Dry ice, disgusting prosthetics, dynamic cinematography and a sense of hopelessness so diabolical that it threatens to erase the barrier between screen and reality. Sometimes that’s all you need for a good, old-fashioned horror movie. Such is the case for The Beach House, which premieres Thursday on Shudder. For his feature-length screenwriting and directorial debut, Jeffrey A. Brown has conjured an appropriately atmospheric, and judiciously icky, alchemical nightmare that swirls together ecological imbalance and emotional inertia.
Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato) are a college-age couple out to rekindle their romance at the Massachusetts beach house Randall’s father owns. It’s perpetually unfinished, with a dripping faucet there and a groaning pipe there, not unlike Randall and Emily’s own rocky up-and-down relationship. We learn Randall left school and, by default, Emily out of a disdain for higher education and that he has unexpectedly launched himself back into her world.
The beach house, Randall suggests, is a place they could live year-round — for Emily to escape the “grad school bullshit” she seeks from astrobiology. Were the rest of The Beach House not so queasily effective, it would be harder to forgive the nose-rapping exposition Brown writes about the astrological field. Emily explains deep-sea lifeforms’ adaptation to extremes humans could never survive, waxes poetic about how Earth is the “delicate exception” that supports life where other planets cannot, and describes living things in the planet’s earliest days as a panoply of swirling gases and unstable, boiling chaos.
Randall and Emily believe they have the place to themselves … until Emily discovers a partially completed puzzle and a very full pill organizer. Turns out Randall’s visit is unbeknownst to his dad, who let his friends Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) Turner use the place for a weekend getaway. Neither couple wanting to put the other out, Emily, Randall, Mitch and Jane agree to share the house, food, drink … and rather potent edibles. The drugs do their work on all four vacationers well into the next day. But it becomes clear that the rotten seaside smell, the beach’s thick fog, Jane’s increasingly ashen complexion and Randall’s gurgling stomach spell more trouble than anyone imagined. Mercy mercy me, the ecology indeed.
Location manager seems like an atypical role from which to leap into full-blown filmmaker territory. But in conjunction with production designer Paul Rice, Brown’s expertise in the field (on such streaming series as The OA and Master of None and such films as The Dead Don’t Die and Spider-Man 3) lends The Beach House believable specificity and splendor. (You’ve seen those Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary games at your Airbnb … and the dusty Ken Follett paperbacks, too.) Brown also surrounded himself with impressive collaborators. Cinematographer Owen Levelle works in a lo-fi love letter to Lawrence of Arabia (swapping sand for water) before propelling the film forward into putrefaction. Peter Gerner and Brian Spears’ prosthetic effects power a scene of podiatric injury so ghastly it will turn your stomach. And is that … cackling that burbles beneath the buzzing synths of Roly Porter’s musical score?
Comparisons to the cosmic horror of Color Out of Space will certainly abound — especially given a similarly delayed response to the eventual entropy and a hard lean on a comparable color palette in the final act. However, the disgusting elements Brown deploys here are akin to a reversion of nature rather than a perversion, and in its depiction of the compositional breakdown of human connection, it’s certainly more allegorical than maniacal.
It’s easy to understand how a film concerning the merciless advance of a mysterious and murderous infection might not be all that welcome right now. But for those eager to feel horror-movie heebie-jeebies that coalesce (however unintentionally) with the current climate, The Beach House is definitely in season.