For the past hundred years, horror — more so than any other genre — has been utilized as a tool for reflecting society’s ills back at unsuspecting and often even unwilling audiences. But there’s no way the filmmakers behind recent releases Sea Fever and Blood Quantum could’ve known how topical their movies would be in the current climate. With the world around us turning into a literal trash fire, these movies deal with isolation, infection and the inherent mistrust humans feel towards each other with razor-sharp precision. The Beach House, a Shudder exclusive and a remarkably astute first-time effort from writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown, serves as another example of how horror movies often understand our world better than we do.
Underwater imagery is spooky by its very nature, feeding in, as it does, to that universal fear of the unknown. But The Beach House treats the encroaching ocean like a predator waiting to pounce. It looms in the background of almost every shot, whether the college sweetheart protagonists are enjoying a seaside dinner, lazing on the sand or quite literally crawling away from the water in fear. The ocean is always watching; in one particular sequence, the camera leaves the characters behind entirely and slowly moves down an empty hallway towards it, as if lured in by its powerful siren call.
The Beach House begins as something like a home invasion thriller, as Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato) settle into their quaintly picturesque vacation digs when another couple suddenly appears out of nowhere. The outwardly friendly Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) claim to be old friends of Randall’s family, and the younger couple are soon coaxed into staying in the titular property with them; an awkward setup that clearly rankles Emily, whose shackles are already up since Randall has suggested they move there permanently, carelessly casting her dreams of going to grad school aside.
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Emily studies chemistry, but her real passion is astrobiology, the concept of which she helpfully explains to a puzzled Mitch in a moment that, cleverly, doesn’t register as exposition until much later in the movie. Ultimately, The Beach House mutates into a horrifying story of infection interlaced with a possibly extraterrestrial takeover — close-ups of filaments floating in a glass of wine, a gooey oyster drying out in the sun and a record player that resembles a giant eye hint that there are otherworldly elements at play. Meanwhile, fluorescent colors, similar to those seen in the recent Color Out of Space, cover the surrounding landscape as the house is simultaneously encased in fog. As the only person who seems to clock that something is off, Emily’s own field of vision starts to get blurry too as she struggles to keep her grip on reality.
Le Gros and Liberato have an easy, lived in chemistry, but their characters’ relationship is clearly fraught with tension. Thankfully, Brown eschews the need to have Emily spell out what she wants from Randall at any stage. She’s a smart, capable and resourceful heroine, but Emily’s strength doesn’t come from her relationship with Randall, but rather in how she thrives in spite of his laziness. Le Gros, who bears a pleasingly passing resemblance to the English actor Joe Cole, isn’t entirely unlikable to the point that it makes no sense why Emily has stayed with Randall, but he plays second fiddle to her once things start to go awry, which still feels annoyingly progressive nowadays. Emily takes more of a beating overall, and her struggle is more keenly felt because she’s much easier to root for.
The Beach House is quietly compelling and its slow burn nature may turn off hardcore horror fans, however the movie also contains some of the gnarliest and most astonishingly well-done practical gore featured in any movie released this year. First, it’s the appearance of some sort of gross sea slug as it becomes apparent there’s something lurking in the water. Then, it quickly escalates into sea goo and a wiggly worm in Emily’s foot, recalling the still hugely underrated Blair Witch, in which a twig is slowly removed from an aching sole. Without spoiling anything, The Beach House takes this idea to its natural extreme with some top-notch practical gore, as the camera wisely holds the money shot for so long it’s impossible not to squirm. There are elements of the zombie movie at play here, too, and there’s plenty of oozing grossness to enjoy as the situation escalates.
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At The Beach House’s heart, though, it’s a movie powered by simmering tension between an all-too-human couple that smartly teases out the feeling that everything seems normal but is clearly off balance over a perfectly-judged 90 minutes. Even the house itself isn’t particularly isolated, but it’s noted early on that most of the surrounding properties are unpopulated given the time of year. Brown establishes the idea of being alone while feeling surrounded, filling out the wider story about some kind of deadly plague taking hold of the country (the world?) with a barely-audible radio call warning Emily not to be “exposed” (a similar trick was employed in Blood Quantum to equally stomach-dropping effect) and a blinking emergency broadcast on a fuzzy TV screen. Very little is given away about the nature of the pandemic, which only adds to The Beach House‘s creepily prescient atmosphere.
The setting is naturally beautiful, and it’s lovingly captured by cinematographer Owen Lavelle, particularly considering the gaping chasm between what happens in the light and the darkness. Most of the truly horrifying stuff takes place under the glare of the sun, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that an environmentalist message is nestling just under the surface. The Beach House’s tone is similar to Sea Fever; it isn’t preachy or overly explanatory, allowing viewers the freedom to delve into whatever element of it personally appeals to them. There are plenty of layers to explore, including the trippy, fittingly cynical ending. The more outlandish notes are anchored by Liberato’s fearless central performance as Emily, a character who’s smart enough to use an oxygen tank but lacks the personal strength to ditch a boyfriend who doesn’t appreciate her greatness. The Beach House signals an exciting new star in horror.
The Beach House is also, naturally, a major calling card for Brown, who showcases a remarkable control of the material. A career spent assisting on other film sets has demonstrably given him the tools to tell a proper horror story without overplaying his hand. Brown leaves just enough to the imagination to make his premise completely terrifying but consistently hints at the real-world ramifications to effectively ground it in reality. He couldn’t possibly have known what kind of climate the film would be released into, but the timing is so perfect that it makes The Beach House a bloodcurdlingly intense watch. Make it a triple bill with Sea Fever and Blood Quantum for maximum quarantine and chill.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.