“Playhouse” is a stylish British ghost story with a great, gloomy Scottish setting, and little else to recommend it.
It’s not frightening, rarely suspenseful and never comes close to the harrowing experience audiences have come to expect from horror movies these days. It’s all squandered opportunities and dull substitutions for our best guesses as to where it will go next.
But the set up is solid gold. A grumpy teen (Grace Courtney) and her Dad (William Holstead) have relocated from London to this seaside Scottish “castle.” It’s one of those homely manor houses that used to be a castle, victim of a drab Dickensian makeover or two over the decades.
But Dad, Jack Travis, has big plans for it. He’s the “horropreneur” of The West End, a successful playwright who has a mind to turn this place into an immersive theatrical experience, “the living play,” he calls it. He’s so deep into the idea that he’s talking to the dead son of the late laird of the manor.
“We’ll show them, won’t we, Alastair?”
Daughter Bee sees all the news-clippings on Dad’s bulletin board, even if she doesn’t overhear him improvising dialogue around the place’s unfortunate history. People have died, an aristocratic family left secrets and perhaps unfortunate members buried in the wall.
Bee, just finishing school, invites classmates over for a spooky evening of drinks, candles and wild tales of the place. They egg each other on until they’ve laid hands upon “the wall,” an exposed part of the older incarnation of the “castle,” where you can still “hear Alastair…the laird’s son” screaming if you touch it.
The girls might not have played this “game” had they known “Bee” is short for “Beleth,” one of the “Kings” (or queens) of Hell.
Can I mention what an utter bust this scene is, dramatically?
Jenny (Helen Mackay) is a curious neighbor who grew up down the lane. She and husband Callum (James Rottger) may be here to tidy up granny’s old place to sell it. But the history of “the castle” tugs at her, and pretty soon they’re having a tetchy dinner with the Travis’s.
What are the secrets this spooky place will draw out of our principals? And what secrets does the castle have for those who dare to dwell there as they hunt for actors and financing for a theatrical theme-park style spooktactular?
Holstead, of “The Burying Party,” has precious little to play here. Jack has to be off his rocker to think he’ll lure people to the middle of nowhere to experience his “living play.” He hints that he expects folks to want to move there just to be a part of this thing. Holstead doesn’t give us much that says “madness.”
Courtney’s “Bee” is all sullen and bangs, and the movie loses track of her for most of the second half. So no help there.
And Mackay and Rottger, playing a couple who aren’t on the same page, with ties to the spooky house that aren’t mysterious or shocking, don’t add much to the proceedings. Something draws Callum to Jack, but there’s no hint of the house putting him under its spell, just as there’s too little of that where Jack is concerned as well.
So what we’re left with is a fumbling, groping and almost wholly-unsatisfying thriller set in a towering old house near the water’s edge, where the wind howls and there’s a shock, fright or laugh behind every tree.
Except that it being Scotland, there’re no bleeding trees.
MPA Rating: unrated, horror imagery, profanity
Cast: William Holstead, Grace Courtney, Helen Mackay, James Rottger
Credits: Written and directed by Fionn Watts and Toby Watts. A Devilworks release.
Running time: 1:26