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This is one of those horror films shot on a digital video camera that
seems to have had a $900 budget. The director, Hunter F. Roberts, was
also the writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, driver and
shoeshine-boy. For any member of the cast or crew, you can imagine them
just doing the film for screen credit, deferred payment, or a contract
for Roberts' firstborn, secondborn, Friday evenings with his wife, etc.
With films of this caliber, you often can't expect much, and
occasionally Playhouse delivers just that--it has more than its share
of problems that aren't excusable to the lack of funds. However, just
as often, Playhouse is good and occasionally even impressive. The
performances are remarkably good for this type of film, the script is
often funny and clever at least on a "micro" level, and despite an
overall technical clunkiness, Roberts is surprisingly skilled at
The story overall is a bit of a mess. It concerns a theater troupe in
Pittsburgh, or more specifically, strange phenomena originating in the
theater in which they are residents. Near the beginning of the film,
the theater director, played by Joshua Haze, is murdered. Soon after,
other bodies start turning up. A thread holding the film together is
the investigation of the murders, headed up by Detective Eustas Black
(Nikitas Menotiades). The janitor, Connelly (Ross Donaldson), keeps
suspiciously showing up around the murder scenes with a suspicious
"Scottish" accent, fluctuating make-up and occasionally even a Freddy
Krueger outfit, and from the beginning of the film, we are also made
aware of some ghost/zombie-like beings in the theater. Later, a kind of
Bigfoot creature shows up, there is some incoherent possession stuff,
some funny Necronomicon-like stuff, there might be a kind of serial
killing going on, and so on.
On the commentary track even Roberts says he's not sure what the film
is about. The overall structure seems more like a random collection of
somewhat generic horror scenes. That doesn't exactly help create any
momentum or suspense. It almost seems as if Roberts wrote scenes as
they went along, and maybe he kept changing what he wanted the gist of
the film to be.
Given that, it's surprising that when we look at individual scenes,
Roberts' scriptwriting is often spot-on, despite the flirtation with
clichés. Most of the scenes play more like a horror spoof. The dialogue
is often very funny and postmodern in its playing with and twisting of
the conventions of communication, language and the dramatic fourth
The scenes featuring Detective Black are usually excellent, helped by
Menotiades' skill as an actor. These often have a slight "Twin Peaks"
(1990) flavor, with Detective Black as a more buffoonish version of FBI
Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). The scenes featuring
Janitor Connelly (when he's not with Black) are a close second. If
Roberts would have centered the film more on these two characters (plus
the secondary police/detective characters, who were also well-developed
and funny), and taken greater care with the overall structure and flow
of the story, Playhouse would have easily been an 8 or better.
On the other hand, there would have still been technical and other
artistic hurdles to surmount. The biggest flaw on this end, and one not
really excusable to a lack of budget, is the near-absence of sets
and/or interesting locations. Roberts knows well how to shoot coverage
and vary his wide shots and close-ups, but there needs to be a decent
backdrop for the action. The bulk of the film appears to have been shot
inside a theater (or something comparable), where back rooms served as
the interiors. The stage remains empty, and the back rooms weren't
properly dressed/decorated. There are far too many scenes featuring
actors against plain black backgrounds, plain or mostly white
backgrounds, cheap looking wood paneling, and so on. These tend to
appear too close to the camera as well.
What makes it more of a pity is that there are some transition shots of
Pittsburgh-area exteriors, some very wide, and these look beautiful (as
does one field location that appears later in the film). If Roberts
couldn't find anyone to even do amateur production design, he should
have set much more of the film outside.
Other technical problems include the sound, which tends to have an
"inside an empty bathroom" timbre (although the sound isn't horrible,
but it could easily be improved), and the lighting, which often
struggles to find a balance. There's also the disappointing absence of
gratuitous nudity, but I can't really subtract a point for that.
On the third hand, there are a number of technical elements that are
excellent. The special make-up/gore effects are fabulous. I don't know
how they managed such professional-looking work at this budget level
(maybe they recruited credit-hungry students from Tom Savini's school
near Pittsburgh?). Although Playhouse isn't the goriest film around,
gorehounds should be more than happy.
Just as impressive is Roberts' editing. He has a great sense of timing,
and quite a few scenes are made hilarious by the reaction shots that he
cuts in. The music is also good.
If you're not used to "no-budget" horror, you may be quite put off by
Playhouse. It's probably better to watch a couple crappy no-budget
flicks first--try something like The Seekers (2003) or Insaniac (2002).
The no-budget "style" takes some getting used to--obviously you can't
expect the technical finesse of a 100 million dollar film, but it's
difficult to adjust yourself at first. If you're used to no-budget
horror, Playhouse is worth checking out for its positive aspects. Just
don't expect a masterpiece.
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