Black Mirror: “Playtest” Season 3 Episode 2 Review

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For what ends up being a small chamber horror, it’s a natural move for Charlie Brooker to enlist 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg for “Playtest.” The camera leans slowly with our hero as he explores a house full of personal terrors. It remains static in just a suspicious enough manner on the close-ups to keep us on edge. It whips around corners, usually to show us nothing, but then sometimes to frighten the hell out of us. There’s no shortage of skill in crafting season three’s second episode, which makes its narrative shortcomings all the more infuriating.

By far the biggest problem with “Playtest” is its main character. Former pro-hockey player Wyatt Russell stars as Cooper, a late 20-something traveling the world to escape the grief of his father’s unexpected death. While on his last stop in London, he goes on an adventure to a video game company that’s trying some experimental stuff with virtual reality. Well, at least that’s what the setup should be. The first half of the episode is dedicated to a hookup in a bar that doesn’t end up having a profound effect on the psychological horror of the second half. It doesn’t help that Cooper is insufferable, with Russell giving a performance barely worthy of a student film. Half an episode of set up with a blatantly unlikable lead is hard to swallow.

But things pick up once Cooper partakes in the video game designer’s newest tech demo. First, to get him used to everything, he plays the most realistic game of whack-a-mole ever. But then, in a major jump from carnival games, he’s left in a creepy abandoned mansion that the company used as a likeness for a horror video game. The tech used for the second part of the demonstration supposedly adapts to the user’s mind, replicating their biggest fears in real time right before their eyes. What’s fun about “Playtest” from there is how it really gets to run away with its creature design and scares, which is where Trachtenberg comes in. There’s a lot of legitimate horror in here, jump scares or not. But there’s also enough of Brooker’s signature absurdist comedy to keep things nice and light (for example, Cooper’s old school bully’s face is morphed onto that of a giant spider).

Sadly, all this talent and story potential doesn’t end up amounting to much. “Playtest” has the sort of ending only a 30-minute horror short can get away with. It tries to be satisfying in a tongue and cheek manner, but mismatches the tone and leaves the whole meal a little uneasy. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that this episode is some of the best new horror you’re likely to get this Halloween season. There’s a good 20-minute section of “Playtest” where I was peering over a pillow, ready to hide if Cooper’s intense situation got any more rattling. Regardless of story problems, that’s an undeniable accomplishment in an age where genuine horror is hard to come by. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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