When you’re a successful horror writer, what do you do? That’s right, you buy yourself a grey, imposing castle on a far-flung part of the Scottish coastline and set to work on your next masterpiece. Well, at least that’s what Jack Travis (William Holstead) has done. The location not only keeps Jack’s creative juices flowing, he also plans to transform the place into an interactive terror experience.
Luckily (or, as it soon becomes apparent, unluckily). the place comes ready-made with a fright-filled past, courtesy of a series of ghastly goings-on centred around a former Laird who was rather too friendly with one particular member of his staff. Jack aims to use the house’s horrible history as the basis for a living play within its walls, much to the chagrin of his surly teenage daughter Bee (Grace Courtney).
As you’ve probably guessed, there’s something else within the castle’s walls other than the inspiration for a scare attraction, putting Bee in danger and making Jack inhabit his newly-discovered characters in a way that would have even the most lost in fiction of scribes questioning his grip on reality. What of neighbours Jenny and James (Helen Mackay and James Rottger)? Do they know more than they’re letting on about the supposed curse of the castle?
Brothers Fionn and Toby Watts co-wrote Playhouse, they also co-directed and their Far North Films company also produced it. It’s unmistakably a film of the Far North, its wild and windswept shores a fitting place to set a spare, spooky story. Even if you haven’t travelled there, it’s the kind of place you’ll feel a familiarity with through TV and movies. This is also the case with regards to Playhouse’s plot but the comfortingly signposted haunted house tropes are carried off with some style.
With its small cast, there’s little chance of the spirit world carving a bloody swathe through them early on but that isn’t what Playhouse is about. It’s as concerned with building characters as well as dread and time is taken for us to get to know the four principals. It also plays around with the idea of who the lead is, with three of those roles pushed front and centre as the tale takes its various turns.
Writers going slightly mad in isolated locations is the cornerstone of many a supernaturally seasoned script and this is no exception. Holstead looks like he’s having plenty of fun as he’s given licence to chew the scenery in glorious fashion. He runs the gamut from almost normal to batshit crazy, often several times within the same scene. Another well-known writer, also going by the name of Jack, in a different spectre-saturated structure across the pond might think “You know what? Maybe I’m downplaying this crazy lark a bit too much”.
My facetiousness aside, it’s a required contrast to the dour, serious Bee, the dour, er, serious Janet and the slightly less dour, slightly less serious but still essentially dour and serious James. However, when you’re dealing with an evil force, I would suggest that dour and serious is generally the way to go. In this subgenre, clowning around usually gets you possessed or killed, or possessed then killed.
Wisely, the effects are kept to the bare minimum and tension is created via subtly skin-crawling sound design or shooting in tight, claustrophobic spaces where something could be lurking in the dark edges of the frame or tantalisingly out of shot. The digital effects may not exactly blow you away but they work on their own terms and they’re only deployed when absolutely necessary. For the most part, it’s what you don’t see which scares you more.
Playhouse takes its limited resources and makes a virtue of them, concentrating on what it can achieve well while steering away from overly elaborate set-pieces the budget could never carry off. The locations add their naturally eerie presence, the characters are agreeably flawed and, although the screenplay treads a recognisable path, there are a couple of not entirely expected detours.
It’s a slight tale which may not fully sustain itself over the 86 minutes and it may not offer much that’s radically different in terms of haunted house horror but it’s made with a great deal of care, affection and an understanding of the genre. It chooses atmosphere over cheap jump scares which earns it a ton of credit in my book. It’s a good looking, artfully lit movie which showcases the talent on both sides of the camera and the decidedly non-cataclysmic resolution actually makes for a more satisfying, emotional conclusion rather than an effects-filled blowout.
You won’t come out of this one feeling you’ve seen a new direction in the genre but this effort from the Watts brothers shows that lack of funds doesn’t mean a lack of quality in the finished product. Playhouse doesn’t employ the same brash scream-a-second shock machine tactics as an Insidious or Conjuring but its quieter moments of unease still hit the spot and it’s worth checking out this Brit take on a fraction of the budget.