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Director/writer Jeffrey A. Brown’s feature debut, The Beach House (on Shudder starting Thursday, July 9), is a slow-burn turn from relationship drama to creeping cosmic horror.
“Escaping to his family’s beach house to reconnect, Emily and Randall find their off-season trip interrupted by Mitch and Jane Turner, an older couple acquainted with Randall’s estranged father. Unexpected bonds form as the couples let loose and enjoy the isolation, but it all takes an ominous turn as increasingly strange environmental phenomena begin to warp their peaceful evening. As the effects of an infection become evident, Emily struggles to make sense of the contagion before it’s too late.”
After appearances as part of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, Chattanooga Film Festival, Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival, and Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, Brown’s film has generated a lot of acclaim, and for good reason. The Beach House is the Lovecraftian terror for which I’d long hoped, but had yet to see fully realized onscreen.
As Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) find their way to the Provincetown collection of beach houses, the couple is obviously coming off of a rough patch in their relationship. When the pair fool around shortly after arriving in the house – quite literally, as they walk in the door, and then upstairs to a bedroom – their post-coital conversation turns to the fact that Randall wants the pair to move into the house. This would mean that Emily would have to give up on her hopes of grad school, which her boyfriend dismisses as being stupid.
She leaves the bed, ostensibly to use the bathroom, and it is then that things begin to get weird. She discovers a medicine cabinet full of pills, and upon further inspection, the fridge is stocked and there are dishes on the kitchen counters. Obviously, they are not alone. Then, in walk Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryanne Nagel). friends of Randall’s father, who are staying there as Jane deals with what seems to be a terminal diagnosis.
Emily and Randall are going to leave and go stay in a hotel, feeling awkward as they do, but the older couple implore the younger pair to stay, given that there’s plenty of room. They share dinner and drinks, and as the wine runs out, Randall offers up some edibles when it’s apparent nobody’s sober enough to drive to town for more supplies.
It is here that things begin to go awry. Brown plays with the idea that everything being depicted onscreen might just be the results of splitting a massive bar of weed chocolate four ways after some drinking, and that allows the colors and temporal perception to get really, really weird. Everything is suffused with a purple haze (nice), and the air is filled with minute particulates. Jane briefly goes missing, tempers are raised, and then they all head to bed.
From there on out, things in The Beach House only go further astray. Jane begins to suffer from pains, but given the vast array of medications on which she is dependent, and the wine and weed from the night before, it’s up in the air as to what actually is going on. Slowly but surely, however, creatures begin to wash up on the beach. The water turns thick and viscous. The talk of the night before, regarding how little of what man might know of the vast oceanic depths and what secrets they might hold, begins to seem less like intoxicated tale-spinning and more like a terrifying portent of things to come.
The means by which this slow and steady descent into madness takes place is communicated almost entirely visually. Given that the beginning of the film is so loaded with discussion, you would think that the lack of dialogue as the film progresses would suddenly loom like an open void. However, the skillful way in which cinematographer Owen Levelle lenses The Beach House means that every shot clearly communicates to the viewer what’s taking place.
Suffice it to say, things are not good. There are dead, eerie creatures washing up on the beach and doing … things … when folks get too close. The air begins to be filled with a choking fog, the surroundings and people begin to transform, and the only direct knowledge of what’s going on comes through distorted Emergency Broadcast System announcements and a terrifying CB conversation. Neither of these means of communication are enough to spell out exactly what’s taking place, but there’s certainly enough to fill your soul with ice-cold dread.
As Emily, Liana Liberato deftly carries the vast majority of The Beach House on her shoulders. She portrays a character who is knowledgeable, quick-witted, and resourceful. While she’s obviously a caring person, given the way she initially responds to what happens to everyone, at no point does her kindness ever mean that she’s given over to sentimentality, to the detriment of her own well-being. When confronted with danger, Emily will attempt to help those she can, but she’s also going to do her level best to survive. From the first interaction with Randall and his dismissal of her future plans, all the way through to the end, Emily is for whom you’re rooting.
As the sky changes colors, and the air fills with fog, Levelle’s cinematography combines with Roly Porter’s score to tell a story almost completely wordlessly as the film winds up and Emily is desperately trying to escape. The Beach House works its way from lazy stroll to full-tilt panicked run in 90 minutes, and it’s done so deftly, you never notice until the film is over, and you’re left feeling as if someone just slapped you in the face with a copy of the Necronomicon.
For the record, I watched this at 8am on a Sunday and it just backhanded all of the joy out of my morning. It’s a very well-constructed, well-acted, and immeasurably entertaining film, but like all good Lovecraftian horror, it leaves you questioning your position in the universe and wondering as to what’s the point of it all. Be forewarned.