Thursday, September 14, 2023

Raiders of The Lost Shlock: Playroom (1990)

Playroom (1990) (AKA "Schizo")
Rating: ***
Starring: Lisa Aliff, Aron Eisenberg, Christopher McDonald

Suffering from reocurring nightmare-flashbacks of how he found his entire family murdered inside some old tombs as a child, American archeologist Christopher Hayden decided to revisit the same dig to finish what his late father started as a form of closure, tagging along his magazine editor boss/girlfriend Jenny, his drunkard photographer friend Paul and the photographer’s yoga-loving wife Marcy to supervise and document the find. Their excavation is for an ancient Yugoslavian monastery that's built on top of the tomb of a notorious prince named Ilok, who's said to have bargained with a demon in order to gain eternal life and cured the boredom that naturally comes with living forever by torturing peasants through mostly medieval means. 

Curiously, as soon as Chris steps into the place, he starts seeing and getting tormented by his childhood imaginary friend "Daniel", who may have something to do with the deaths of his family. The further he dwells on this, the more Chris obsesses over digging out all the secrets he could get from the tomb, slowly losing grip of his own noggin before eventually going into a murderous rage by the time he unearthed the titular playroom. All the while, a man who was wrongfully accused for massacring nearly all of the Hayden family many years ago gets an earful of Chris' return, enticing him to escape his confines and leg his way to the monastery to get even with the guy who got him locked up in a mental ward, unaware that an ancient evil has awakened and it demands to be entertained through carnal violence...

Written by Jackie Earle Haley (Yes, that Jackie Earle Haley) and directed by Dr. Giggles (1992)'s Manny Coto, Playroom (1990) starts out, by all means, as a slowburn psycho-horror as we watch our leading archeologist go down the rabbit hole of uncovering the hidden chambers of a tomb while battling his inner demons, brought upon by the memories of his father's abuse and a then-hinted possible supernatural influence. Think Jack Torrance's axe-happy breakdown from The Shining (1980), only we have a sweaty Christopher McDonald's going cuckoo for murder, egged on by a demonic ten-year old. This goes on for about almost an hour, with the rest of the small casts of characters showing concern over Chris' mental deterioration but doing little to nothing to remedy this aside from telling him off how crazy he's starting to sound, as well as suggesting getting out of there while they're still have two working legs. (Right, suggesting, even after one too many outbursts from the increasingly pissed-off prehistorian...) 

By the time Chris' little doomed crew finally decided to waltz back to the nearby town and get help, this is thankfully the same time the film finally kicked things up with gruesome delight and cheesy hokum as the angry archaeologian finally discovers Ilok's playroom full of torture devices, thus earning him the prince's full influence and act out as their executioner. With that, Playroom (1990) delves into slasher grounds and even though there's hardly any strong gore to speak of (save for the last kill), a fair set of the murder scenes are a decently good bunch for their crazily wicked set-pieces, workable cinematography and Christopher McDonald going full ham on his excitable killer persona, playfully taunting and throwing childish insults at his victims before offing them. There's also a brief scene where Miss Virginia 1983 Lisa Aliff's character encounters Ilok in his true form, a diminutive mummified man brought to life onscreen through an animatronic puppet full of jerky body movements and rubbery facial expressions. The whole moment is, without a doubt, this movie's ironic highlight as the hilariously awful-looking scraggily tiny terror is a rather memorable presence, devilishly spewing one-liners while prowling around in one of the stranger cat-and-mouse stalking scenes out there in horror.

As a concept, Playroom (1990) had the potential to be a better movie should its narrative was handled better, delivering on its promising ideas of psychological downfall and maybe even give its small casts a little more depth than your average paint-by-number slasher victims. Still, it succeeds in invoking tension and tone from its gloomy direction and the effective Slavic ruin backdrops, before going all out on the crazy massacre that sets itself well enough as this film's final act, so the film isn't a total loss in my opinion. A tad misguided, but passable nonetheless. 

1 girl found murdered
1 male found dead with a head wound
1 female found murdered
1 female got her back sawed open
1 male repeatedly beaten with a skull, falls into a spiked pit
1 male killed offscreen
1 male had his neck shot off, decapitated
1 male ran through with a pickaxe, dies from injury
Total: 8

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