Fionn and Toby Watts’ audacious supernatural thriller, Playhouse, takes viewers to the spacious landscape of Caithness, Scotland. Fleeting shots of the coastal scenery, rolling farmland, ancient structures, corroding fences, and low hills open the film. But it is inside Freswick Castle, replete with secluded spiral staircases, antique mirrors, and shadowy hallways, where the crux of all supernatural hokum takes place for a fractured father-daughter pair.
The remote castle is purchased by Jack (William Holstead), an insolent horror playwright, who moves in with his daughter Bee (Grace Courtney). The sole reasoning behind this extravagant purchase was so Jack could concoct an immersive play around a devastating incident from the castle’s unsavory past, when a former owner of the castle killed his maid. Jack stays home crafting the play while a frustrated Bee is fuming over her father’s decision to haul her away from her family and friends. In the aftermath of a messy divorce, Jack was given custody of Bee, and she feels like she’s been given to the wrong parent because of her father’s obsession with his work.
“…so Jack could concoct an immersive play around a devastating incident from the castle’s unsavory past…”
Desperate to make new friends, Bee invites a few girls from her school for a sleepover at the castle. During the sleepover, a game of truth or dare goes awry, as Bee is tasked to touch the infamous castle wall that’s been rumored to house an ancient malevolent force. As a result, Bee slowly becomes consumed by an unforeseen evil. However, Jack’s dedication to writing his play about the evil that once plagued the mind of the murderous owner means he is unaware of his daughter’s deteriorating condition.
Jack’s purchase of the castle garners scrutiny from neighbors Jenny (Helen Mackay) and Cullum (James Rottger), who are interested in what Jack plans to do with the castle. A series of stilted admissions vivifies friction between the characters in a distractingly staged dinner scene between Jack, Bee, and the neighbors. Bee is resentful that she was named after a demon and believes that her reasonably young father never wanted her. An inebriated Cullum goes on a rambling speech that piques Jenny. At the same time, Jenny scorns Jack’s decision to buy a castle to serve his work and not his daughter (an annoyed Jenny makes a stagy statement at the dinner table aimed directly at Jack: “We know ourselves from the decisions we make.”)
While the dialogue and performances can be overly theatrical, the Watts Brothers unearth the bulk of the film’s dread from the breathtakingly serpentine, foreboding scenery. The cramped spaces, candlelit rooms, and spiral staircases are cleverly used to enliven the fugacious moments of supernatural horror that may or may not be real. The scenery is only magnified by Andy Toovey’s sublime cinematography with eerie close-ups and unwavering wide shots perfectly encompassing the immensity of the castle and the characters’ diminutiveness.
"…a vivid critique of the creative process..."