Maybe my views have changed since I was younger, but for as long as I can remember (five years?), I have hated theme parks. Well, “hate” is a strong word; they make me uneasy. They are bright and happy to such a manufactured extent that it’s almost sinister, with an intonation that to be unhappy is to disrupt a perfect world. In a way, theme parks remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” wherein several aristocrats hide in Prince Prospero’s abbey to escape a disease that has ravaged their country so that they can continue to live their luxurious lifestyles; to them, only positive feelings may exist, such that any reminder of the outside world is disruptive and ominous. Similarly, theme parks, in particular Disney World, sell themselves as Prospero’s abbey, a place of perfection that exists outside of our world. I find that eerie, more than anything. As a kid that was prone to being emotional (or a brat, depending on whose viewpoint, e.g. everyone’s in my vicinity), I found the “perfect” atmosphere of theme parks nearly traumatic, as if I were committing some terrible act by being upset. If you want another viewpoint, treat yourself to this interview with David Lynch about the song “It’s a Small World.”
Therefore, I sympathize greatly with the impulse behind Escape from Tomorrow, Randy Moore‘s surrealist, black and white horror/drama/comedy that was covertly filmed in Disney World. The basic premise is that Jim (Roy Abramsohn)—who is on vacation with his wife, Emily (Elena Schuber); daughter, Sarah (Katelynn Rodriguez); and son, Elliot (Jack Dalton)—is fired from his job, and wants to make the most of his family’s last day at “The Happiest Place on Earth.” He cannot shake the feeling, though, that something is off—nor the feeling of his tingling loins that stems from eyeing underage French girls.
That’s the basic premise, and the execution utilizes the uncanny effect of Disney World’s fabricated perfection—and some clever, minor special effects—exceptionally. As Jim’s issues come forward, so too does the downright terror of the enclosing atmosphere of theme parks, and it made me incredibly anxious to see the qualities I always found lurking on the edges of these places brought to the forefront. All of the surrealism, to me, points to one major idea: there is no such place in which all of the world’s ills are escapable. One character even says as much. Escape from Tomorrow often reaffirms itself as a twisted, modern “Masque of the Red Death.”
The technical side of the film manages to capture this idea astoundingly well despite the inherent limitations on the production. The direction in particular surprised me; although shots had to be planned at certain times of the day and in avoidance of Disney personnel, director Moore and cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham manage to construct the shots with exceptional care. The style dips in and out of genre homages to great effect thanks to phenomenal lighting, such as one scene in a pool where Jim, practically in a gaze, floats toward one of the underage Parisian girls. The lighting and shot structure mimic old Hollywood romances and Disney classics, instilling unease in the viewer. Later, during a subversion of the femme fatale monologue, the lighting switches to noir. It’s all quite well done, and almost always enhancing rather than distracting.
That being said, the editing and pacing leave a lot to be desired. While the build up to a completely eerie idea followed by a quick transition to harmless family life works occasionally, the frequent switches between them undermine the movie’s power. As weird as this sounds, I wish the movie had gone for weirder. More subtle surrealism throughout, less stylistic whiplash. The constantly subversive qualities of the theme park would not be lost, and the overall aims of the movie would be enhanced. As a result of the current editing, though, the movie feels overlong by about forty minutes.
Flawed though it may be, Escape from Tomorrow generally succeeds, often far beyond the initial impression of, “Woah, they filmed this at Disney World?!” Thanks to careful direction, naturalistic acting, and great music by Abel Korzeniowski, this film is a delicious bit of surrealist horror mixed with dark comedy. The story’s attempt to deconstruct “The Happiest Place on Earth” is ambitious and successful; the actual characterization of the family helps to move it beyond a simple political piece. Escape from Tomorrow is far from perfect, but I think it is worth seeing, whether you love Disney World or not.