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Horror movie filmed at Freswick Castle in Caithness goes big in Russia

By Mike Merritt

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William J Holstead plays the lead of Jack Travis.
William J Holstead plays the lead of Jack Travis.

A horror movie – the first film to be shot entirely in Caithness in over 70 years – has become a major hit in Russia.

There are even hopes for post-lockdown fan tourism from the European country on the back of the success.

Originally called Playhouse, the film started packing out cinemas in Russia after the country's distributor re-packaged it as part of a popular Cursed House series.

Now re-named for Russian audiences Cursed House 4, brothers Fionn and Toby Watts have finally put the far north on the movie map and produced, written and directed the horror feature set in Freswick Castle near Wick – which they grew up in.

In fact, you have to go back to 1947 for Neil Gunn's The Silver Darlings to find any big screen shots of Caithness – and then it was just largely the harbour scenes of Latheronwheel.

Genre specialists Devilworks has secured multiple deals including the UK and Ireland on the gothic thriller. A deal over North American rights was previously announced.

Brothers Toby and Fionn Watts.
Brothers Toby and Fionn Watts.

But Fionn Watts admitted he was "staggered" by the Russian response.

"Devilworks, our sales agent, licensed the theatrical rights for Playhouse to Russain distributor Kinologistika in September last year. The whole film has been dubbed into Russian," he said.

"They branded the film under the 'Cursed House' series, which has been very successful in Russian cinemas. We have seen Cursed House 2 which is titled 'Girl on the Third Floor' everywhere else and it's one of the best indie horror films of recent times.

"So, on hearing that we are branded as part of this franchise in Russia is a pure delight for us as filmmakers from a lesser-known place in Scotland.

"We hoped that we would get a limited theatrical release for Playhouse in the UK but due to the pandemic that option wasn't possible due to all the cinema closures.

The film is based at Freswick Castle.
The film is based at Freswick Castle.

"However, knowing that our film is playing in Russian cinemas is an incredible thrill for us! To think of people trekking through the wilderness in such a vast country to see Playhouse is an absolute delight and a real pay off for the years of hard work making the film.

"We shot the film with the theatrical screen in mind so it translates very effectively onto the big screen with all the wide angles of brooding Caithness landscapes and the dark, gothic corridors of Freswick Castle."

One of the stars, Eilidh Mclaughlin who plays Alex in the film, added: "As an actress from a town in Fife, being on the big screen in Russia is truly exciting and a massive achievement. I'm over the moon that the beauty of Caithness has been able to reach Russian audiences, in a stunningly shot film which truly captures the Scottish landscape. Makes me even more proud to be Scottish!"

Playhouse is currently out on video on demand in the US and Canada and will receive a UK video release on April 16 with a DVD release to follow in May.

The brothers launched a crowdfunder to finish the film, which passed £9400 from more than 110 backers when it ended. The extra cash went on more special effects.

The Russian poster for Cursed House 4.
The Russian poster for Cursed House 4.

Playhouse was also selected for the prestigious Frightfest film festival in August.

The movie was filmed at Freswick Castle, the home of the brothers' writer father Murray Watts, whose own work in TV, radio, film and theatre has won awards and received critical acclaim – including The Dream, starring Jeremy Irons and the feature film The Miracle Maker.

Playhouse is a supernatural thriller about an irreverent writer caught between his ambition to create a scary new play and the damaging effect his work is having on his relationship with his only daughter.

It stars Thurso-born Helen Mackay, who plays the role of Jenny. Trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Drama and Music, she has starred in numerous high-profile theatre and television productions, including Rab C Nesbitt and DCI Banks.

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