{Movie Review} Playhouse: An Uneven Gothic Tale

I’ll admit that I’ve been thrilled to see a resurgence of Gothic stories on the big and small screens. Within the last year, we’ve been treated to adaptations of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. Prior to that, we had Mike Flanagan’s take on The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix. Hulu even released  Shirley, a film about Shirley Jackson’s life, based on the novel by Susan Scarf. Meanwhile, Universal Studios plans to reboot several of their classic monsters, spinning new tales about some of Gothic literature’s most famous creatures. During this Gothic revival comes Playhouse, the directorial debut of Fionn and Toby Watts.

Set in a Scottish castle, the film leans into the Gothic aesthetic and mood. Wind blows through tall grass. Castle towers loom beneath inky skies. The story summons ghosts of the past that haunt the present through a curse. Playhouse fails to conjure many frights, however, and that’s its main flaw. Too many scares fall flat, even though the performances and cinematography are generally enjoyable.

Playhouse centers around horror writer Jack Travis (William Holstead), who moves to the castle with his daughter, Bee (Grace Courtney). The dynamic between the two works so well throughout the first half of the film. Their banter is well-scripted. Bee, sporting an Uma Thurman-like black bob, pokes fun at her father. It’s easy to do, since he writes by candlelight as if living in the 19th Century. He spends hours standing in front of a mirror, reciting lines from his latest play.

Courtesy of Far North Films

His newest work is based on a curse that haunts the castle. The baron impregnated a maid, who ended up dead, and the baron’s son apparently made a deal with the devil. Like most Gothic tales, the past roars back in a big way. The curse manifests itself. A spirit possesses Bee, while Jack is nearly driven to madness.

Meanwhile, one of the film’s other main characters, Jenny (Helen Mackay), is a relative of the cursed family. She wants Jack to halt his work before he summons something sinister. All of the performances, especially Mackay and Courtney’s, are entertaining. The women especially carry the film. Holstead is outlandish in the role. Sometimes it works, but other times it doesn’t. It’s at times hard to tell if he’s trying to be funny or serious, especially in the later half of the film.

Cinematographer Andy Toovey deserves credit for his work. Shots of the centuries-old castle and gloomy sky go a long way in establishing the tone and mood. Even the estate’s shadowy hallways and massive rooms establish a foreboding tone. I also love some of the tropes of the genre that the film uses, including a scene where Bee’s friends recount by candlelight the castle’s morbid history. Further, the film’s first act has fun making light of Gothic tropes, especially through Jack’s character. He’s such an over-the-top writer that it’s hard not to laugh at his routine and antics.

The film’s last act falters, though. Playhouse works best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s self-aware of Gothic tropes. The last act, once the possession ramps up, tries too hard to be sinister and scary. It never quite works. I kept wondering if the film would have been more effective with a larger budget to enhance some of the effects, and while I thoroughly enjoyed about the first half of the film,  I felt bored by the last 30 minutes or so. The tone felt too unbalanced, and even if the past resurfaces in a menacing way, the stakes never feel that high.

Overall, Playhouse strikes just the right balance in the first half of the film. There are a few laughs that come with an awareness of Gothic literature and film. The setting and cinematography also work quite well. The second half muddles through, though. That said, I look forward to seeing what the Watts brothers do next. Playhouse had some really enjoyable moments, and the film debuted at London’s FrightFest earlier this year, thus raising the profile of the brothers. Playhouse is a decent, though uneven debut.

Playhouse releases today on VOD

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