Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This is film full of red herrings and sly questions." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

It has been some eight decades since a film was shot in Caithness. Looking at the landscape as captured by brothers Fionn and Toby Watts, it's hard to understand why. The lowering skies, the wind rushing through the wild grass and the dark waves crashing against mighty granite cliffs have endless expressive potential, even before one takes in the looming form of Freswick Castle, built on the site of a bloody Viking siege. This is where the brothers spent their childhood with their writer father, and it's where their deceptively complex, multi-layered d├ębut film is set.

We begin with Jack (William Holstead), himself a writer, who has recently moved into the castle with his daughter Bee (the impressive Grace Courtney). Stuck with the wrong parent in the aftermath of divorce, Bee is resentful at being taken away from her friends and her familiar world. Jack seems to resent the interruption of her presence; perhaps he always has. Whilst she drifts around making token efforts to engage with the locals and attempting to summon up the spirits that supposedly haunt the castle for a dare, he becomes increasingly absorbed by his work. A simple play soon becomes an immersive theatrical experience, set in the castle itself. As he acts out different parts, he seems to be losing his sense of self. In their different ways, Jack and Bee are both being consumed by the castle.

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Or are they? This is film full of red herrings and sly questions. It's hugely ambitious and, unsurprisingly, the inexperience of its writer/director team soon begins to tell. Viewers are obliged to pick up on passing details, whether in a costume change or a page from Jack's script, when it's all too easy to become distracted by Holstead's eccentric performance. In the end, even the Watts themselves are unable to tie the loose ends together. Whilst unresolved mystery is part of the oeuvre of the Gothic, too much just results in a narrative muddle. This, ultimately, dooms the film, but not before they've succeeded in showing off their skills.

Although there is arguably good reason for Holstead to approach his role as he does, it unbalances the film, and Courtney's absence for much of the second half only enhances this problem. There's good support from Helen Mackay and James Rottger as neighbours Jenny and Callum, up from Glasgow to renovate and sell the home of the former's great grandmother, but too much of what they do is focused on exposition when there would be ample opportunity for us to pick up on the fictional history of the place in other ways. The Watts also defer too often from revealing the local legend in full until it threatens to develop comedy value. These are things that writers learn from experience, however, so it seems reasonable to expect that their future scripts will be tighter and more coherent.

Playhouse is strong on atmosphere, with an instinctive understanding of the possibilities offered by the location. For all its difficulties, it's a bold first feature, and its stronger moments will stay with you.

Reviewed on: 30 Aug 2020
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In a remote Scottish castle, an irreverent writer faces terrifying consequences when his daughter falls prey to an evil curse lurking within the walls.

Director: Fionn Watts, Toby Watts

Writer: Fionn Watts, Toby Watts

Starring: James Rottger, Julie Higginson, Helen Mackay, Rebecca Callenda, Jim Page

Year: 2020

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: UK


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