Dante Tomaselli is a director of films that you, the WFMU listener, the inveterate hipster, ought to know about. While many modern films are described by critics as homages to 70s horror/fantasy, Dante Tomaselli is a true son of creepy 1970s and 80s genre films, as well as being a son of Northeastern NJ.
His two films currently available on DVD, Desecration (1999) and Horror (2002), both stand as visually engulfing nightmares torn from the psyche of a middle-class suburban kid not unlike yours truly. Desecration deals with religious and family archetypes via mysterious happenings at a convent school, while Horror is an LSD-tinged crazy quilt of hallucinatory occultism populated by a group of misfit adolescents, also starring The Amazing Kreskin in a lead role.
His latest release, Satan's Playground (2005), involves a vacationing family's encounter with The Jersey Devil.
Dante was kind enough to submit to an e-mail interview, the transcript of which follows:
DT: Thank you.
Wm: I own your first two films, Desecration and Horror, on DVD, and have watched both several times with great enjoyment. Your work seems to be imbued with a vibe that is so specific to coming of age in the 1970s, watching medium-to-low budget horror/fantasy, as I did. Films like The Sentinel, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and Jack Woods' Equinox are deeply imprinted on my memory and personal aesthetic. Can you speak to that influence a bit?
DT: I was 7-years-old when I saw The Sentinel at a Drive-in in 1977. It was a blasphemous film, yet stylish, gothic. And I saw Don't Look Now around that age too. It left a very deep imprint. That knife wielding grinning death dwarf has to be the most nightmarish sight — ever. There is just something about films from that time. They were no-holds-barred. Totally unhinged.
Wm: Though your stories are essentially horror/fantasy, I see an unmistakable element of the subconscious, what some would call a "psychological" element, which gives your work such a unique voice. Would you agree?
DT: The films speak in dream language. Or at least that's what I'm attempting. They really take place inside your mind, so yes, they should be considered psychological horror movies, definitely. I'm constructing nightmares.
Wm: The IMDb lists your birthplace as Paterson, New Jersey. Did you grow up exclusively in the Northeast? If yes, does this mean you watched a lot of WPIX's "Chiller" and WNEW's "Creature Feature"?
DT: Yes, I grew up in north New Jersey. I watched the shows. Plus the 4:30 Movie. I was glued to the television back then. The title sequence for Chiller always scared me. That hand reaching out. Brrrr.
Wm: Who were some of your favorite directors as a youth? George A. Romero seems an obvious influence. (I'm especially fond of Martin, Season of the Witch, and of course the original Night of the Living Dead.)
DT: Oh I love early Romero. Night of the Living Dead. Classic. Season of the Witch is such an underrated film. I love it because it's so different, plays by no rules. Same thing with Martin, very fragmented, offbeat, individualistic. I'm influenced by Carpenter and Cronenberg who made such effective scary movies like Halloween and The Brood. Brian De Palma is excellent too. Carrie and The Fury. Love 'em. And in my 20s, I got into Argento. I worship Suspiria. I'm definitely inspired by Dario Argento and David Lynch; I feel what I have to offer, more than anything else, is a kind of surrealism.
Wm: I've also read that it was a cousin (?) of yours, Alfred Sole, that directed the classic Alice, Sweet, Alice (aka Communion). Was he instrumental in steering you towards directing, and/or horror in particular?
DT: Yes, that's my cousin. I'll never forget when it made its World Premiere in Paterson New Jersey. I wasn't allowed to go because I was too young. But I remember the aura of excitement around it. My father supplied all of the Communion dresses, white gloves and veils...since he owned a Bridal Shop. I remember seeing the eerie ads for Communion with the glowing Crucifix knife. My parents had a whole stack of them at home. I'd stare at the mini-posters, chilled...but drawn to the imagery. I wouldn't say Alfred steered me towards directing, because that was going to happen no matter what. But he did give me confidence just knowing that someone in our family tree could possibly achieve such cinematic success.
Wm: Your films have been critically well received by many. Has Europe been a more fertile audience for your work? I know that it can be difficult to get so-called genre films screened here in the US. What about festivals?
DT: Well, my movies tend to really polarize an audience, particularly Desecration and Horror. Both films have already been in a lot of festivals internationally. It seems that Europeans embrace my stuff more. But then again, there is somewhat of a cult growing in America, among the horror crowd.
Wm: Can you talk a bit about your latest feature, Satan's Playground, without giving too much away? I'm dying to see it. It is set in the Pine Barrens, yes? The Jersey Devil legend is involved?
DT: The Jersey Devil is involved, but it's really more of a backdrop. Satan's Playground is a psychological monster movie that slowly seeps into your brain like ecstasy-laced serum. It starts off beautiful, bright and shiny, like a pretty postcard and then slowly takes a turn....As the film gets darker and night falls, it actually becomes increasingly colorful and vivid, like a bona-fide drug trip. The horror, the menace, the violence, is inside, outside, it's invisible...it's everywhere. Overall, I wanted to harness the feeling of paranoia. Satan's Playground is a mood: you're optimistic, forward-thinking, laughing and adventurous but suddenly, shockingly, you're plunged in to a nightmare world. When you're lost in the woods at night, the Sugar Bread House with the old smiling woman sure looks like salvation. Hmmm...
Wm: Are there any upcoming screenings of Satan's Playground? What about a DVD release?
DT: The film made its World Premiere just last month. So it has to go through a period of promotion before it's successfully sold. I know there have been many DVD offers since my producers had a screening of the rough cut of the film, in October. But I think my producers might be holding out for some kind of a limited theatrical release. Luckily, Satan's Playground just got a positive review in Variety Magazine that even mentioned a specialized theatrical release is possible, so that should jump start things.
Wm: Please tell us a little bit about The Ocean, your current project.
DT: Well, it's in preproduction and I'd rather not make any definitive comments — because I know from experience, things at this stage can change, plot-wise, in a flash. But it's basically a surreal, horror-filled disaster movie set in Puerto Rico. Felissa Rose stars as a woman haunted by the drowning deaths of her husband and son. Judith O' Dea, who portrayed Barbara, in the original Night of the Living Dead, will play a scuba diver. There will be demonic possessions, supernatural riptides...and a mysterious Ebola-like virus...spreading along the coast. It's an apocalyptic chiller and it takes place in the Bermuda Triangle, also known as The Devil's Triangle.
Wm: The Ocean will be your third film with Felissa Rose (of Sleepaway Camp fame); this seems to be a blossoming director-star relationship. How did you hook up with Felissa? I'm fascinated, as the final scene from Sleepaway Camp is one that's burned into my brain!
DT: In 2000, when I was casting for HORROR, Felissa sent me her headshot in the mail.
I was floored, completely in awe. And her picture came with a nice personalized letter. Of course I called her immediately. That image of her at the end of Sleepaway Camp has been burned into my brain too! We met in NYC at the office of my production company and the chemistry was electric. I think we were both attracted to each other actually, in every way. But then we realized that we should just channel all of that energy...and funnel it into the films. Shooting HORROR with her was just a delicious tease. Satan's Playground was the real deal because it was a starring role for her and we both took a ride on an exhilarating journey. I loved making the movie with her. We can't wait for the next.
Wm: You've also done some (or all?) of the music for your films. Is that a trend that will continue? Any plans to release any of the soundtracks on CD?
DT: Thanks. I place a heavy emphasis on music, sound. For all the opening themes of my films I've hired outside composers. But for the rest of the movie, for the most part, the music is mine. I really specialize in ambiance, creating a trancelike mood through layering noises. I admire Depeche Mode, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno. I'm a sound collector. I have a library of fx and compositions like you wouldn't believe. I have a Roland Synthesizer...and I assign different sounds to each note on the keyboard pad and mix and experiment that way. This helps to move along the sound design of the film, because when I arrive at the Sound Mixing Studio, and I have only three or four weeks allotted, I already have a demo of what I want the entire soundtrack of the movie to be like. It's all been mapped out. So it really is like making an album. I do hope some soundtracks are released at some point. I love music. I'm a fan. I'm excited because Depeche Mode have a new album coming very soon, called Playing the Angel.
Wm: Do you have an interest in the occult sciences and/or the supernatural, or are they more of just an aesthetic influence? If yes, who are some of your favorite authors/historical figures in the occult pantheon?
DT: Oh, I have a very strong interest in the occult. Kenneth Anger made films that were incantations, Maya Deren created trance films. Even the last film she was working on when she died, was about Haitian Voodoo. I'd like to do a movie on Carlos Casteneda. I consider his stuff a form of the occult. I'd really spotlight out-of-body experiences..and mind travel. I'm not a Satanist. I'm a Supernaturalist.
Wm: Are there other directors working today that you would call peers? So many films lately are said to have a 70s horror vibe, thought that label has proven to be an empty buzzword in many cases.
DT: Two young filmmakers to look out for are Christopher Garetano and Adam Barnick.
Wm: What was the last great contemporary film you saw? Any current favorites (in any genre)?
DT: I love The House With Laughing Windows. It's an Italian 70s horror film and the only movie that has given me nightmares as an adult. The movie paralyzed me.
Wm: Any opportunity you have to update me on current projects, screenings etc. would be greatly appreciated. I'll happily post that information here. I thank you again for your time, and keep up the good work!
DT: Thanks so much for your interest. I really appreciate it. Here is a site for my films http://www.horrorthemovie.com
and this is official site for my latest movie, Satan's Playground...
http://satansplaygroundthemovie.com. And look out for the Satan's Playground tour. Come and play.