One of the most impressive feats of subversive, satirical stunt film-making in years, Randy Moore’s debut feature Escape From Tomorrow bursts the saccharine-sweet bubble that is the Disney empire without resorting to mean-spiritedness, taking the notion that a shiny surface conceals an equally dark underbelly and running with it like an Olympic sprinter on amphetamines. It’s less of an “F— you” and more of a 90-minute noogie.
The story centers on Jim (Roy Abramsohn), a nondescript everyman with a wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), and two kids, Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) and Elliot (Jack Dalton). The film opens during the last day of their vacation to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, just as Jim receives a call from his employer informing him that he’s been terminated. As anyone who’s ever attended a child’s birthday party knows, being miserable in a place that demands cheer only makes matters worse. Jim’s downward spiral begins quietly enough, with family bickering and minor disasters, and gradually escalates into heavy drinking, hallucinations, violent encounters, bizarre revelations, and some truly strange events not to be divulged here. Throughout these episodes, Jim pursues two young French girls (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) around the park with a stalkerish intensity.
Moore’s macabre movie is not only set in the world’s most famous theme park, it was also filmed there — an impressive feat given that Disney doesn’t allow filming inside the place. He and his cast and crew shot much of the movie guerilla-style in the park itself, leaving many to wonder if the movie could even be legally distributed since it was filmed without permission from notoriously litigious Disney and uses the company’s imagery in ways Walt would not likely have approved of. (They go so far to suggest that the women who dress up as iconic Disney princesses work on the side as high-priced escorts for rich businessmen with cartoon kinks.)
The approach only adds to the low-budget surrealism that permeates Escape from Tomorrow. Much like David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Darren Aranofsky’s Pi (though less nuanced) the black-and-white cinematography gives it a Universal horror movie quality that adds to the nightmarish feel of the story and avoids the distracting palette garish colors associated with the park. The surreptitious camerawork lends a voyeuristic quality, and some slick-yet-cheesy special effects add to the cheekiness. On the downside, the editing is sometimes rough, the story often feels aimless and erratic, and the footage arbitrary during the first hour — perhaps suitably so, since Jim is a suburban slob who finds his life cast adrift.
Still, as an experimental work that by all rights shouldn’t even exist, it is a daring work whose flaws often add to its endearing, rough-edged charm. It’s a small world after all, as well as a very, very weird one.
Escape from Tomorrow plays at the Texas Theatre October 9-12.