“The plot unravels with predictable reveals and a dull pace”
As everybody is battling a pandemic and trying to enjoy their summer, a sun-splashed bio-horror could not have arrived at a better time. Although the debut film from Jeffrey A. Brown, The Beach House, has all the ingredients of a smart low-budget terror, it has none of the bite.
With its topical themes and unique attraction of daytime nastiness, the early and slower moments of The Beach House suggest that it could be something exciting. For one thing, despite its budget and narrative shortcomings, the film looks great. Lingering coastal shots capture the beauty and eerie stillness of the sea, whilst also hinting towards an imminent threat on the sparkling horizon. It’s only a matter of time before something strange washes up on the shore, and when this happens the characters quite literally step into a different, less-focused film. The opening shimmers with anxiety as a young couple, Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros), arrive to what they think is an empty beach house, only to find that somebody is already living there. Close-ups of dripping taps and festering dishes, especially with everything going on in the real world, evoke a particular queasiness. The film reveals its infectious disaster early on without so much as well-timed cough.
The older couple already living in the beach house are Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryanne Nagel), their presence indiscreetly red flagged by the discovery of a crammed medicine cabinet. The film makes the early mistake of muddling its nightmarish environmental collapse with the unnecessary trope of irresponsible intoxication. By the nature of disillusion, horror becomes less interesting as soon as psychedelic effects come into play because it undermines the threat levels that characters should be feeling, as well as the tension in the audience. It’s difficult to worry about a character’s safety – or anything really – when they’re splayed out on the floor, slurring their lines as everybody vanishes around them. And as predictable as a disinterested boyfriend that destroys the evening, this is exactly what happens. As the two couples settle into their unforeseen isolation together, Randall, the dud he is, brings out edible cannabis to liven the mood. Since we’ve already seen Jane’s medicine cabinet, we know exactly where this is going. It creates an unintentional dislocation from the film that comes from boredom, rather than the weird uncanniness that Brown was shooting for.
And although it cuts at just under ninety minutes, the first half gives the impression of a slow-burn horror. Brown, who wrote the script too, focuses on character interactions and keeps the danger lingering in the background. It’s also, despite a slew of mutated visuals towards the end, the most engaging side of the film. Emily is a budding astrobiologist, intelligent, curious, determined – all the traits needed to survive the approaching apocalypse. It’s worth noting that her background is the film’s only attempt to weave its sci-fi subtext into the story, so, for anybody that wants more depth from their sci-fi horrors, you’ll get none of that here. On the opposite end of the spectrum, but weirdly still a compatible love interest, Randall thinks education is a waste of time and doesn’t see the point in anything, prompting a relatively charged discussion with Mitch about career aspects. It’s at this stage that everything is working in tandem: there’s a sense of biological disaster congregating around the house, everybody is at least on the same spectral plane and a few visual effects keep things vaguely interesting. But all character development and atmosphere ends here.
As soon as the film slips into its horror B-side, everything you’ve seen up until this point feels redundant. The two most interesting characters, Mitch and Jane, practically slide out of the film without satisfying explanation. I understand this detachment is the whole point, but the film never earns its right to flip the table, and so the plot unravels with predictable reveals and a dull pace. Brown seems lost as to how to navigate out of the film’s most visually interesting design, which is the colour-shifting fog that drifts in from the sea, contaminating everything in its wake. Very quickly, it feels like we’re watching Emily meander from one visually stimulating but weightless slideshow to another. This is exasperated by the fact that, for the most part, nothing really happens to Emily, only around her. It’s a fatal misbalance for a film that lacks tension or nastiness, choosing instead to create its mood from visuals rather sound and emotion, which would have been more effective.
The Beach House also has the misfortune of arriving after a film that’s already done everything it does better: Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, a trippy Lovecraft-infused exploration of social and biological catastrophe. It may be unfair to compare the two – Stanley’s film clearly operating on a bigger budget – but as they both deal with the same concept (although Brown’s debut film lacks the thematic depth of Stanley’s) there’s no real reason to choose The Beach House when the better environmental horror already exists.
Despite all this, it’s not without bright spots; mainly the central performance from Liana Liberato and the beautiful seaside setting. Sunny spaces have always been an appealing playground for horror.
There are signs of what The Beach House could have been. One squeamish display of amateur foot surgery showcases all the awful side-effects of having worms in places they shouldn’t be. Bio-horror is at its nauseating best when it starts dissecting the human body in all the ways that you want to forget. The Beach House has scraps of this, but they are so far and few between, and never developed beyond cheap thrills. It all adds up to an indie horror that’s neither scary nor memorable and ends up not being much at all.
Director: Jeffrey A. Brown
Producers: Andrew Corkin, Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin
Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, Maryanne Nagel
Release Date: 09 July 2020
Available on: Shudder
Featured image courtesy of Shudder