Director/Screenplay – Randy Moore, Producers – Soojin Chung & Gioria Marchese, Photography (b&w) – Lucas Lee Graham, Music – Abel Korzeniowski, Visual Effects Supervisor – Bruce Heller, Visual Effects – 4th Creative Party (Chief Supervisor – Lee Jeonhyoung), Production Design – Sean Kaysen & Lawrence Kim. Production Company – Mankurt Media LLC
Roy Abramsohn (Jim), Elena Schuber (Emily), Katelynn Rodriguez (Sara), Jack Dalton (Elliot), Danielle Safady (Sophie), Annet Mahendru (Isabelle), Alison Lees-Taylor (The Other Woman), Stass Klassen (The Scientist), Lee Armstrong (Man on Scooter)
Jim, his wife Emily and their two young children Sara and Elliot are staying at Disney World. As they tour the rides, Jim starts to experience strange hallucinations. As he and Emily split up each with a different child, he becomes obsessed with following two French teenage girls he keeps seeing everywhere. There are also rumours of a deadly cat flu outbreak in the park. Jim’s trail leads through an increasingly disturbing series of encounters – a sexual tryst with a woman who claims to be a former Disney princess whose mind snapped and a scientist with a lair beneath the EPCOT Center who claims to be manipulating Jim’s being there.
Without reading up on it, Escape from Tomorrow gives few clues about what the film is going to be. The innocuous title suggests one of the Disney live-action children’s films of the 1970s, while the film’s poster – the image of a bloodied hand reaching up – suggests something that belongs either in a horror film or perhaps a revolutionary manifesto. None of this – even reading about how the film was conceived and shot – prepares you for what is one of the most unique films ever made.
In this case, the means whereby Escape from Tomorrow was made has become the novelty selling point in itself. It was shot by debuting filmmaker Randy Moore and his cast and crew at both Disneyland and Disney World (where the two parks have been blended into a single entity on screen). Moore was obsessed with Disneyland from frequent trips there with his grandfather as a child and determined to place the dark vision of the park in his head onto film. Crucially, the film was shot without any official permission meaning that Moore and crew did everything guerrilla style under the noses of the park’s staff and security. The shoot took place over ten days at Disney World and two weeks at Disneyland. Shots required extensive pre-planning and were walked through and then blocked out between Moore and his cast and crew in nearby hotel rooms. The cast ingeniously had the scripts on their iPhones, which were also used to communicate directions, while microphones to record dialogue were hidden under their clothing. The preplanning went to the extent with Moore even describes how they plotted out the position of the sun at certain times of day so there would be no need for lighting. The camera crew were dressed as regular tourists so that nobody thought it odd they were filming everything with handheld cameras. In interviews, Randy Moore says he was baffled that none of the park crew thought anything suspicious about them riding the same rides over and over to get multiple takes.
Disney is notoriously litigious about their copyright and have launched lawsuits over things like Disney characters being painted on walls of schools and the like. Moore was paranoid about Disney trying to shut down the production to such extent that he even went to edit in South Korea and premiered the film at Sundance initially billed under a different name. In fact, none of his fears came to pass and Escape from Tomorrow enjoyed a theatrical and VOD release with nary a complaint (or even official comment) from the corporation. It can even be seen that the studio tacitly endorsed the film in that an entry can now be found on it at the official Disney fan club site.
What strikes the most about the film is the exquisite cinematography – this is no amateur production shot on a camcorder as you expected going in but filmed in beautifully crisp black-and-white (that renders the Disneyland/Disney World locations as something far darker than you expect). The staging of scenes – where Moore shoots from different angles, not to mention has complex things occurring like having the two French girls and the man on the motorised scooter (Lee Armstrong) weave in and around the back of the action from multiple angles or Roy Abramsohn following the two girls across a wide area (all amidst unrehearsed crowds that have no idea this is happening) – is staggering when you think about the logistics involved. There is only the odd scene – where Roy Abramsohn is carrying Jack Dalton as he pukes in a garbage can or more obvious ones where Alison Lees-Taylor narrates her story as a Disney princess in flashback that it is seen that Moore has resorted to using digital inserts.
Quite clearly, given the dark, less than savoury vision of the park that the film holds, Randy Moore would never have gotten official permission to shoot there. He deflates the happy feelgood image of Disneyland with images like Roy Abramsohn and Jack Dalton throwing up on the rides, guards tasering Abramsohn and so on. Moore is determined to dig into the dark underside of the park and some of the urban legends that have grown up around it – the claim that the turkey leg Roy Abramsohn is eating is emu meat; that Japanese businessmen will pay thousands of dollars to have sex with the employees who dress as Disney princesses; health warnings about a deadly cat flu epidemic; stories of people that have been decapitated on the rides; Alison Lees-Taylor as one of the former wearers of the Disney princess costume who became psychologically deranged and attacked a child as a result of being forced to act happy all the time.
In going in to see Escape from Tomorrow, having read about plots involving flu epidemics, robots and mad scientists, you expect some gonzo ‘sci-fi’ adventure akin to perhaps Kiss Meet the Phantom of the Park (1978), which was shot in and around the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in California. What you don’t expect is the amazingly dark and hallucinatory film we get – something that exists more in the territory of a darkly paranoid work like Repulsion (1965), Barton Fink (1991) or The Machinist (2004). Roy Abramsohn sees sinister demonic faces on the animatronic figures through one of the rides, has visions of naked women and parts of the park being blown up. There is a bizarre sequence where he is abducted and taken beneath the EPCOT Centre and imprisoned by a scientist (Stass Klassen) who starts probing into Abramsohn’s brain and reveals that everything has been set up, including they having manipulated his path through the park (and possibly even his earlier visits as a child) for some obscure purpose. Abramsohn makes an escape and in so doing knocks the scientist’s head off revealing that he is an android. This completely spins the film on its head and we think that we are in for some bizarre Philip K. Dick-ian film in which the hero’s reality is being manipulated. Alas, such is never referred to again and we can only assume that this is part of the surreal hallucinatory fugue that much of the film seems to exist in.
The film reaches a disturbing ending [PLOT SPOILERS] wherein Roy Abramsohn expires overnight in the hotel bathroom and his bloated, bloody corpse is found in the morning by his wife. The last images we see are ones of a park forensic clean-up crew coming in and cleaning the scene down. There is something sinister to the images of them taking away the body and then in the next turning down the toilet rolls and placing courtesy glasses in perfect place on their doilies, removing all trace of his ever being there as though nothing had transpired. The final images are of Roy Abramsohn, now much more snappily attired turning up at the hotel with the woman from his hallucination on his arm and another child, where you get the impression akin to the end of The Shining (1980) that he has gone onto become the park’s eternal visitor in some kind of hereafter. The last image we see is the two French girls as fairies flying across the screen and producing ‘The End’ sign.