The best horror films always feel familiar yet new. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s debut feature The Beach House, a genre flick about a young couple on a romantic getaway, the director mixes proverbial Lovecraftian notions of fate in a terrifying yet simply constructed creature feature that’s begging to be picked apart and analyzed.
His film opens with Emily (Liana Liberato, in a breakout role) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) arriving at a summer home belonging to Randall’s father. There, they discover an older couple, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), friends of Randall’s father, already using the seaside escape. Even though all is not well, rather than leave, the pair decide to stay for the weekend. Soon they discover that Jane seems to have some disease, which often causes her to lapse out of consciousness, drifting off into a quiet hypnotic state. Just as worryingly, she also suffers from coughing fits. And though she doesn’t appear near-death, Mitch is already mourning her and their time together, viewing the beach house as one last chance to spend time with her. Meanwhile, though the season is off-peak, the seaside village is relatively deserted, and the water feels odd. Mitch describes it as “soft water,” and the characters can’t come in contact with it without trying to discern the liquid’s viscous touch.
The Beach House is Lovecraftian with regards to fate and mythos. For instance, though Emily is dead set on her educational goals, Randall contests the purpose behind school, taxes, children, sports, etc. He views them as the drudges of life, the suburban track meant to lock us within a near-inescapable paradigm. With regards to mythos, when Emily explains to Mitch and Jane that she studies organic chemistry and wants to learn astrobiology in grad school, they’re both just as enraptured as she is by the organic origins of the earth, and the idea that certain creatures continue to live in oppressive underwater environments today.
In Jeffrey’s film, the monster(s), so to speak, are rarely on screen. Instead, they’re obscured. They live in the water and come ashore whenever a deep chokable smog rolls over the land, a conceit many will recognize from Frank Darabont’s The Mist. When these monsters do come ashore, the film takes on a few other genre features. It’s part body horror — mutilated feet have been a thing and it still freaks me out — and a creature feature. But intriguingly, The Beach House also takes on apocalyptic tendencies. There’s one scene in particular where Emily and Randall travel through the coercive fog for help, only for their vision to be nearly obscured. Their only light source is an ever-present orange siren that melds into the haze. The compositional effect, and Owen Levelle’s cinematography, is simple yet metaphorically provocative.
However, not every component of The Beach House works completely. For instance, Brown spends significant screen time carving out Emily’s background as an organic chemistry major. While her dialogue sets the scientific parameters for how these mysterious creatures are possible, her knowledge actually means little for her character when she needs to implement her expertise. Smart characters needn’t be intelligent throughout a film, but they should demonstrate some basic ability to implement their respective backstory within the main narrative arc. Just as frustrating, in one section, edibles are used to advance the plot. Apart from the psychedelic use of blue, and a narrative tool allaying any suspicions Emily and Randall might have felt concerning their surroundings, the scene stretches on for far too long and serves nary a purpose.
Still, even with some unrealized components, The Beach House’s final act is thrilling. Brown builds tension in Spielbergian fashion by enlivening our uneasy senses yet rarely showing us what’s actually to fear. And with the film’s final mystical shot, he not only imbues it with the supernatural, but makes The Beach House into a mysterious debut worthy of multiple re-watches.
The Beach House premieres on Shudder on July 9th.