When Escape from Tomorrow premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, few people believed the movie would ever screen again. Shot without permission at the Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks in Florida and California, this unnerving fantasy dares to subvert the resorts’ family-friendly veneer in all sorts of queasy ways. Those beautiful women who dress up as the various Disney princesses? They moonlight as prostitutes for “rich Asian businessmen.” Those popular giant turkey legs sold at the parks? They’re actually made of emu meat. That giant Spaceship Earth orb that is Epcot’s most iconic structure? You have no idea what’s really going on in there.
But instead of going on the attack to halt the release and provide the movie with free publicity, Disney and the Siemens Corp. (which sponsors and designed several of the parks’ attractions) decided to allow Escape from Tomorrow to be shown with only a couple of minor tweaks (including a sternly worded disclaimer distancing the companies from the film). Shot on video using consumer-grade cameras, the movie opens on the morning of last day of the White family’s Disney World vacation. Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is fired via a phone call from his boss, but he decides to keep the bad news to himself so as to not ruin the trip. Instead, he goes along as if nothing had happened, riding the Monorail into the Magic Kingdom with his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and their two young kids Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) and Elliot (Jack Dalton).
The usual business ensues: They pose for a family portrait in front of Cinderella’s castle, assure the children the Snow White’s Scary Adventures aren’t really that scary, queue up in hour-long lines for the most popular attractions. But there is weirdness afoot, too, such as the two bubbly French girls (Danielle Sadafy and Annet Mahendru) who are always scampering around, occasionally making curious (flirtatious?) eye contact with Jim. When the family goes on It’s a Small World, the dancing mannequins and singing puppets suddenly transform into demonic-faced monsters. When Jim tries to sneak a kiss from his wife during The Many Adventures of Winne the Pooh ride, she rebuffs him with something close to revulsion.
Writer-director Randy Moore channels everything from The Shining to David Lynch’s Eraserhead to depict a family’s gradual disintegration in what is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth. The movie was shot in black-and-white out of necessity (no careful lighting and staging required), but the monochrome scheme adds a surreal layer to the picture, draining the park of its resplendent colors, making it seem strange and vaguely threatening. A nighttime fireworks display is particularly striking, the blinding-white explosions a harbinger of the apocalypse.
Escape from Tomorrow was a low-budget production — there are some distractingly bad green-screen effects — and the acting isn’t always as good as you would hope (Schuber fares the worst as the nagging wife; she is supposed to be an annoyance to her husband, but she ends up annoying the audience instead). But the movie is filled with unnerving moments, such as a visit to a Disney clinic where the distraught nurse warns about a “cat flu” spreading through the park, or Jim’s encounter with a seductive woman who may be a real witch. The film pays off all of its visual and thematic elements, no matter how bizarre, and everything that follows the “Intermission” card that flashes on the screen after the one-hour mark is inspired, deranged lunacy. Escape from Tomorrow is more of an experimental film than a traditional narrative, but intrepid viewers — or anyone who has ever visited a Disney park — will enjoy getting lost in this dark house of happy horrors.