Something’s in the water in Jeffrey A. Brown’s directorial debut The Beach House, a beautifully grotesque slow-burn body horror chiller that feels as sleek and contemporary as it does like a slight ode to 50s monster movies and the works of atmospheric horror greats. Unique and individually surreal as this low-budget Shudder feature may be, it’s best summed up as John Carpenter’s The Fog meets Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, with Lovecraft elements sprinkled in. Such specific comparisons aren’t to imply The Beach House isn’t something special – Brown proves he can craft moody ecological terror and create a lasting sense of dread. Although the ending leaves room for dissection, The Beach House is a hallucinatory and satisfyingly disturbing shore getaway.
The Beach House takes us to, wouldn’t you know it, a beach house in Cape Cod. College sweethearts Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato) head to Ramdall’s parent’s serene vacation home during the off-season for some privacy and a shot at rekindling their old flame. Randall recently dropped out of school, in addition to fading away from the relationship for a period. He’s lost, questioning education as a whole, and not in any rush to find purpose.
Emily is on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of ambition. She’s just shy of earning her undergraduate degree in organic chemistry, and eagerly mapping out her plan to study astrobiology in grad school. She’s the brains and passion to Randall’s dull state of being lost.
Shortly after arriving at the beach house, the couple realize they’re not alone. A bizarre mid-50s couple have made themselves at home. Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) claim to be friends of Randall’s doctor father. They don’t make clear how long they’ve been staying there, nor do they clarify if their being in the house was cleared by Randall’s father. What is obvious is they’re peculiar in more ways than one.
Jane’s in a constant daze due to her heavy-dose of antipsychotics and slew of other medications. Mitch is incredibly protective of her, though he doesn’t divulge what any actual issue is. Strange as they may be, they’re friendly and happy to meet Emily and reacquaint with Randall. The pairs agree to stay in the home together and enjoy each other’s company.
Following some drinking and conversation, the group runs out of booze and Mitch is in need of whiskey. Randall makes another suggestion – the edibles he brought along. Following a brief window of enjoying the high and appreciating the gorgeous ocean view, everything takes a dark, psychedelic turn.
Emily and Randall wake up late the following morning still feeling foggy. Emily walks downstairs to see a mute, emotionless Jane sitting at the kitchen table staring out at nothing in particular. Without a word she stands up and trudges upstairs in a zombified state. While sitting out on the beach, Emily’s startled by an out-of-the-blue appearance from Mitch. After a quick exchange he walks out into the ocean. And just keeps walking until he disappears.
As Emily approaches the water to see what’s going on, she notices a disgusting hole in her foot, and some sort of sea worm squirming into it. She peers along the shoreline and sees a row of strange aquatic pod creatures. From there, matters only get further insane.
Fresh as director Jeffrey A. Brown may be, he has a masterful handle on evoking a feeling of something awful to come, and knows just how to place the strange little portents littered throughout The Beach House. Perhaps the film’s greatest asset is the sheer curiosity it instills in its viewers through perfectly slow pacing, a simple uncomfortable score, and the occasional creepy sign of something calamitous moseying its way ashore.
Brown’s style is artful and odd; visibly inspired by old school atmospheric horror yet exuding the modern attitude of “I’m going to make something dark and weird that will make audiences question their own tastes.” The look and feel of The Beach House makes clear he has an affinity for surreal coastal horrors of the 70s and 80s. If he doesn’t, Brown has unknowingly paid outstanding tribute to the likes of Dead and Buried and Messiah of Evil. Like both of those under-appreciated treasures, The Beach House stylishly crawls towards an uneasy wrap-up, bound by a beautiful location and packed with strangely unsettling moments.
Although atmosphere reigns supreme, mood alone isn’t the main highlight of The Beach House. Star Liana Liberato gives a tremendously vulnerable, real, and committed performance as Emily. She’s the only character we’re forced to feel much of anything for, and that’s helped by Liberato’s heart and depth. Emily has all the motivation in the world to achieve what she wants. She’s driven, bright, and unusually self-aware. She also happens to be held back by Randall; thus hung up on trying to make a difficult relationship work with a less willing party. We see all of that complexity in Liberato’s every move, word, and scream.
An assessment of Noah Le Gros’ acting wouldn’t be fair, considering Randall isn’t the most compelling of characters. He’s confused and lazy. Many times throughout the film he even speaks in an almost incoherent mumble. Once his suffering begins, we as an audience only feel empathy on behalf of Emily. It wouldn’t be wrong to say she’s a phenomenally written character, played by an immensely talented actress with so much promise.
The bits of body horror, though few and far between, are disgustingly pleasing for genre fans. The Beach House’s scares, so to speak, come in the form of gross little shocks that hit particularly hard after long sequences of unsettling build. They certainly won’t satisfy the gorehounds, but they’re fitting for this eerie, slow-moving story of eco-terror.
Where The Beach House falters most, unfortunately, is the climax. We’re invested in Emily’s fight, both internal and external. The majority of the film leaves us uneasy, and we’ve received glimpses of pure terror and grossout disturbances along this unwaveringly creepy ride. When it’s all said and done, though, Brown concludes in an unrewarding way that leaves more questions than answers. It’s safe to theorize this was an artistic decision. The final few minutes are intriguing from a cinematography standpoint, and that room for dissecting is probably just what Brown wanted. More than anything, the viewer craving more than what we were given is a compliment to The Beach House. It’s so enjoyably odd and properly disturbing we wanted a more bizarre, definitive finale.
Despite the questionable conclusion, The Beach House is a far-out, eerie tale of environmental catastrophe that will please atmosphere fiends and weird horror lovers alike. It embodies the skillful slow build of great old horror flicks, with some touches of new artistic genius. Fans of Carpenter, Lovecraft, and even Romero can find something to appreciate in this coastal psychedelic nightmare. While it isn’t everything it absolutely could have been, mostly due a climax that can’t quite match a fantastic building of fear throughout, The Beach House proves Jeffrey A. Brown is a skilled and stylish filmmaker with a flair for the weirdly macabre who’s sure to make some brilliant films in the future. It also gives us a sample of Liana Liberato’s outstanding depth as an actress. She, too, is a talent to look out for. If you’re up for saltwater scares and feeling genuinely uncomfortable, The Beach House is now streaming on Shudder.
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