With studios delaying theatrical releases well into the fall – if we’re lucky – Shudder continues to fill a void for horror fans. Following a buzzworthy round at small film festivals, The Beach House is now streaming on the horror platform. If horror works best by pulling back the curtains on what frightens us at the moment then The Beach House has impeccable timing. A small-scale pandemic-themed blend of science fiction and horror, The Beach House blends several influences into a uniquely restrained efforts. Part HP Lovecraft, part David Cronenberg body horror, and bits of John Carpenter and Invasion of the Body Snatchers – writer and director Jeffrey A Brown fuses these elements into a uniquely creepy effort. Perhaps a little too contemplative and restrained for wider audiences, Brown’s debut movie seems ideally suited for the streaming platform.
Young couple Randall and Emily, looking to repair a strained relationship, head to Randall’s remote family beach house. With the busy summer season still off in the distance, the couple find a quietly beautiful getaway. But shorty after arriving, Randall and Emily discover they’re not alone after all. Old family friends of Randall’s parents – Mitch and Jane – have been staying at the beach house on their own little vacation. Despite some initial awkwardness, the two couples enjoy an evening of dinner, drinks, and stories. However, a strange mist and what looks like fluorescent bacteria along the beach takes the night in a strange direction. By the next morning, Mitch and Jane are clearly not well. And strange things washing up on the beach shore and oozing out of the water threaten the idyllic trip for everyone.
The Beach House Takes a Minimalist Approach to its Apocalyptic Horror
First and foremost, The Beach House is a small, independent movie as evidenced by its setting and small cast. Regardless writer and director Jeffrey A Brown never lets a small budget detract from big ideas. Nothing about the movie looks cheap. Cinematographer Owen Levelle’s shots are vast and beautiful, lending a lonely isolation to the setting. This works in conjunction with Brown’s minimalist approach to atmosphere. In the absence of a jarring score, The Beach House is a restrained, suitably creepy movie. Straight from its opening scene, Brown maintains a constant feeling of unease. This underlying tension alongside some early misdirection when Brown introduces the older Mitch and Jane ensures some anticipation as the story waits to kick into gear. While The Beach House shows confidence in allowing viewers to acquaint themselves with the couples – the story also avoids obvious trappings – the pacing drags even for an 88-minute movie.
Brown uses Paul Rice’s practical creature effects to brief, albeit, shocking effect.
Once Brown truly dives into the cosmic horror, The Beach House becomes quietly relentless and unsettling. Saturated colours and dreamy, hazy camera shots may reminds viewers of last year’s other Lovecraftian horror, Color Out of Space. Though the more visceral horror is limited, the movie’s body horror is grotesque. Case in point – a self-performed surgery nearly reaches the same cringe-worthy heights found in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Brown uses Paul Rice’s practical creature effects to brief, albeit, shocking effect. What’s most unsettling about The Beach House is how it keeps its apocalyptic vision small and personal. This is obviously a function of budget, but it works and lends the story a midnight movie vibe. Things veer into a psychedelic haze in the final 10 minutes, thus undermining some tension. But the final moments are genuinely unsettling.
The Beach House Gets a Little Foggy on its Characters and Ideas
In addition to directing, Brown drafted his own screenplay with admittedly mixed results. His subtly around characters, for instance, is hit and miss. Both Randall and Emily feel like real, living and breathing people. There’s a ‘lived in’ feel to their relationship that allows for feelings and history to be hinted at without full exposition. Emily’s ambitions and Randall’s philosophical aimlessness bubble under the surface of the couple’s relationship. Unfortunately, these ideas feel abandoned – or left too ambiguous – as the movie’s horror elements kick in. Instead, Emily’s musings about her astro-biology studies and Randall’s search for personal meaning feel like plot contrivances necessary to give some meaning to what inevitably unfolds. Conversely, Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros both excel in their respective roles. In particular, Liberato shines as she carries the movie for the bulk of its second half.
…Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros both excel in their respective roles. In particular, Liberato shines as she carries the movie for the bulk of its second half.
Less developed are Jake Weber’s ‘Mitch’ and Maryann Nagel’s ‘Jane’. Thankfully, Brown avoids the obvious casting of the older couple as the movie’s source of horror. Courtesy of the performers, the characters are also extremely likable and share chemistry with the younger couple. But The Beach House’s characterization of the older couple is overly ambiguous. As a result, audiences may feel less invested in their fate. Again, in a movie about life – its beginnings and endings – Brown seemingly has something to say about the older couple. However, the storytelling plays things a little too coy before going full cosmic horror .
The Beach House Keeps Atmospheric Scares Open for the Summer
HP Lovecraft’s comeback in horror continues in the summer of 2020. After Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space and a surprising connection in this year’s earlier aquatic horror, Underwater, cosmic horror is hitting a new stride. Not everyone will appreciate The Beach House. Whether it’s the early slow pacing or ambiguous storytelling, Jeffrey A Brown’s directorial debut feels most appropriate for a streaming platform like Shudder. Still there’s plenty to like here, particularly Brown’s ability to get so much out of so little. The Beach House illustrates that small movies can carry big ideas and unnerving scares with the right execution.