Playhouse (2020) Review

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Playhouse (2020) Review

Horrorific content by TE Simmons on May 08th, 2021 | Movie Review | Possession, Cursed, Supernatural, Dysfunctional Family, Folk Horror

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It’s about the gothic horror of the horror industry.

Playhouse was co-written and co-directed by siblings Fionn Watts and Toby Watts, their first feature-length film.  It stars the relatively unknown William Holstead as Jack Travis and Grace Courtney as his daughter.

Is Jack Travis a writer – or a father? Which will he choose?

Playhouse Review

Jack faces a quandary: What will he be – a decent father or a successful writer? He doesn’t look like a father. Nor does he act like one, ignoring his daughter Beleth’s screams, as he scribbles away in the opening scene. Perhaps he’s been miscast, but soon he’ll need to choose between treating Beleth as his daughter and his latest play for the London stage like an offspring.

Like Jack Torrance in The Shining, Jack Travis has holed in a remote haunted castle to work on his next play. His play’s construction occupies the film’s central thread. This Jack doesn’t simply type “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over. Jack Travis pens something more sinister.

The close-knit cast, dialogue-driven plot, and spare interior shots mimic that of a stage production. This film feels like a play. There are even nods to costume selection and make-up.

As Jack writes and rewrites, it is revealed that one of his methods involves voicing the lines for his characters, acting them out. Seeing how they sound. Trying them out. This gives Jack (and the actor playing him) a chance to perform for us, the audience, as he projects his soliloquys.

Any actor’s mode in stagecraft – and any playwright’s – is active. The audience’s role is mostly passive, but an audience also participates. Every audience has a part, too. The audience has its own agency, though we seldom acknowledge it. Like the end of Peter Pan (where, to resuscitate Tinkerbell, all must proclaim in unison, “I do believe in fairies!”) the audience in Playhouse, too, has a part. But the role of this audience is more subtle; and much more warped.

The point is emphasized by the format of Jack’s work-in-progress – it’s to be an immersive experience in which the audience will occupy the actual castle where Jack and Beleth live.

The acting in Playhouse is patchy. The dialogue feels unfinished.  It’s supposed to.

The film – like Jack’s script – is a work-in-progress. Jack is creating a stage play (where actors must exaggerate for ticket-holders in the back row). There is a too-much-ness in some of the characters’ lines. The plot’s fulcrum is Beleth, perhaps the only “real” character in the play. Her lines are understated and flat; real.  

It’s a play within a play. “Just one more rewrite,” Jack seems to beg of us, ignoring Beleth’s disappearance. Toward the end of Act III, Jack enters into a conversation with a creature who is either his demonized daughter or the personified tug of the audience. It brags that it has finished his play for him, then it teases:

Beleth-Thing:              No one will come, you know … to the living play.

Jack:                            Why do you say that?

Beleth-Thing:              We need to start again, so people will be scared for real.

Jack:                            Why can’t you come back as you were? We’ll do it together.

The reply from the Beleth-Thing is that of a monster, not a daughter. It chills:

Beleth-Thing:              (growling) We are doing this together.

Worth Watching?

No, not for gore-hounds. Nor for those who would cheer on an artist’s destruction, if it furthered the ends of their own entertainment. Any audience for this playhouse must be hand-picked. Seating is limited.

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