Director: Jeffrey A. Brown
Stars: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros
Released: 9th July 2020 (VOD)
In what could only be described as a chilling coincidence, this summer is being felicitously headlined by eco-horror films: first came Sea Fever, an unexpectedly apt Irish creature feature that makes you second guess the rationality of lockdown easing measures, and now along comes The Beach House – a frantic, hallucinatory weekend getaway from a not-so-distant alternate reality. A feature debut from writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown, this trippy Shudder release feels like a manifestation of our darkest ecological nightmares in their most grotesque incarnations.
It’s not often that you see a film shift its course throughout the runtime as much as this one, so let’s go over the basic plot outline: Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are facing difficulties in their relationship. Feelings, colleges, grad schools – all is in turmoil. To ease the conversations and reconnect, Randall decides to take Emily to his father’s supposedly vacant summer home. It’s the off-season, so what could possibly go wrong in a desolate beachside neighbourhood? Well, most certainly every thing.
From the very beginning, the eponymous beach house establishes itself as a distinctive character here, an entity much akin to the Amityville house. But don’t let the familiar setup deceive you – this isn’t the kind of movie with unspoken rules of supernatural phenomena. On the contrary, Brown’s film ostensibly wants to break free from the strains of conventional horror subgenres, finding its home firmly between the slow, brooding suspense and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. It’s a tricky balance act but one that feels warranted by the film’s continuously surprising script and squirm-inducing scares. To say more would be a disservice to the film’s creative structure, but rest assured that The Beach House has more than enough ingenious quirks throughout its relatively brisk runtime.
Unsurprisingly, the dual nature of the narrative also implies the stark contrast of ideas, approaches, and identities. While the first half may feel a bit thin with slight hints of character complexity, which in turn end up in an archaic depiction of edible marijuana straight from the Reagan era, the second half of the film is where the slow burn approach pays off and our characters truly open up. At just 88 minutes, the film lets its isolated reality gradually reveal all of its hostile secrets, thus leading the duo into a different kind of couple’s retreat. As much as Brown makes his debut feel uncompromising and rule-breaking, there’s still a welcome commonality at the core of the film: Liana Liberato’s stellar portrayal of the final girl. An aspiring astrobiologist, her character keeps the film focused on the central theme of dissonant elements and truly embraces the concept of environmental terror – even before all the malignant particles spread from the ocean floor.
Spine-chilling and moody, The Beach House is a striking lo-fi horror debut and a refreshing take on the criminally underused horror subgenre. Brown’s assured, stylish direction gives this tale of underwater terror an unusually poignant flair, while the appropriately nasty body horror and mystifying conclusion craft an anomalous sense of time and space. Exhibiting our anxieties with no simple answers or environmental explanation in sight, this bleak apocalypse hits just a bit too close to home.
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