Playhouse review: Creepy gothic horror
Anton Bitel | On 16, Apr 2021
Director: Fionn Watts, Toby Watts
Cast: James Rottger, William Holstead, Grace Courtney, Julie Higginson, Rebecca Calienda, Jim Page
Watch Playhouse online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Playhouse is quick to declare exactly what kind of film it is likely to be. The feature debut from writing/directing brothers Fionn and Toby Watts opens with establishing shots of dark, kelp-filled waters and an isolated imposing castle and its outbuildings under grey stormy skies. We are clearly in the generic realms of high gothic – a suspicion confirmed by the sight of gaunt, gangly, waistcoat-wearing Jack Travis (William Holstead), seated by an open fire and writing by candlelight.
Interrupted from his work by the sound of a woman’s alarmed shouting, Jack heads upstairs with a flickering lamp along shadowy stone corridors, and finds his teenaged daughter Bee (Grace Courtney, with a Louise Brooks bob) having a nightmare in her bed. Just as you catch yourself trying to work out what century this is, there is a cut to the following morning, and Jack is using an electric juicer to make fruit drinks for their breakfast in a modern kitchen. Jack also uses some red pulp to fake a facial injury.
In other words, Jack is not so much in a Victorian horror as merely play-acting one in his gothic environs. Feted by the media as a “horror-preneur” who puts on immersive plays for audiences to experience, divorced Jack has moved into this Scottish castle – with the reluctant Bee in tow – looking for inspiration. Jack is inhabiting the castle’s spaces and acting and dressing the part of its former residents, in the hope of channeling their all-too-real tragedy – and the haunted history built into the castle’s very walls – into his next work. At the same time, Glaswegian Jenny (Helen Mackay) and her husband Callum (James Rottger) are staying next door, cleaning up the bungalow of Jenny’s great grandmother so that they can sell it on – although Jenny is also hoping to put to rest a part of her family history buried in the neighbouring grounds. There are also ghostly presences and demonic spirits in the castle, ready to collaborate in Jack’s restaging of their cursed story.
Some way into The Playhouse, Bee is shown browsing the opening of Jack’s latest script (entitled Night & Dark), which describes in every detail the film’s opening scene, right down to the written comment: “makes us think – what century is this?” It is an unsettling moment – for in this setting, on the littoral border between land and sea, there is a fluidity to the boundary not only between reality and its artistic representation, but also between the human and spirit worlds (as spectres from the past impress themselves upon the present). Jack wants the castle to become his next performance space – but it is impossible to be sure whether Jack’s increasingly unhinged behaviour should be ascribed to his own play-acting, a pathological compulsion or paranormal possession. Everything he does might equally be a rehearsal of the script that he is writing – Jack regularly tests out lines in front of a mirror before committing them to paper – or a reenactment of a part prescribed (and pre-scripted) by supernatural powers. In this ambiguity reside the uncanny and the irrational.
Playhouse really is a gothic horror, with its decaying pad, its brooding patriarch, its unnerving family portrait, its buried secrets, its dark hints of incest, its devilish defenestrations and its sinister revenants – but it is also a dramatisation of the creative process itself, as we see a writer rummaging through the shadowiest parts of himself to conjure a macabre coup de théâtre. No surprise, then, that Jack should share his forename with the antihero of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – horror’s other bad father who, in struggling with his writing, opens himself up to the pernicious genius loci. It is an impressive first feature – creepy and confounding, with a strong sense of place (and clash of class). The film’s refusal to resolve its equivocations into anything resembling clarity brings with it a diabolical lack of closure, ensuring that you will remain stuck in its hallways long after the final credits have rolled, as you try to find your way out, or reconstruct an entire, elaborate scenario from a single surviving page.
This review was originally published during FrightFest 2020.