Arrow Video Frightfest Digital – Film Review – Playhouse (2020)

Narcissistic horrorepreneur Jack Travis moves to a moody Scottish castle with his even moodier teenage daughter Bee. Flushed with the success of a West End hit, he plans to stage an immersive play based upon the castles macabre history. However, fiery neighbour Jenny has deep connections to the nefarious events of the past and even stronger misgivings about exploiting them.

As Jack becomes evermore consumed by his artistic vision, his sanity fractures under the legacy of a satanic pact. With Bee missing and Jack morphing into a possessed parody of Withnail, Jenny and her partner Callum are sucked into his deranged orbit of ambition.

Fionn & Toby Watts’ kickstarted kitchen sink thriller is filmed in and around Freswick Castle where they grew up. This stunning location provides a crutch on which the film heavily leans and the brothers milk every drop from its architectural udders. Sadly, a perfect backdrop does not necessarily generate automatic neogothic chills. 

The camerawork from Andy Toovey and Sam Olly is compositionally cultured and organic, harnessing the imposing bleakness of the Northern Scottish coastline. Unfortunately, its enigmatic majesty has the confounding side effect of dwarfing the somewhat attenuated plot.

Recycled in some part from the morbid pen of Poe the concept of immurement reached genre saturation point many paranormal moons ago. Expecting it to form the power core of such an intimate chamber piece is asking a lot in terms of driving the picture forward. Those less jaded by walled up wrongdoings may find some ghoulish satisfaction in the exposition-heavy melodramatics.

As with all low budget horror movies the acting has nowhere to hide on the exposed cliff-face of intimacy. Thankfully Playhouse assembles a quality cast of actors that give much-needed credibility to the creaking narrative.

James Rottger and Helen Mackay are excellent as the fraught young couple caught in the crossfire of Jacks unscrupulous ego as it squares up to a diabolic entity. They are both believable and sympathetic in their portrayal of a relationship stuck in a tailspin of empathetic freefall. Grace Courtney is assured and charming as the caustic Bee, and the film misses her during the long stretch she goes AWOL.

The central performance by William Holstead as Jack, however, poses problems that cannot be swept under the distressed Revivalist carpet. Obviously a talented thespian, with a string of awards to his name, the young man fails to convince on this occasion.

His abundant charisma appears to be reading from a different script than everyone else. This tonal dissonance results in a comedic plangency that quite simply distorts the overall clarity of the film. Stage presence does not always equate to screen presence in equal measure but I hope to see him in other ventures soon as his vivacious persona is fascinating.

The effects work from Albin Larsson look fantastic for the budget but the late rally of the spectacular fails to rescue a muddled denouement that leaves more questions than conclusive answers.

Independent horror may seem the fastest starting lane in the quest to make meaningful movies, just ask Peter Jackson and Sam Rami, but it is also a congested one. It is not just a convenient stepping stone, with less demanding financial parameters. It is a genre beloved to a gigantic fanbase that is both resource forgiving and rabidly expectant of original terrors and boundary-breaking thrills.

Although Playhouse is clearly made with much passion and commitment a plethora of idiosyncracies flatten its vital signs and will leave hardened horror fans feeling frustrated, underwhelmed and ultimately misunderstood.

★★

HORROR CHANNEL SCREEN – 4.00 PM – Sat 29TH AUGUST 2020 World Premiere

Psychological Horror, Thriller | UK 2020 | 87 mins | Far North Films | Dirs. Fionn & Toby Watts | With: James Rottger, William Holstead, Grace Courtney