If you’ve ever been to Disneyland, then you’ll know that to call the experience surreal would be a vast understatement. I’ve only been once – quite honestly, once was enough – registering as one of the most bizarre days of my childhood. It’s not the fun I recall. Whilst walking between rides, my family and I heard a commotion; what sounded like mournful screams. Suddenly, bursting out one of the back entrances to one of the rides was a stretcher, pushed speedily along by a Disney employee being chased by a group of women – the source of the screams. On the stretcher, a person concealed by a white sheet, apart from one motionless hand hanging off the side. As soon as they arrived on the scene, they vanished. It was as if it had never happened; everyone was all smiles again, ‘It’s A Small World After All’, which plays interminably through the park, snuck back into my conscious. The words ‘nothing to see here’ need not have crossed a single pair of lips.
It’s exactly this sort of incident that ‘Escape From Tomorrow’ plays with. “Bad things happen everywhere” chimes a middle-aged Disney Princess-turned-child-catcher in an Epcot hotel room. A sinister phrase, especially when said in Disneyworld; where fun and utter joy is perennially forced upon you and the staff and frowning is…well…frowned upon.
Sometimes it is an unpleasant watch, but it is almost always a compelling one, and one that will leave you thinking about it repeatedly for days.
“Escape…” is a marvel on many levels. Most remarkable is its off-screen story; writer/director Randy Moore shot the film for $650,000 – a major risk considering it may have never seen the light of day. Moore had secretly filmed on DSLR cameras within actual Disney theme park grounds unlawfully, posing as tourists in order to shoot the film on the sly. Many expected the film to vanish after the Disney Company found it – notorious as they are for protecting their public image – and yet they have stayed curiously quiet about the entire thing; perhaps so as to not draw attention to the film at all. After all, the quickest way to become famous is to court controversy.
Miraculously, this style of filming pays off. Every scene has a twitchy ‘oh so naughty’ quality to it, yet it never feels as if the film-makers compromised in order to shoot in this fashion – the actors, played mostly to an impressively naturalistic level, don’t appear to be rushed or nervous about being caught. So It genuinely feels like watching a real family at Disneyworld.
And it’s a family in disarray.
Jim, the father of a middle-class American family has just been told, on the last day of his holiday, that he’s lost his job. Internalising his sorrow, he attempts to enjoy a final day with his wife, son, and daughter at Disneyworld. Soon enough however, he is driven into a nightmarish world – why does his son seems to be intermittently possessed? Why is a past-it Disney Princess trying to steal his daughter? And what’s this ‘cat flu’ that the Disney employees all seem so worried about? If this all sounds nonsensical then that’s sort of the point. Do not watch this film expecting answers or an easy pay-off.
We see a more Lynchian approach to horror, with its gloomy black and white photography giving it a claustrophobic quality.
Some viewers will find the lack of answers frustrating but then this isn’t your typical horror film. There are no jump-shocks, or even a slow building sense of dread. Rather we see a more Lynchian approach to horror, with its gloomy black and white photography giving it a claustrophobic quality. Removing the colour from one of the most garishly colourful places on earth is an effective decision – and its dream like structure, where each event seems bizarrely inconsequential, leaves you feeling confused and even at times violated. Sometimes it is an unpleasant watch, but it is almost always a compelling one, and one that will leave you thinking about it repeatedly for days.
So what’s it all about? If we look past the blatant ‘dark side of Disney’ message, we can see commentaries on the flawed American Nuclear Family Ideal – Jim borderline hates his wife and two young children, often opting to follow around a pair of disconcertingly young French girls over any parental responsibility. Then there’s some pretty damning criticism of Consumerism and Commercialisation, as well as a Freudian look at masculinity and repression crossed with the sorrows of a mid-life crisis. At times, this all seems a little much to fit into one film; the various plot threads lead to some pacing issues, particularly a sag in the middle section. Yet in retrospect, this only adds to the feverishly nightmarish quality of the whole thing. Nothing makes sense, there’s just question after unanswerable question. We have to wonder whether this was the film makers’ intention of course, but either way, its effect is incredibly disturbing.
So, the film won’t be for everyone, but everyone should give this film a chance. As a fascinating piece of experimental guerrilla film making, its on-the-sly story alone should get it a well-earned cult status.
Just don’t go in expecting a happily-ever-after.
Author: Daniel Johnson
Artwork: Irina Silviu Szekely