November 17, 2020 Playhouse (Movie Review)
Spoiler alert: when a tortured artist attempts to escape the darkness and turmoil of a ruined relationship by way of a haunted castle, nothing goes according to plan. It’s home sweet hell in Playhouse, which arrives to Digital/VOD in the US and Canada on Tuesday, November 17, 2020 via Devilworks.
Written and directed by brothers Fionn and Toby Watts (Dilemmas series short), Playhouse centers its story around Jack Travis (William Holstead: Christmas Presence 2018, The Burying Party 2018), an infamous Horror playwright. Having relocated himself and his daughter Bee (Grace Courtney: Holby City series, Lipstick short 2018) to an old Scottish castle by the sea, he begins to lose himself in the creation of his next masterpiece, an immersive, paranormal murder mystery. But as the writer progresses with his depiction of the bleak legend that surrounds his new home, something deep in the heart of the castle is awakened.
Playhouse also features the acting talents of Helen Mackay (Time Teens: The Beginning 2015, Such Is Life short 2017), James Rottger (Gary Tank Commander series, The Break series), Mathilde Darmady, Eilidh McLaughlin (GetMeLovedUp.com 2020), and Rebecca Calienda (Dead Unicorns 2019, The Lost 2020).
Huge on atmosphere and aesthetic, this Supernatural Thriller leans heavy on its setting to craft a film with deep homages to a time when stories were meant to worm into our souls and unsettle us, not make our butts jump out of our seats. From the cold stone walls of the castle to the foggy seascape to the frequent placement of gargoyle imagery, and even the evil that lurks in the walls, Playhouse is a Modern Gothic that uses its strengths to bolster a somewhat generic story. And while lovers of Horror and the supernatural have certainly witnessed many a film that sees its main characters’ psychologically devolving as they explore local lore and haunting history, this is an instance where location, cinematography (Andy Toovey: Only Child short 2016, Firmament short 2017), and a talented cast are able to make it work.
Premiering in August 2020 at London’s Frightfest, as previously stated, Playhouse’s success is definitely aided by its superb cast. As Jack, Holstead delivers a meta performance, portraying a dramatic, theatrical personality who dives headfirst into his art. A lover of the strange and unusual, Holstead’s Jack is himself a bit peculiar and, as is literally stated, he’s “not afraid to go dark places.” Although the character feels part Jack Torrance, Holstead depicts his Jack with a Shakespearean grandeur and grace. Thanks to his larger than life delivery, Holstead literally lives and breathes the madness of his character’s work, reminding us that the theatrical and the written word are invariably intertwined. In this, the audience is left to ask if it is indeed the castle that is haunted or if these demons are ones that reside within the quirky creator?
Courtney’s Bee is a much more subtle character, though no less dramatic. At times reminiscent of Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz in her acceptance of the macabre, the actress’ portrayal is never cut and dry, and we are left to wonder much about the inner workings of Bee’s mind. Which, in this instance, works magically with the understated eeriness of the film, creating a sympathetic female lead who is highly affected by the whims of her creative father, as well as a victim of her parents’ divorce and her subsequent relocation. The proverbial outsider in many senses, Courtney’s Bee is the impetus that aligns each of the story’s individual cogs and moves us into supernatural territory.
With a languid but steady pace, at 86 minutes Playhouse never overstays its welcome. Utilizing its magnificent location—the historic 16th century Freswick Castle—to the utmost effect, particularly the eerily lovely stone spiral staircase, the film’s mood is as stormy as the North Sea. In fact, when one of the characters declares “something’s not right with the place,” you feel this like a cat’s claws tracing circles across the nape of your neck. Huge on goosebumps, it’s never terrifying or gory, instead going for an elevated and nuanced take on the Supernatural Thriller that has echoes of recent flicks like 2019’s The Village in the Woods.
As a feature length debut for the Watts Brothers, Playhouse promises magical things to come. So while this is not likely to be a film for everyone, its myriad elements work together to produce an enjoyable filmgoing experience that is beautiful to behold. For all of the above, Cryptic Rock gives Playhouse 4 of 5 stars.