“Escape From Tomorrow” sounds like an urban legend that originated among Disney employees. “These guys made this horror movie and shot it in Disney World and Disneyland without anyone knowing. Everyone used smartphones. The actors had their scripts on their phones and the crew filmed them with their own phones. The director had to map out where the sun would be on each particular day so they always had the best lighting. Then they edited it in South Korea so there was less of a chance of Disney finding out.” The ending to the story would be that the movie was lost somewhere in South Korea but somehow, someday, it will be found and put on the Internet for all to see in all its glory. Except that’s not what happened. What happened is that “Escape From Tomorrow” was entered into Sundance and got picked up by a distributor. A distributor prominent enough that I saw it in a Raleigh multiplex and not, say, a basement in Brooklyn. This entry into the Mixed Reviews series is a little bit different from the others in that it’s not one of my own DVDs and therefore there’s no question as to whether it was really as good as I remember it. However, “Escape From Tomorrow” did receive mixed reviews from critics. And although I wouldn’t buy the DVD, I wouldn’t necessarily throw it out if I got it some other way.
When it comes to Disney parks, I have mixed feelings. I would like to go to one at some point in my life, but I also have a kind of punk-rock pride in not having gone to one. When I do think of Disney World, I think of being overwhelmed. I picture being confronted with the enormity of the whole thing and the Florida heat and long lines and overpriced everything—like any amusement park, but on a much larger scale. At the same time, I also picture an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and wonder and all those happy thoughts. That’s why I walked into the movie theater thinking that “Escape From Tomorrow” would be about how such an imposing place can trigger overpowering feelings. I was sort of right, but it’s not the whole story.
“Escape From Tomorrow” is about Jim, a father on his last day of a Disney World vacation with his family. (The park in the movie is really a hybrid of Disney World and Disneyland, but one of the characters specifically says they’re in Florida, so I’m calling it Disney World.) Early in the day, he gets a call saying that he’s been fired from his job. Jim tries to enjoy his last day of vacation in spite of this news, but instead he’s driven insane by violent and sexual hallucinations. There’s also an outbreak of “cat flu” in the park and a scientist with a lab in Epcot center, both of which may or may not exist. Writer-director Randy Moore knew that the only way he could make the movie effective was if it was filmed in an actual Disney park, but there were obviously innumerable legal problems. However, Disney does allow families to take home movies in its parks, so the cast and crew all got season passes and filmed the movie in the midst of all the crowds. That’s not to say it’s The Blair Witch Project: Disney Edition. Extra scenes were filmed on soundstages, special effects were added and there’s no “shaky cam” action except on some of the rides.
Great pains were taken to avoid copyright infringement in certain areas. Buzz Lightyear’s face is blurred. The only utterance of the word “Disney” is bleeped out. The title itself seems to be a copyright-friendly invocation of both parks’ “Tomorrowland”. Yet all the other intellectual property—including Mickey’s face—is still there. (Disney’s not currently pursuing any legal action; its strategy appears to be just to keep quiet and wait for the movie to go away.) The one place that seemed to have a uniform no-Disney policy was the music. “It’s a Small World” has been replaced with a well-made sound-alike and the wonderfully chilling score is Disney-influenced without sounding like a cheap copy. On the other hand, a great place to ignore the whole copyright thing would have been the scene where Jim sings a lullaby to his daughter. The song he does sing is sweet, but if it had been something as familiar as “When You Wish Upon a Star”, I would have been devastated. And I’m not easily scared by horror movies. Maybe it’s for the best.
Because of the way it was filmed, most of the truly scary stuff doesn’t come directly from the park itself. Mickey Mouse’s smiling face looks unsettling, but it’s not like he goes around attacking people. I think the scariness of “Escape From Tomorrow” comes from the fact that you’re watching bad things happen in a real place that really does control its image for the utmost purity. “Escape From Tomorrow”‘s tagline is “Bad things happen everywhere”, which is based on a line in the movie that is followed by “Especially here.” I don’t know about the “especially here” part, but the first part is true. It’s like when the news broke of the first murder in the town of Celebration, Florida. Murder can happen anywhere, even in a town built by Disney. By that same notion, “the happiest place on Earth” itself cannot be immune to unhappiness either. The message of “Escape From Tomorrow” is that even if you force yourself to be happy and good, the opposing feelings will still be expressed. Or as the NY Times points out, it’s Freud’s “return of the repressed” theory. The ideas are similar.
The mixed reviews are understandable. It’s a flawed movie, after all. I can overlook the sometimes-amateurish acting, but the plot’s lack of direction can’t be ignored. It starts with the repression theme, takes a brief detour into sci-fi, returns to the repression, then oscillates between that and the “cat flu” subplot. I don’t know what the sci-fi plotline was even supposed to be about. It’s a shame that the same excruciating attention to detail given to the production wasn’t given to its script. I guess the bottom line is that “Escape From Tomorrow” did scare me, but it was also a lot of fun in a Willy Wonka boat ride-kind of way. Those two things are enough to expect from a horror movie, which is why I recommend seeing it. Besides, it probably won’t ruin Disneyworldland for you. Somehow it still looks like a nice place to visit, even with the decapitations and phallic symbols.