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When faced with a miniscule budget and a fickle market, many people try to make their first films simple and quaint. Not Dante Tomaselli. With just 150,000 bucks to play around with, Tomaselli has crafted a unique and chilling, albeit flawed, debut.
Nursing what appears to be a damaged psyche and the trauma of having his mother die when he was still in the crib, Bobby (Danny Lopes - HORROR, NIKOS THE IMPALER) is having a hard time. Studies at the private Catholic school he attends likely have him stressed out. And as if he doesn't have enough problems, a simple afternoon of playing with a remote control airplane turns chaotic as the plane runs wildly off-course and embeds itself in the side of a nun's head. Whoops.
Although all accounts list the death-by-RC as an accident, the afternoon just gets weirder from there. Strange deaths begin to claim the nuns at the school. Bobby's friend gets lost down a hole that magically disappears later on. Bobby is in a bad state. The school tries to be sympathetic but they're frightened and a priest who gives Bobby Valium before threatening him with expulsion seems more of an enabler than anything else.
When Bobby's grandmother (Irma St. Paule - THINNER, GUIDING LIGHT) hears about what has happened, she senses that it's just the beginning. Grandma is from the from the old country of Italy and is very, very Catholic. You could make a drinking game out of how many times this woman crosses herself in this film. Seeing such an unlikely person in a heroic role really warmed me. I spent a good deal of my childhood in New Jersey (where DESECRATION is set) and several neighborhoods had an Italian population with characters like this. No stereotypes, just characters exactly like this, who cared deeply for their children and grandchildren and had a strong sense of their ethnicity and Catholicism.
Grandma begins sensing things are wrong and enlists Bobby's skeptical father (Salvatore Paul Piro) to help her get to the bottom of it. Paranormal happenings become more and more frequent and Bobby seems to be linked to all of them. She comes to believe Bobby's mother (Christie Sanford - HORROR, SATAN'S PLAYGROUND), who may not have been such a caring nurturer, is haunting him from beyond the grave.
Tomaselli wrote, produced and directed DESECRATION. Right away, he sets it apart from what you would expect from a feature debut. He uses color, sound and low-tech special effects to create a complex atmosphere filled with horror, fantasy and dread. While the real world is rooted in drab earth tones, the spirits control of world of tempting color and mystery, eventually showing their true nature to their prey - in this case, Bobby.
What makes DESECRATION feel different from many films I've seen recently is that it feels so authentic. Tomaselli not only captures the people of a small New Jersey town, he captures the atmosphere as well. Thick accents and all, none of this is forced. I expected a number of things from this film. Nostalgia wasn't one of them.
Everything in this film seems to have several layers beneath the surface. At first, we're frustrated by the father's practical stubbornness, until we realize that it seems rooted in fear and shame. Bobby might just be having a bad day, but things obviously haven't been right for some time. As he tells his priest early on, "Some people are blessed. Others are just cursed."
DESECRATION is far from perfect. Tomaselli mentioned in a lengthy CultCuts interview that he didn't like the way the airplane scene turned out. I don't blame him. At first, we see Bobby look to the sky as we hear the buzzing of the plane. We don't see the plane until it whacks Sister Madeline (also played by Sanford) in the side of the head. Quite frankly, it looks silly. I defy anyone not to laugh at this image. This was to be the first real jolt of the film and it is what sets all other effects into motion. It should have been handled just right. Instead, it gives us the giggles.
The film also tends to drag in spots. The characters are brought in to carry much of the film, but sometimes the dialogue and exposition scenes just go on way too long. At times, some important events become lost in the shuffle. The film is short at 88 minutes, but the dialogue could have been snipped by at least five minutes more.
What Tomaselli is good at is making simple things more complex. By taking much of the film from Bobby's point of view, it gives us a unique perspective. Religion can be awe-inspiring, intimidating and even frightening when you're young, and this is something DESECRATION is aware of. Things spin out of control after the airplane accident, and at times it seems closely tied to his upbringing. For a while, it seems like Tomaselli is taking the old notion of Catholic guilt and amplifying it. Bobby's guilt at first seems to manifest itself into the horrors he sees. Even Bobby's fever dreams, the atmospheric high-point of the film, are tinged with the discarded remains of childhood innocence. Tiny images should illicit comfort. But when he glimpses a rainbow, I think it's a safe bet that there is no pot of gold at the other end.
Tomaselli brings this complexity to some mundane scenes as well. Keep a close eye on the corners and background, as there will occasionally be subliminal scares. In one instance, even a master shot of a nun on a telephone is given a wicked spin as demonic sounds seem to creep in, getting louder and louder.
The acting in DESECRATION is great. Tomaselli uses many of the principals in later films, a good idea since they seem like a very skilled bunch. After sitting through many low-budget horror films filled with people who sounded like they dropped out of acting class in the second week, the ensemble collected here is a great relief.
Tomaselli has said he is in this business for horror. That's great news to those of us who feel a little burned when filmmakers who start out great, only to go on to "more important" work. Tomaselli always seems to have a million things on his mind. Judging from what DESECRATION offers, no DVD has ever needed a commentary track so badly.
Thankfully, Tomaselli seems to have the talent to back his dedication up. He is a master of atmosphere and seems quite capable of eliciting sympathy for his characters as well. DESECRATION is not a classic, but it is an extremely intriguing start to what one hopes will be a fascinating career.