A Highland castle setting is just as important a feature as the characters in this debut feature from the Watts brothers, about a writer taking advantage of his new home’s history.
Playhouse is a film about a cursed castle in the Scottish Highlands: brilliant! Scotland is full of both castles and ghost stories, but I don’t recall seeing this combination on film before.
Jack Travis (William Holstead) and his daughter Bee (Grace Courtney) are starting a new life: Jack has bought a fabulous old castle in the back of beyond and plans that it should be the setting of an immersive play he is working on. Nobody warned him that the place has an unpleasant history, but it wouldn’t have put him off if they had. The newcomers get to know their new home, schoolmates, and neighbors, and agendas clash, bringing the castle’s dark past to life.
The location – castle and its surroundings alike – is key to this film and its success. Apparently, Playhouse is the first film made entirely in the Scottish county of Caithness; and the first one shot at all there since 1947. The setting gives the story the wild lonely atmosphere that clearly suits this playwright and fits the story beautifully too. I can understand why a writer who enjoys scandalizing his audience was drawn to Freswick Castle: it has rambling corridors, dangerous towers, fabulous fireplaces; or at least this is how it is presented in the film. The moody atmosphere works well, and I can see it being both a set and a home, from Jack Travis’ point of view (there’s a great conversation between him and Bee early on about the dilemma of whether to “do up” the property).
The father and daughter pair also work well: Holstead and Courtney are well cast, with believable family chemistry. Actually, all the characters are well written; though I have to say I feel there should have been more. Perhaps as well as Bee’s two classmates, we could have encountered a school bus full; or as well as the two neighbors, a visit to the local church, pub, or convenience store could have given us more. I’ve just recently watched The Woman in Black, and it’s precisely these scenes full of extras which give the key people and location context (and can give a film the appearance of a higher budget than it has).
Playhouse was written and directed by brothers Fionn and Toby Watts, their first feature after a couple of shorts. The story as a whole is very engaging, with Edgar Allen Poe-style melodrama, coincidences that might not be, and a dramatic ending. There are a couple of aspects of the plot which could have been a little less confusing if explored further, but the essential simplicity of the story enhanced by well-drawn characters is probably the ideal recipe for the pair’s debut.
The Watts brothers have given a fine effort as new directors too: the progression of the characters, the development of the mood, the gradual introduction of the supernatural… more of the same, please, gents! Even the special effects and the background score are nicely done. The main issue that lets the film down is the patchy quality of the acting; but fingers crossed, the pair will be able to command a better cast in the near future. Playhouse has its world premiere at FrightFest, and a reputation will surely follow.
This review was filed from FrightFest 2020. You can check our full coverage of the festival by clicking these words.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.