Young couple Emily and Randall (Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros) travel to a getaway beach house for a weekend of relaxation. On arrival, they find the beach house double-booked with an older couple Jane and Mitch (Maryann Nagel and Jake Weber). There’s a brief period where The Beach House may go down the route of something like Ma or Get Out with the welcoming elders being slightly off. However, the senior pair are actually just warm and friendly. It’s telling how much that idea can be toyed with in the horror field, as so many films overplay the “niceness is camouflage” trope.
The time allotted to the group getting to know each other is time well spent. It’s so important to feel empathy with characters in horror. Without it, you’re left with the level of death conveyor belts found in franchises with far too many sequels (*cough* Friday The 13th). There’s a realness to the relationships. Emily and Randall have problems, but also clearly care for each other.
Jane and Mitch are, as mentioned, a congenial couple that has the feel of a long and happy marriage. Jake Weber has a strong history of paternal characters (Dawn of the Dead and Medium) and Mitch is another one for the list. They have easygoing conversations that become very easygoing with the introduction of some edibles. Emily is studying astrobiology and the possibilities of life, both extraordinary or extraterrestrial — all of those are exactly the sort of chats you want on those.
The lifeforms discussion foreshadows that something is in their environment that is insidiously infectious. Introduced through a series of trippy vignettes of swirling underwater particles, glowing airborne …is it spores? Eggs? Creatures? Whatever it is, it means Emily awakens to an area, possibly a world, that’s mutating in horrifying ways.
Saying more would spoil the surprises that Jeffrey A. Brown has lined up in his feature debut. The writer/director has crafted an affecting horror that pays homage to many sources while maintaining its own identity. The most obvious influences are early Cronenberg and Carpenter, but the feel is more dreamlike at times. (I sensed hints of Altered States but with modern FX.) Locating the horror at a beautiful, white sandy beach on deep blue waters lends an interesting dissonance to the film in the early moments of it being clear that there’s something wrong. (Body horror in full daylight is a striking rarity, and for a small film, the special effects are remarkable.)
A Cast that’s Small but Perfectly Formed
As The Beach House almost solely focuses on the four people in the titular house, they have some heavy lifting to do, and they all do it perfectly. Weber has been doing this a long time and can nail the “avuncular father figure” from a thousand yards wearing a blindfold. He also reacts perfectly when things go sideways, which is also true of the entire lead quartet. Maryann Nagel is a great foil for Weber and her ability to move from happy to unsettling is impressive.
Le Gros remains likable while being a slightly flawed young guy who is out of his depth in a place slipping into chaos. The main find of The Beach House, though, is Liana Liberato. She is the lead both as an actor and as the character. Emily is tough, resourceful, and strong. In the pantheon of Scream Queens, she’s at the Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween level.
Horror with Brains, Not Just ‘Braaaains’
Rule number one of horror is to not have your cast “split up and go into the basement”, metaphorically speaking, and The Beach House doesn’t fall into that trap at all. The escalation from “something’s not right” to “we might be royally screwed here” goes rapidly enough that you’re never left with that impotent frustration that comes from horror movie characters behaving with suicidal idiocy.
For a debut, The Beach House is a great calling card. It feels crafted. It’s admittedly small scale enough that I don’t think it would make a huge splash in cinemas (even if cinemas were happening now). But for horror aficionados, I can see word of mouth being a powerful tool in The Beach House finding an audience, especially on Shudder where cults seem to form regularly around worthy properties. Hopefully, it will lead to bigger things for Jeffrey A. Brown, and also lead to future discussions among film fans along the lines of, “Yeah, that was cool…did you ever see his first film, The Beach House? You really should check it out.”
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