One day we’ll look back at films released in the midst of COVID and quiver at how spookily they align with the pandemic. Or maybe we’re just looking for things to relate to, deriving meaning from anything we can, because there’s so much time to overthink the details. Whatever the case, it’s hard to watch the new horror film The Beach House without feeling relevant, recognizable pangs. Maybe because it’s centered on a mysterious plague. Or maybe because, like the coronavirus, it’s impossible to understand what it does to the body or the mind.
The Beach House follows a young couple, Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato), who escape reality to vacation in a small coastal town where Randall’s family owns property. The house is quaint, quiet, and exactly what they need to rekindle their spark. But it’s clear there’s tension between the two; Emily wants to attend grad school for astrobiology, and Randall wants to skip an education and live in the moment.
Their diverting views are put under a microscope when they realize they’re not alone in the house. An older married couple, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) Turner—friends of Randall’s father—are also spending time in the seaside retreat, a misunderstanding of schedules. They all decide to stay in the home together and spend their first night indulging in their shared seclusion. They share bottles of wine and discuss the future. Jane, who is dying of cancer, envies the younger couple’s youth. “You should be thankful that you have the time to do whatever you want,” she tells them, clearly saddened.
At the dinner, Emily explains astrobiology to the Turners, and why she’s so fascinated by it. It’s the study of how organisms adapt to extreme environments; something humans aren’t fully acquainted with.
“Life is so fragile,” she says. “We’re the right combination of elements, the right temperature, the right distance from the sun. And this measure of time spent developing, changing. One thing slightly off, and we would be nothing. Dust or gas or something. I’m in awe of it.”
Her speech a bit on-the-nose considering what comes next, but it’s a nice little distillation of what The Beach House is about: the perfect balance of life, and what happens when it’s disrupted by new people in the home, dripping water that feels like a trespasser, or a sudden shift in biology that undoes familiar ecosystems.
Randall, Emily, and the Turners do edibles after the wine runs out and hallucinate. The world outdoors turns neon, like a Spencer’s Gifts with the lights off. A dusty membrane slips over the plants. The beach looks like a velvet painting. Emily starts see objects around her as if through an Instagram filter—jagged, alternating color and shapes. Jane gets sick, and Emily and Randall go to bed. But when they all awaken, they discover they weren’t hallucinating after all.
We won’t get into all that happens next to preserve the sick surprises lurking ‘round the corner. All we’ll say is that something twists, invades, and soon there is an infection of mysterious origins. It’s a parade of squeamish body horror and existentialism. Your grip on reality falters as Emily’s does.
The Beach House is the debut film of writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown, who does wonders with what is clearly a shoestring budget. What he’s able to pull off with b-roll footage of the ocean, carefully deployed lighting, a fog machine, and a score of pulsating noise is quite impressive. The film recalls the recent Lovecraft horror film Color Out of Space and even, at times, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Squiggly oceanic things curl their way into frame and taint what’s around them, in ways sure to haunt the subconscious.
Unfortunately, the limitations of budget hinder The Beach House in other places. At just one hour and 27 minutes, it’s a tightly paced narrative at the expense of characterization. While the performances are all fine, none of the characters leap out. We needed more time with the couples to follow up on themes like the fragility of life that are teased at the dinner table but never quite punctuated. It’s clear the majority of the money went to a brief creature-driven moment, which looks ghastly and wonderful, but is never quite replicated.
Still, The Beach House is a promising and entertaining film that merely hints at all Brown is clearly capable of. It’s clear he has a great grasp on theme, visuals, and tension. And it’s an eerie watch in quarantine, with its hearty warning about the danger of the unknown and, especially, of beaches. If only more folks had watched this before the Fourth of July holiday.
Featured Image: Exile PR