WHAT IF I told you that no one has ever died at Disneyland? Would you believe me? What if I were to tell you that the reason for this is a technicality—that no one ever dies at Disneyland because park policy demands that a cadaver be removed from park grounds before being declared officially deceased? Would you believe me then?
Whether it's true or not is irrelevant—the surprising believability of this particularly enduring legend serves to illustrate something that we all subconsciously know: There is something profoundly sinister about Disneyland. It's a literal playground for the uncanny—a place where the entire currency is false nostalgia, where the illusion of "happiness" is manufactured and maintained through an exacting, Masonic sort of corporate monomania. To be cynical about Disneyland feels totally redundant—the eerie duality of the Disney empire is both an impossible and indispensable part of its essential character. There truly is no happier or creepier place on earth. It gets one thinking: Wouldn't it be amazing if someone were able to find a way to exploit the singular potential of the place for all its surrealist horror?
Armed with handheld SLRs and season passes to both of Disney's American resorts, first-time writer/director Randy Moore has made what some are justly calling the ultimate guerilla picture—a feature-length narrative film shot almost entirely on the soil of the most famously litigious media conglomerate in the world. With Escape from Tomorrow, Moore, his cast, and his crew have made the unthinkable: a one-of-a-kind surreal horror movie produced in direct defiance of Disney, which takes liberal advantage of a number of the company's many intellectual properties to tell the story of a father's heavy-handed descent into mid-life psychosis. It's both a daring coup and an incredible gimmick; it's also a heartbreaking waste of potential.
Following a nuclear family's daylong degeneration through the dark side of the Magic Kingdom, Escape is the sort of film whose central conceit inevitably allows it a great deal of narrative latitude—no one is under any illusions that a film shot clandestinely in one of the world's most obsessively controlled locations is going to be objectively great. Given its constraints however, it's safe to assume that such a movie—with its tongue-in-cheek premise and B-movie aesthetic—should at least be a lot of fun. In spite of its many promising post-production flairs, Escape is actually a bit of a chore to watch—a poorly acted and edited assemblage of vacation footage and sophomoric macabre masquerading as surrealism. Its central singularity, its "one-of-a-kind"-ness, is truly the only thing notable about the film—a fascinating curio at best, a too-campy-by-half B-movie at worst.
What's unfortunate is that, even with the multitude of limitations woven into the very fabric of Escape, I'm not convinced that there wasn't a perfectly satisfying supernatural cult feature to be cobbled out of its footage—a fact that makes the film's failure all the more heartbreaking. Heartbreaking because it's a circumstance that can never be repeated—the seemingly limitless potential for dread and horror so particular to a place like Disneyland can never be exploited in such an incredibly daring and crass fashion ever again. Moore stole the keys to the castle—he held Walt's cryogenically frozen head in his hands—and then managed to fumble it somewhere along the Jungle Cruise.