23 January 2012


United States - 1989
Director - Manny Coto
Republic Pictures Home Video, 1990, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 27 minutes

The Communist Bloc is the perfect place to set a psychological horror movie. Not only are the lush mountain landscapes of Yugoslavia wonderfully enchanting, but socially in the late 80's, it began to exhibit more and more the symptoms of dissociative identity disorder.  It is after all a land brimming with conflicting versions of history, and history is sortof like repressed memories right? In that case, archaeologists are basically psychologists who prefer pickaxes to fountain pens. Hey, a phallic symbol is a phallic symbol okay?

When Chris was a boy his father was an archaeologist working at an old monastery in the Western Balkans. In the midst of the dig, Chris's whole family was slaughtered, leaving only him alive to grow up as a repressed and neurotic adult. Having become a whiny, irritating man-child, Chris (Christopher McDonald) has followed in his fathers footsteps and become an archeologist in his own right. Seeking to pick up where his father's work was cut short, he returns to the monastery in Croatia. To keep things interesting, for this movie relies heavily on excessive display of "personality," he brings along his girlfriend/publisher, as well as an alcoholic photographer and a spoiled society brat. Each is more grating than the last, but this is a character driven horror film, and as we shall soon discover, our satisfaction is largely to be derived from the elimination of various sensory irritants, paramount among them our protagonist!

As the digging progresses through the brain-like labyrinth of the monastery to it's deepest hidden core, Chris's sanity also begins to deteriorate. Ranting sweatily and approvingly about the delight children take in torturing animals, Chris waxes nostalgic about the time he spent wandering the monastery's halls with his surly imaginary friend. Just as it becomes increasingly clear that his flashbacky visions of his family's demise are more first-person-narrative than we had thought, Chris breaks through the physical and metaphorical walls into the "playroom." In this secret torture-chamber Chris (re)discovers himself/his old friend; an animatronic mummy prince and a bunch of repressed childhood memories recreated in a deluge of implied violence.

Staffed by ample hyperbole and a former Miss Virginia, Playroom delivers a satisfying, moderately surprising conclusion, yet with few of the hoped-for thrills incumbent in psychological horror. The awesome sets and torture devices alluded to in the dialogue remain mostly unused, and the jerky mummy puppet is an entertaining disappointment. Nevertheless, Playroom is still a delightfully simple Freudian metaphor.

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