Playhouse (2020)

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Playhouse is quick to declare exactly what kind of film it is likely to be. For this feature debut from writing/directing brothers Fionn and Toby Watts opens with establishing shots of dark kelp-filled waters and, overlooking them, an isolated imposing castle and its outbuildings under grey stormy skies. We are clearly in the generic realms of high gothic – a suspicion that is confirmed by the sight of gaunt, gangly, waistcoat-wearing Jack Travis (William Holstead) seated inside besides an open fire, and writing by candlelight with a pen. Interrupted from his work by the sound of a woman’s alarmed shouting from upstairs, Jack heads up with a flickering lamp along the shadowy stone corridors, and finds his teenaged daughter Bee (Grace Courtney, with a Louise Brooks bob) having a nightmare in her bed. Just as you catch yourself trying to work out what century this is, there is a cut to the following morning, and Jack is using an electric juicer to make fruit drinks for their breakfast in a modern appointed kitchen. Jack also uses some red pulp to fake a facial injury.

In other words, Jack is not so much in a Victorian horror as merely play-acting one in his gothic environs. Feted by the media as a ‘horror-preneur’ who puts on immersive  ‘living plays’ for audiences to experience rather than merely to watch, divorced Jack has moved into this Scottish castle – with the reluctant Bee in tow – looking for inspiration. Jack is inhabiting the castle’s spaces and acting and dressing the part of its former residents, in the hope of channeling their all too real tragedy – and the haunted history built into the castle’s very walls – for his next work. At the same time, Glaswegian Jenny (Helen Mackay) and her husband Callum (James Rottger) are staying next door, cleaning up the bungalow of Jenny’s great grandmother so that they can sell it on – although Jenny is also hoping to put to rest a part of her family history buried in the neighbouring grounds. And there are also ghostly presences and demonic spirits in the castle, all too ready to collaborate in Jack’s restaging of their cursed story.

Some way into The Playhouse, Bee is shown browsing the opening of Jack’s latest script (entitled Night & Dark), which describes in every detail the film‘s opening scene, right down to the written comment, “makes us think – what century is this?” It is an unsettling moment – for in this setting, on the littoral border between land and sea, there is a fluidity to the boundary not only between reality and its artistic representation, but also between the human and the spirit worlds (as spectres from the past impress themselves upon the present). Jack wants the castle to become his next performance space – but here it is impossible to be sure whether Jack’s increasingly unhinged behaviour should be ascribed to his own performance and play-acting, or to a pathological compulsion, or to paranormal possession. For everything he does might equally be a rehearsal of the script that he is writing (Jack regularly tests out lines in front of a mirror before committing them to paper), or else a reenactment of a part prescribeδ (and prescripted) by supernatural powers. In this ambiguity reside the uncanny and the irrational.

Playhouse really is a gothic, with its decaying pad, its brooding patriarch, its unnerving family portrait, its buried secrets, its dark hints of incest, its devilish defenestrations and its sinister revenants – but it is also a dramatisation of the creative process itself, as we see a writer rummaging through the shadowiest parts of himself to conjure a macabre coup de théâtre. No surprise, then, that Jack should share his forename with the antihero of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Jack Torrance – horror’s other bad father who, in struggling with his writing, opens himself up to the pernicious genius loci. It is an impressive first feature – creepy and confounding, with a strong sense of place (and clash of class). The film’s refusal to resolve its equivocations into anything resembling clarity brings with it a diabolical lack of closure, ensuring that you will remain stuck in its hallways long after the final credits have rolled, as you try to find your way out, or to reconstruct an entire, elaborate scenario from a single surviving page.     

Summary: The Watts brothers’ castle gothic is all at once a grim family portrait and a domestic tragedy restaged.

Anton Bitel