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The Beach House Review

July 10, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
The Beach House
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The Beach House Review  

Directed by: Jeffrey A. Brown
Written by: Jeffrey A. Brown

Liana Liberato – Emily
Noah Le Gros – Randall
Jake Weber – Mitch
Maryann Nagel – Jane

Running Time: 88 minutes
Not Rated

Sci-fi/horror mashups compromise a weird part of the genre. I don’t mean weird as in “bad”; truth be told, it’s actually one of my favorite horror subgenres. But it can often find itself looked down on when compared to the more popular subgenres like slashers, zombie films, demonic horror, giallo, and the like. There are obvious exceptions to the rule (hello, Alien and The Thing), but more often than not people think of the cheesier films of the 1950s with mutated bugs or campy alien invasions when they consider the genre.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that The Beach House has a few references to those ‘50s sci-fi horror flicks, even as it walks its own path. The film, which premieres this Friday on Shudder, falls at first glance into the low-budget arthouse category — a mix of science, scares, and a bit of gore. But similar to the plot itself, taking a look beneath the surface reveals something much deeper and, perhaps, even creepier than what’s right at the top.

The film stars Liberato and Le Gros and Emily and Randall, a younger couple who head out to the beach house that Randall’s father owns hoping to reconnect with each other during the sparsely populated off-season. The couple’s relationship has been strained due to their different goals; Randall has left college and wants Emily to join him, but she’s dedicated to her study and future career.

Before they can get too far into their issues, the two find themselves interrupted by an older couple, Mitch (Weber) and Jane (Nagel), who are friends of Randall’s father and using the cabin. The two couples agree to share the cabin and strike up a quick friendship, even with some odd sentiments hanging in the air. But when some strange phenomenon began to encroach on the four, it becomes clear that something isn’t right. Jane starts to feel ill, and Emily begins to notice some strange things going on that make it clear that something much more ominous and dangerous is going on than anyone suspects.

The Beach House is the first feature film from Brown as a writer and a director, although he has an extensive career in Hollywood as a location manager and scout. Brown has scouted settings for projects as varied as The Wolf of Wall Street and For Colored Girls to Non-Stop, The Dead Don’t Die, and Fringe. That experience is clearly on display here, as Brown immediately invests the film in its location. The unnamed, almost completely abandoned beach town serves as an unsettling locale for the film. The opening scenes are devoid of life, immediately setting the tone of isolation and emptiness.

That serves as the perfect landscape in which to drop Brown’s story. The film exemplifies “slow burn” in the opening act, and unlike your standard horror flick there aren’t any real scares in the first part of the film to get the blood pressure up. Instead, Brown relies on the story’s set-up of these two couples to set the tension. Their initial finding of each other is suffused with an uneasy feeling, and Brown never quite lets that fade even when Emily and Randall get to know Mitch and Jane a little better. Is there a reason that the older pair are so interested in Emily’s study of organic chemistry, and why Jane pays so close attention when Emily talks about her planned Masters study of astrobiology as being about “how organisms can adapt to extreme environments that we couldn’t survive?”

These are questions that the film lets linger without actually asking, which is just enough for Brown to have a vaguely unnerving foundation to build on. The quiet start may not be what horror hounds are looking for initially, but Brown is confident enough to pace himself, establish his characters, and given his actors time to work. That includes Weber and Nagel investing a lot of care into making us like Mitch and Jane, even as we’re perhaps just a little suspicious there. Le Gros does fine work as Randall, making a character who is immediately infuriating feel more sympathetic as time goes on.

The true MVP among the cast, however, is Liberato. The actress, best known for her role in Hulu’s horror series Light as a Feather, is the center of the film and brings Emily to life past a few tropes written into her character. Sure, she’s the sensible and decent girl who lets her guard down because her boyfriend says it’s okay. But she’s also brilliant – she’s literally studying to be a scientist – and quite resourceful to boot. She makes Emily’s turn from the smart but passive girlfriend into a fighter for survival believable and has an innate charm that makes us want to root for her, the sure sign of a star hopefully on the rise.

Once Brown has us interested in the characters, he doesn’t waste a lot of time ramping things up. And boy, do they ramp. As things start to fly off the handle, the slow burn quickly transitions with surprising smoothness into psychedelic elements that lead into a mix of body horror, cosmic insanity and zombie-esque elements.

There are several point of reference films that could be mentioned here, from The Mist and Cronenberg’s Shivers to a number of cosmic horror films. It would be a disservice to The Beach House to call it such a pastiche though. Brown certainly homages some of these movies but has plenty of his own story to tell. There are some truly suspenseful moments woven throughout the film as well as one particular piece of body horror that will make you want to pull up your feet to check them, or at least curl your toes inward. Brown is working with a fairly limited budget here, but by using a relatively few number of set pieces he’s able to keep the nastier stuff looking right in the final act.

If The Beach House does have a problem (and it does, albeit a fairly small one), it’s that it doesn’t know quite how to deliver on its ending. There’s an idea here, and parts of it work quite well. It’s more clear-cut than another recent film with cosmic elements in The Color Out of Space, which is both a strength and a limiting factor. Brown is effective at keeping the events of the film from getting too convoluted or trippy, though at the sacrifice of a bit of ambition. When it comes time for the end, there’s a jump into more esoteric territory that feels jarring compared to what came up to then.

Up until that point though, it’s a fun ride. Brown is a confident filmmaker and fills his movie with great little touches, lit Emily watching a slug on the porch to little moments amid a scene involving edibles set to retro soul-pop artist Ernest Ernie & The Sincerities. There were certainly be some turned off by the amount of time that film takes to build, but those who stick through will be well-rewarded.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Jeffrey A. Brown has a great debut as both writer and director with The Beach House, a deft mix of science fiction and horror that combines classic sci-fi/horror with modern sensibilities. With an adept cast led by Liana Liberato, Brown has created a well-paced film that may not be for everyone, but represents an unsettling, visually arresting and -- once it really gets going -- truly squirm-worthy entry among 2020's horror offerings.

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The Beach House, Jeremy Thomas