Playhouse (2020)

A gothic chiller set in a remote Scottish castle – sounds like fun! With Playhouse, debut film by brothers Fionn and Toby Watts have succeeded in creating an understated and entertaining yarn with a wry sense of humour.

Grace Courtney as Bee Travis in Playhouse

Famed horror novelist Jack Travis (William Holstead) has recently bought an imposing Scottish castle perched on a desolate coastline and has moved with his reluctant teenage daughter Bee (a sullen Grace Courtney). Separated from his wife, Jack has ambitions to create an immersive theatrical experience in the castle, using his fame to draw tourists from miles around. They attract the curiosity of their nearby neighbours, young couple Jenny (Helen Mackay) and Callum (James Rotgger), a pair of teachers who live in a cottage overlooking the castle that Jenny has inherited from her grandmother.

It’s a lonely, windswept place and Bee resents being dragged from her previous life to live there. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the castle holds a sinister secret, a tale involving the murder of a maid pushed down a spiral staircase, and a man being entombed alive behind a wall (echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ here). It’s this tale that Travis wants to exploit for his tourist ‘experience’, but the ghosts of the past come to terrorise them all.

Freswick Castle near Wick, the setting for Playhouse

Playhouse uses the impressive location to the full. Filmed widescreen in Caithness in the remote north-east of Scotland, the bleak coastal location and towering grey castle provide an atmospheric location, with plenty of creepy interiors in the old building. In real life the building handily belongs to the Watts brothers’ father, TV scriptwriter Murray Watts, and the film is entirely shot in the castle itself and the neighbouring cottage, the landscape lending a desolate tone. It’s all cold stone corridors, open fires, spooky family portraits, tight spiral staircases and narrow windows, lit carefully to cast shadows often by candlelight.

A typically beautiful shot in Playhouse – dinner by candlelight
The castle’s architecture is used to atmospheric effect – Grace Courtney as Bee Travis in Playhouse

This could amount to yet another creaky old haunted house movie, but instead Playhouse has some chilling moments relying on atmosphere and a gradual build-up (albeit perhaps a little too slow at the start), rather than relentless horror or jump scares (although there are one or two). Glimpses of spectral apparitions are mostly fleeting and the CGI is used sparingly and effectively.

The sound design is equally impressive, the constant wind and strange creaks and bangs mix with a foreboding cello soundtrack.

It gains much of its atmosphere by its realism. It benefits from being filmed on location, of course, but the characters are believable. Callum and Jenny both give naturalistic performances and dialogue, and it’s a bonus that Helen Mackay who plays Jenny comes from the area and has an authentic accent.

Helen Mackay and James Rottger as Jenny and Callum Andrews in Playhouse

Courtney as Bee is impressively sullen and remote, inwardly troubled with the occasional tactless and cruel riposte to her father or friends. Holstead as Jack Travis is perhaps a little less believable; Holstead seems intent on channelling his inner Richard E Grant and is perhaps a little too eccentric from the start. I’d have preferred a more gradual build-up, but he channels terror very effectively in the movie’s final act. Initially in full-on ‘creative’ mood, reciting the lines of his play to himself in the mirror, his performance becomes increasingly unhinged where it becomes uncertain if he’s inhabiting his inner thespian or if his ravings are more diabolically inspired.

William Holstead as Jack Travis in Playhouse
William Holstead as Jack Travis in Playhouse

All four of the main characters seem to want a new start but are nevertheless adrift. Jack Travis has his immersive experience project, but it seems more to make a new start after a messy break-up. Jenny is supposedly back home clear out her grandmother’s cottage, but she doesn’t seem in too much of a hurry. Callum, disillusioned with teaching has his own writing ambitions. And Bee just seems to want to be anywhere else than the castle.

This aimlessness and ennui lead them to bicker and snipe at one another with abandon. The dialogue is often wryly amusing as they irritate one another.

I’m not sure the tale entirely makes sense or even fully resolves, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a fun and refreshing take on the haunted house drama, with an unsettling atmosphere and great locations. Perhaps for their next movie the Watt brothers will stray further from home; it should be an interesting journey.

Playhouse got its world premiere at Arrow FrightFest on 29th August 2020.

Grace Courtney as Bee Travis in Playhouse – note the devilish grafitti in the background

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