Playhouse Movie Review
Written by Rachel Knightley
Released by Far North Film
Written and directed by Fionn Watts & Toby Watts
2020, 87 minutes, Not Yet Rated
Frightfest World Premiere on 29th August 2020
Grace Courtney as Bee Travis
Julie Higginson as Samantha
James Rottger as Callum Andrews
Jim Page as Football Commentator
Premiering at Frightfest, Watts Brothers Fionn and Toby’s atmospheric supernatural thriller achieves a world of suspense and chilly beauty. A secluded castle on the edge of the sea is bought by a successful author and playwright, Jack (William Holstead), who moves in with his teenage daughter Bee (Grace Courtney) to develop a site-specific play about a sinister episode in the castle’s past, where a previous lord of the manor murdered his maid. As Jack stays home alone indulging in his role as haunted genius (increasingly literally), Bee is left to adjust to a new school and new neighbours, and to loneliness and boredom which lead her to be as haunted as the story he’d so wanted her interest in. But Bee is more of a natural in this world than either of them expected. While Jack and wannabe writer neighbour Cullum (James Rottger) postulate on writing and psychology they don’t notice how haunted she is by what’s happening now, or how haunted in a less supernatural sense Cullum’s partner Jenny (Helen Mackay) really is, though she is closer to the story Jack wants to claim as his own than they realise.
Well cast and packing a visual punch with a powerful and involving set-up, suspense stays strong thanks to scenic prowess. It’s achieved in spite of a tricky job carrying dialogue that feels increasingly “written”. Bee’s initial conversation with Jenny when they become neighbours is entirely about the lead male character, who being Bee’s father and whose career she wants to distance herself from, feels awkward and improbable. It’s that conversation that leads to Jenny muttering Jack’s name at home in front of Callum who, realising Jack is famous, conveniently forms the wish to be a writer. Jenny doesn’t want him joining her for dinner with Jack, for motives that may or may not be to do with her family connection to the house or a more corporeal curiosity, but all this leads to a dinner of convenient revelations – Bee is named after a demon, Jenny is investigating her great-grandmother’s life in the castle – with all information coming through talking, rather than earned by interaction. Jenny’s family history is talked about too much to really play its part in a reveal; literal and non-literal hauntings blend not entirely clearly, one of them being Jack’s ex-wife (Rebecca Calienda) and Bee’s mother who is still alive.
From a visual point of view, though, it’s easy to forgive a lot. Mirrors, spiral staircases, press cuttings boards and movement in the corner of our eye makes for atmospheric and satisfying haunting, as do the voices of unfinished powerplays continuing their ghostly way down the years within the house, waiting in the walls. An underused highlight is Bee’s sleepover where she shows insight the psychology of the other girls (an excellent supporting cast in Eildh McLaughlin and Mathilde Darmady). Although it quickly moves to horror’s comfort blanket of sexual vocabulary the cast still mangage to convey something more specific and truthful about the real subject matter of that interactions: female power relationships. But then Bee takes up her friends’ dare to touch the walls, thanks to a local legend the other girls know and the house’s past starts coming back to life through its receptive new audience.
There’s much to relish in Playhouse. Even if the ratio of suspense-to-reveal means a certain amount of circling gets self-conscious and the structure feels repetitive, it doesn’t do a major disservice to some very decent scares and you’ll still be thrilled to suspend your disbelief.
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