Producers: Fionn Watts and Toby Watts Director: Fionn Watts and Toby Watts Screenplay: Toby Watts Cast: William J. Holstead, Grace Courtney, Helen Mackay, James Rottger, Rebecca Calienda, Eilidh McLaughlin, Mathilde Darmady and Julie Higginson Distributor: Devilworks
A Gothic ghost story with oodles of atmosphere but too little tension and suspense, this first film from the fraternal team of Fionn and Toby Watts benefits most from being made on location at Freswick Castle in County Caithness, the extreme northeast of Scotland, a stark stone structure built over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on the site of a twelfth-century Viking settlement. As shot by cinematographer Andy Toovey in dark, desaturated colors, the place (owned by the brothers’ father Murray, a writer himself who has turned the castle into a kind of artists’ colony as well as a hotel of sorts, and Fionn and Toby spent their childhood there, so they know its nooks and crannies) radiates gloom and menace, and practically invites a tale of spirits and hidden secrets. “Playhouse” provides one, but unfortunately it’s clumsily contrived and executed.
William J. Holstead plays Jack Travis, the owner of the castle in the film. Not unlike Murray, he’s a successful London playwright, but his hopes for the place are rather different. He plans to turn it into a living playhouse, where paying guests can come to be immersed in a spooky story of his devising but based on the tales told about those who used to live—and die—there. His daughter Bee (Grace Courtney), who lives with him after the divorce that’s split the family up, is a surly teen, not at all happy with being stuck at such a remote locale. She’s having nightmares, too.
Bee (short for Bethel, which, if you know your demonology, is a king of hell) does, however, reach out to her school classmates, joining them in a séance-like ritual designed to draw out the castle’s resident spirits. Meanwhile neighbors Jenny and Callum (Helen Mackay and Jack Rottger), who are in hand to clear out her deceased great-grandmother’s house, are drawn into the Travis’ family dynamic, with Jenny in particular harboring suspicions of the castle’s dark secrets.
Meanwhile Jack, in writing his play, is collecting as much information as he can on the place’s past, and begins to become more than a little unhinged—or is he just absorbed in the creative process? In any event, like Jack Torrance in “The Shining,” he begins talking to the castle’s dearly departed, especially the late master’s young son Alastair, who’s reputed to have mysteriously disappeared. Do dead bodies lie buried behind those stone walls?
“Playhouse” doles out bits and pieces of information as it proceeds, but never manages to construct a full explanation of what’s going on, and is in its latter stages dominated by the increasingly hyperbolic performance of Holstead, another way in which it resembles “The Shining,” though with much less impact even when it’s more explicit. The rest of the cast is rather pallid, with only Courtney’s glumness of much note.
Still, though it loses impetus over the long haul despite a brief running-time (with Jim Page’s editing getting increasingly choppy), “Playhouse” maintains its creepy ambience, thanks to Toovey, production designer Lindsay Broomfield, and the score by Dan Baboulene (along with Rob Wingfield’s sound design). Though the movie winds up rather a mess in narrative terms, there’s no doubt that Freswick Castle casts a considerable spell, and that the Watts brothers employ it to some real visual effect.