★★★ out of ★★★★★
This moody, brooding gothic ghost tale makes up in atmosphere what it lacks in likable characters.
Directed by Fionn Watts and Toby Watts
Take one eccentric/borderline mad writer, place him with at least one loved one in a large remote location such as the Scottish castle in this U.K. feature, and add a heaping helping of the supernatural and you have — well, the basis for dozens of horror films. Playhouse has much more atmosphere than the usual such fare, though, and that is what most makes it worth a watch.
Brothers Fionn Watts and Toby Watts cowrote and codirected this tale of horror playwright Jack Travis (William Holstead), who moves himself and his disagreeable teenage daughter Bee (Grace Courtney) to the aforementioned middle-of-nowhere structure with the intention of turning the location into a terrifying immersive theater experience based on tragic lore about the place involving a sex-mad laird, a servant who he impregnated and who later died mysteriously, and an illegitimate son given the old “The Cask of Amontillado” treatment. Next door to the castle, teachers and romantic partners Jenny (Helen MacKay) and Callum (James Rottger) have taken up temporary residence in a cottage left to Jenny by a relative to clean it up for sale. The couple takes up a dinner invitation to the castle and proceedings get weird, along with Bee having an otherworldly experience when two frenemies from university visit.
The Watts Brothers build an eldritch mood fairly dripping with dread in Playhouse, and wisely don’t try to go overboard with CG effects. The castle and its interior is a wonderful setting for such a film, and they make the most of it. The unfolding of the story is done with the usual beats, though things get bogged down a bit because of largely unlikable characters. Jack is an arrogant jerk, Bee is curt to everyone, Callum is a lazy opportunist, and although Jenny may be the most sympathetic of the bunch, she has her manipulative moments, too. Though the characters may not be easy to cotton to, the cast does a fine job, with Holstead chewing scenery gleefully, making his Jack an easy antagonist to dislike.
If gothic ghost horror with heavy foreboding is to your liking, Playhouse delivers the goods. If you require at least one character for whom to truly root, you may find that aspect of the film wanting.
Playhouse, from Devilworks, is available on VOD from November 17.