By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Rebecca Calienda, Grace Courtney, Mathilde Darmady
Directed by Fionn Watts, Toby Watts
Written by Fionn Watts, Toby Watts
The Watts brothers’ debut feature, PLAYHOUSE makes the most of its moody northern U.K setting to spin a modern haunted castle tale worthy of Poe, misted over with the delicious ancestral menace of the Scottish Highlands.
Infamous playwright Jack Travis (William Holstead) has relocated to a Scottish castle to write his newest masterpiece: an immersive theater experience that uses his new abode as a backdrop to retell the haunted history of the area. The move puts a strain on his relationship with his morose daughter, Bee (Grace Courtney), but that’s nothing compared to the threat posed by the building itself, which exerts its spectral influence on Jack. When their neighbor, Samantha (Julie Higginson) takes an interest in Bee, the malignant force locked within the castle walls begins lashing out in terrifying ways.
PLAYHOUSE is entrancing from the jump, as writers/directors Toby and Fionn Watts wisely let the stunning seaside location set its tone. The film’s titular structure is set against churning silver waters and massive, cloud-riven skies, skillfully captured by cinematographer Andy Toovey for maximum dread and angst. The performances provide a welcome contrast to the oppressive atmosphere, with Eilidh McLaughlin and Mathilde Darmady in particular stealing their few scenes as two of Bee’s bitchy, witchy schoolmates. Courtney and Higginson do solid work stationed as they are at the film’s emotional center, but PLAYHOUSE’s spotlight ultimately belongs to Holstead, who can swing from an attractive camp snobbery to luscious cruelty in a span of seconds. He and Courtney play well against each other, and their closeness in age (remarked upon in the script) adds an uneasy blurring between parent and child that’s vaguely incestuous. PLAYHOUSE, however, hasn’t quite the stones to charge down that thematic alley, which is ultimately where things start to crumble.
The script is obviously indebted to Edgar Allan Poe, with its predilection for family secrets hidden behind castle walls, but it doesn’t quite resolve in a way that satisfies. In PLAYHOUSE, like so many of the best haunted house stories, the mystery is more interesting than the conclusion, and though it leaves the audience with nagging questions and the memory of some fairly uninspired visual effects, its forceful performances and penetrating atmosphere linger in the mind far longer than its less successful elements.