s own tail–where it begins and where it ends is like any nightmare, where reality melts into horror and is as visually frightening as nightmare one can have.

Satan’s Playground (2006)

Written and directed by Dante Tomaselli. Cinematography by Tim Naylor, Music by Dante Tomaselli, Bill Lacey and Kenneth Lampl. Film editing by Marcus Bonilla and Egon Kirincic, Art direction by Pete Zumba, Costume Design by Erika Goyzueta.

on the set of Satan’s Playground

Stars Felissa Rose as Donna Bruno, Salvatore Paul Piro as Frank Bruno, Danny Lopes as Sean Bruno, Ellen Sandweiss (The Evil Dead 1981) as Paula, Irma St. Paule as Mrs. Leeds, Edwin Neal (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974) as Leeds boy, Christie Sanford as Judy Leeds, Ron Milkie as Officer Peters, Robert T. Zappalorti as cop/camper, Chris Farabaugh as stoner, Raine Brown as prostitute, Garth Johnson as Red Hooded man, Jesse Hodges as Lost Teen, Maureen Tomaselli as reporter, Emily Spectre as nurse, Paul LeRoy as truck drive/worshiper, Michael Ryan as the whipping boy and a slew of worshipers.

“SATAN’S PLAYGROUND is a supernatural shocker chronicling a family’s spine-tingling odyssey in New Jersey’s legendary Pine Barrens region. En route to a wilderness camping retreat, their car inexplicably breaks down. As darkness falls, panic sets in. Then the marooned family stumbles upon an ancient and seemingly abandoned house. And it is here that they meet the bizarre Mrs. Leeds who lives there with her equally unhinged children. Offering no assistance, she warns of a violent, unseen force lurking in the forbidding countryside. Soon, the family will encounter a supernatural evil older than the woods themselves. SATAN’S PLAYGROUND…a place where deadly myth becomes gruesome reality.”– review by LDMediaCorp

Satan’s Playground has the true feel of the late 70s early 80s, exuding an Americana Gothic atmosphere with the backwoods, the netherworld of the Pine Barrens that cinematographer Tim Naylor creates with Dante Tomaselli at the helm. The sense of isolation and dread taps into all those primal fears of strange and unmerciful families that are outliers in society who kill people as part of their family routine, as ordinary as doing the chores.

This theme as always worked in films like Tobe Hooper’s dark adult fairy tale about a cannibalistic family in  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), John Hough’s repressed, isolated murderous religious fanatics portrayed to the hilt by Rod Steiger and Yvonne De Carlo in American Gothic (1987), or even a cult favorite of mine, about a psychotic family of outliers in Spider Baby (1967)

Satan’s Playground is as dark as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale… and perhaps my favorite of Dante Tomaselli’s films.

What is so frightening is that families like The Leeds seem to be able to circumvent the law and social morays for long periods of time, as primitive as rabid animals who kill with a blood lust and not merely for survival. Added to this is the mythology of the Jersey Devil who has haunted our nightmares from the Pine Barrens for decades. He lurks and preys on random characters in the film, who are unlucky enough to be out in the woods, swooping down and slashing them to death or carrying them off to some hidden lair. The flapping of it’s wings are present in Satan’s Playground, while the hooded Satanists who are seen whipping their human sacrifice seem to be the least of the dangers in the story.

The story, chronicles another nightmare journey of a dysfunctional family who are headed through the Pine Barrens to enjoy a family camping trip. En route to the wilderness of the wooded nether regions Donna Bruno (Felissa Rose) her husband Frank who keeps falling asleep at the wheel (Salvatore Paul Piro) their autistic son Sean (Danny Lopes) Paula (Ellen Sandweiss) and her new born baby Anthony, break down when their wood paneled station wagon gets stuck in the mud.

Paula hears the flapping of wings, but it’s Sean who seems to have the hyper awareness that something isn’t quite right, he has a keener senses about his surroundings, trying to point toward the danger, with no one paying attention to him, because the other members of the family are too busy airing their frustrations. As darkness falls, panic sets in and the need to seek help sends each one out into the night.

As each one goes looking for help, they stumble upon an abandoned house, boarded up and in obvious decrepitude yet each family member knocks on the door looking to use a phone. Satan’s Playground has the feel of a macabre fairy tale of hapless victims wandering into dangerous spaces, at the mercy of an evil in its most pure form.

Mrs. Leeds (Irma St. Paule not the kindly Grandma she once played but in the role as a most wicked witch) opens the door.

Right from the moment we enter the strange house, the layout tells us there is something off kilter. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, the set design works incredibly well. It is here that each Bruno family member, one by one meets the otherworldly crone and the bizarre Leeds family. Mrs. Leeds boasts of her 13 children some who have died young, the rest worthless or developmentally disabled. She lives with her two unhinged children, the twisted Judy (Christie Sanford) who is mute and her son (Edwin Neal) who is also a violent psychopath.

Mrs. Leeds does fortunes to make money, or so she says. She offers no assistance and stalls while each Bruno keeps asking to use her phone. Mrs. Leeds warns of the violent unseen forces lurking in the forbidding countryside, not to mention the Satan worshipers. As she offers tea that is laced with some kind of drug, each one is knocked off by Judy who uses a large mallet or meat tenderizer. to brain her victims. Judy steals little Anthony, another childhood fear –of fiends coming in the night to steal children from their safe place. In Satan’s Playground there is no safe place.

The Bruno family comes face to face with inherent evil perhaps older than the woods, where they each face their own gruesome end. Does Mrs. Leeds even really exist in this world and is her 13th child, the Jersey Devil?

Torture Chamber (2013)

Written and directed by Dante Tomaselli. Music by Dante Tomaselli, Kenneth Lampl and Allison Piccioni. Cinematography by Tim Naylor, Art design by Ian Salter, Costume design by Lisa Faibish

Torture Chamber stars Vincent Pastore (‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero in The Sopranos 1999-2007) as Dr. Fiore, Christie Sanford as Mrs. Morgan, Lynn Lowry (The Crazies 1973, They Came from Within 1975) as Lisa Moreno, Ron Millkie as Dr. Thompson, Carmen LoPorto as Jimmy Morgan, Richard D. Busser as Father Mark Morgan, Ellie Pettit as Heather, Raine Brown as Hope, and Danny Lopes as Ralph.

from Out of Bounds: “… a restrictive moral, a kind of reactionary “medieval’ Christian vision du monde sneaks in. And is truly frightening.”

In Torture Chamber the story is revealed through a series of dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. Its about a metaphysical bond between a mother and her two sons.

There are Medieval emblems like Christian statues, the Iron Maiden in Horror and the Rack in both Horror and Torture Chamber.

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.

Jimmy is a young boy who is a burn victim, badly abused by his fanatical religion mother (Christie Sanford) who in order to drive out his evil, subjects him to exorcism by his older brother who is a priest. When Jimmy escapes from the institution with other children who are burn victims, he wreaks revenge on his persecutors who then become the persecuted. Jimmy and his companions are a band of outliers to are hell bent on torturing their victims. Lynn Lowry as Lisa Marino who experiences her nightmares in flashback is a treat to watch, I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw her performances in Romero’s The Crazies (1973), the outre bizarre Sugar Cookies (1973) co-starring cult favorite Mary Woronov and Cronenberg’s They Came From Within (1975).

Again, Dante Tomaselli’s film is non-linear, surrealist, nihilistic , hallucinatory, the soundscapes are footprints that lead you to the torture chamber. It’s a visceral and disturbing journey of a young boys retribution. A Gothic, transcendental horror as is Dante Tomaselli’s  Desecration. Dante Tomaselli collection of films create a frightening world as he purges his scorn for religious fanaticism and hypocrisy.

Atmo Royce’s brilliant paintings from Torture Chamber (2013)

My conversation with Dante Tomaselli!

Joey – “I’ve seen TREES in all your films. They are a fabric of each film throughout each piece, trees seem to be very significant to you. Do they represent “a natural force”? and ‘elemental’ forces that go with the supernatural overtones…”

Dante Tomaselli-  “Yes, I purposely place trees…woods in every single one of my films. I think trees are beautiful beings and I can stare at them endlessly. I do see these entities as sacred and elemental forces…rooted in the earth itself. Whenever I’m scouting woods locations for my films, I walk around in a trance and try to find the trees that seem to be calling out to me. The different personalities…textures…energies…Landscapes are real important to me…I like for the atmosphere to dominate. The Tree of Life twists…what gave life now takes it away. When I was growing up I would go deep into the woods and get myself lost. Where I lived in New Jersey there were endless woods in my backyard and I’d spend many hours out there alone with time just dissolving. I’d let my imagination run free and fantasize all kinds of sadistic and surreal landscapes and horror scenes. Sometimes on these excursions I feared I would disappear and never return.  The trees were my refuge and represented safety and protection but at times, mainly in the dark, the same exact trees could be supremely frightening…their faces, energy…It’s chilling…a forest transformed into a place of evil…It goes against nature. That’s why that scene of evil woods in Wizard of Oz is so effective. You know, when I saw the trees come alive in The Evil Dead in theaters in 1983 when I was 13, it really pushed a button.  And to have Ellen Sandweiss, who endured the ultimate scary trees… starring in one of my films – well…I’ve come full circle.  For sure, in my independent movies I try to portray the woods as teeming with supernatural menace. In HORROR the woods were harboring the living dead or hypnotized souls…There are Satanists lurking in the Pine Barrens of Satan’s Playground, not to mention an invisible flying demon and…deadly quicksand. Torture Chamber’s abandoned castle was surrounded by whispering woods and there’s a burning gift leading to a glowing red hole to hell in the woods of Desecration.”  

Joey- “Sound is one THE most significant enticements in your films. I’m wondering about the use of ARTWORK, not just Atmo’s incredible paintings but artwork as Symbolism. Desecration and Horror used his paintings. But there was also Irma’s puzzle in Desecration, in Torture Chamber there was the tribal MASK and even in Satan’s Playground there was the painting of the goat. I’m sure there are more hints of this, but these stand out. What is the greater gist of why these elements were so substantial in your work?”

Dante Tomaselli- “I like to paint with sound. I like glacial, pristine sounds mixed with low throbbing tones. The music is 50% of the film’s equation and even when I’m sculpting a song on an album like Scream in the Dark, where I was going for an amusement park Funhouse, dark ride vibe, I aways wanted the soundscapes to depict the vision that I experienced in my mind.  I have to see something in order to score it. If I’m dry then there’s nothing at all but if the images are flowing then I’m fanatical about facilitating or scoring the vision. You can hear me cackling like a witch, that’s my own voice with no effects…in the first section of Dark Night of the Soul. To me, that track conjures the image of a violent storm cloud looming.  It’s all about regret…guilt. Someone did something deeply wrong…and now there’s the fear of what’s coming next. 

The paintings by artist Atmo Royce were commissioned by me. The images were straight from my screenplay, my imagination. I wanted a stern nun, a blurred nun, a skull nun and a clown nun. I wanted the images to have a Tarot card-like feel. They were to represent the desecration of religion…the hypocrisy, the flip side of faith where evil is cloaked in religion. Atmo Royce, who now lives in Germany also painted the changing preacher portraits for Horror which had a similar idea. I had an entirely different artist illustrate the changing pope portraits for Torture Chamber where Vincent Pastore is hallucinating while staring at a portrait of the pope in a homeless shelter. The painting by Mark Jones, commissioned by me, actually it’s pastel…it morphs into a grinning blood soaked character while we detect profane words on the crumbling walls. In all these cases, it’s about the Devil poking through. Evil winning.”

Joey- “Did you realize before hand or was it a natural progression to interweave identical symbols throughout each film. There are threads that connect all 4 films. There are sequences that re-haunt the next installment like one continuous dream. I will mention those in my piece, but I was curious if it evolved as each film opened up to you, or if this was something that was very purposeful before you even sat down to sketch out the framework of the films after Desecration?”

Dante Tomaselli- “I consciously set out to create an encompassing world of doom that is interchangeable from film to film; I see it as all one tapestry. I draw swirling mazes and I’m trying to construct a nightmare in which we experience the protagonist’s damnation. My films are never a celebration of violence. They’re really more about the sensitivity to violence. The confusion of being alive.”

SELECT REVIEWS OF DANTE TOMASELLI’S WORK

BLOODY DISGUSTING REVIEW OF TORTURE CHAMBER: DANTE TOMASELLI’S ‘TORTURE CHAMBER’ TAPS INTO ANCIENT FEARS

BLOODY DISGUSTING:DANTE TOMASELLI’S TORTURE CHAMBER REACHES THE SHORE LINE by Evan Dickson

FANGORIA REVIEW OF TORTURE CHAMBER BY CHRIS ALEXANDER

HORRORFUEL REVIEW of DESECRATION-BLU-RAY

Review of Torture Chamber by Troy Howarth, author of The Haunted World of Mario Bava

Review of Torture Chamber -Justin R. Lafleur, Icons of Fright and

Desecration by Dvdverdict.co, plus Chris Alexander of Fangoria

Review of Satan’s Playground -Variety Magazine & Horror by John

Fallon of JoBlo.com

Review of Horror by Scott Wienberg, eFilmCritic.com and

Review of Desecration by Sean Abley at Chiller

Reviews of Desecration by Steve Puchalski, Sci-Fi Magazine &

Chas Balun, Deep Red Magazine

Review of Horror by Dennis Harvey, Variety Magazine &

Rob Galluzzo, Blumhouse.com

Review of Satan’s Playground by Jeremiah Kipp of Slant Mag

Review of Satan’s Playground by BeyondHollywood.com

from KINO LORBER REVIEW DESECRATION (SPECIAL EDITION ) RELEASE ON BLU-RAY

“A Code Red Release – One of the most original horror films in recent years, Desecration is an eerily dazzling and genuinely frightening psychological chiller about a beyond the grave relationship between a teenage boy and his long dead mother. Bobby, a 16-year-old loner, has been emotionally damaged by his mother’s early death and a repressive Catholic upbringing. The boy accidentally causes a nun’s death, triggering a chain of supernatural events and violent mayhem that leads Bobby into Hell to confront his mother. Powerful childhood demons are exorcised and unleashed as the gates of Hell open in this gripping, hallucinatory film. First-time feature film writer/director Dante Tomaselli has created an incredibly atmospheric and terrorizing film that he has described as “being in the psychedelic fun house.” With its mist-shrouded ambience, photography and trance-like soundtrack, the film, almost subliminally, creates an unsettling mood that crawls beneath the skin. A sensational young talent, Tomaselli has taken the horror genre in a new and exciting direction.”

IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT-DESECRATION

ANCHOR BAY ENTERTAINMENT FOR SATAN’S PLAYGROUND

The remake of cousin Alfred Sole’s beloved 70s horror masterpiece ALICE SWEET ALICE remains in development for now Dante is more focused on his upcoming feature  THE DOLL which is about a violent haunting at a family owned wax museum.

“I am planning an Alice, Sweet Alice re-imagining with my cousin (Alfred Sole). I am so completely focused on my next film, THE DOLL – which has a low budget ($500, 000)”

Hae Ree Choi is the illustrator on each of Dante Tomaselli’s albums!

SCREAM IN THE DARK (2014) Elite Entertainment

THE DOLL (2014) Elite Entertainment

NIGHTMARE (2015) Elite Entertainment

FANGORIA “NIGHTMARE SOUNDS” article by Tyler Doupé

WITCHES (2017) TuneCore

PERSONAL QUOTES

I am not a Satanist. I am a Supernaturalist!
I know my films reflect the fear of the end of the world or the end of my world.
I’d see multicolored streaks in the atmosphere. And I didn’t do drugs. Sometimes I could see sounds. They were different colors. I could taste color and touch sound.
I love performers from horror classics; I can’t help myself. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been given the opportunity to work with actors from landmark horror films. The trend needs to continue with me…and the possibilities are endless. Jamie Lee Curtis, can you hear me?
It’s ambient filmmaking…told through a series of dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. I was going for something completely out-there…not censoring myself…allowing my imagination to run wild.
I think I pulled the images from the dark pit of my childhood, my nightmares. Growing up, I had so many nightmares and was always wondering if what was happening was actually true. Or was it a dream? I didn’t use drugs. I know…that’s a shock. If anything, I was repressed and probably needed drugs to open me up. Everything I kept bottled up in the day would explode out of me at night. All of the negative debris of the day…it would all come popping up, so strongly in my nightmares.
I guess it has something to do with how I grew up, my background being Italian American and having two very religious grandmothers. But, really…I just think organized religion is a very scary thing. It gives me a feeling of paranoia. One group against another, thinking the other one is wrong and they are better, holier. Religion causes wars. It has a dark force that can’t be denied. Also, as you know, my cousin, Alfred Sole, directed “Alice, Sweet Alice,” the infamous Catholic slasher. I saw it at a very early age and it is forever embedded in my psyche.
In 1975, I was 5. In 83, I was 13. So, I got to see all these great horror movies, the golden age of true horror, while I was a little kid growing up. It was an incredible time to be a horror fanatic. I was like the boy in Romero’s Creepshow. My mother actually took me to see these 70’s, early 80’s movies because she knew how much I loved them. She enjoyed horror films too, actually. I’d cut out Ads from the newspaper, for movies like…It Lives Again, Prophecy, Phantasm, Invasion of The Body Snatchers and just…stare at them. I was in love with all of this stuff from early on.
I starting writing it right around the end of 1999, when there was all that end-of-the-world talk going on. I wanted to harness that feeling…that we all could be predestined for a horrible, violent death. The idea that the threat of violence can strike at any moment.

FURTHER LINKS

https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/film-out-of-bounds/

http://www.fangoria.com/new/torture-chamber-movie-review/

http://www.beyondhollywood.com/torture-chamber-2013-movie-review/

http://www.mondo-digital.com/torturechamber.html

http://www.avmaniacs.com/blog/2014/new-reviews/troy-howarth/torture-chamber-dvd-review/

http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/content.php?3583-Torture-Chamber

http://horrorcultfilms.co.uk/2014/04/torture-chamber-review-available-on-region-1-import/

http://www.examiner.com/review/crawl-into-the-torture-chamber

http://aisleseat.com/torturechamber.htm

http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/347435-movie-review-torture-chamber/

A link to Dante’s Music & Sound Design on Youtube

 

OGDENSBURG, NJ 06/04/2010 Dante Tomaselli on the set of “Torture Chamber,” a movie he is directing, at Sterling Hill Mining Museum. MICHAEL KARAS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Thank You for sharing your thoughts with me, Happy Birthday Dante Tomaselli, I anxiously await your next wave of hallucinatory chills & your brilliant machinations come to life in vivid color!-May we find peace and transcendence through art, Love Joey

 

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