GORE IN THE STORE
THE BEACH HOUSE ****
Directed by Jeffrey A Brown.
Starring Liana LIberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, Maryanne Nagel, Michael Brumfield.
87 mins Certificate: 15 USA 2019.
Streaming on Shudder from July 9th 2020.
In 2020, we probably don’t need any reminders of how fragile our existence is on Planet Earth, but horror’s raison d’etre is to remind us anyway. Writer-director Jeffrey A Brown’s feature debut is a deliberately paced exercise in sustained dread, with strong echoes of some of the American horror film’s bleakest hours. Alarming yet vague messages on the radio stirs memories of how confused and anxious we were during our first watch of George A Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. There are grotesque physical mutations in the tradition of the body horror films of the 70s and 80s, notably John Carpenter’s THE THING, which confirmed how easily warped and horribly unrecognisable our physical forms could become. Moreover, THE BEACH HOUSE joins the eco horror cycle initiated by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, as the environment itself becomes an overwhelming threat and we humans exposed as nothing more significant than seven billion candle flames waiting to the inevitably day when we’re abruptly extinguished en masse.
Roly Porter’s oppressive, rumbling score helps make the picture unnerving from the outset. A likeable but estranged young couple (Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros) take refuge at a handsome beach house on a stretch of beautiful coastline where they essentially have the whole neighbourhood to themselves. They are college sweethearts with contrasting ideas about their future as a couple and as individuals. She’s a chemistry major with ambitions in the field of astrobiology – an area that she has to explain to anyone who cares to listen. He doesn’t see the point of education, considering it years of bullshit and just a bridge toward the routine of holding down a job for decades, paying taxes and watching TV in the evenings. He just wants to move to the beach house and be on vacation all the time. Unexpectedly, they find an older couple – friends of Le Gros’ father – also staying at the house. The pair (Jake Weber, Maryanne Nagel) seem amenable enough, and have parallels to their own dynamic: Weber is overwhelmed by all the information available in the modern age but mostly just wants to focus on baseball. The quartet share some edible marijuana, but something is off about their shared, isolated paradise. Weber goes missing while his (heavily medicated) wife physically deteriorates.
A two-hander for most of its duration, THE BEACH HOUSE isn’t interested in instant gratification jump scares or tidy resolutions, though it sows the seeds for its apocalyptic narrative turns early on. Liberato defines her line of study and talks of organisms adapting to extreme circumstances, of deep sea studies examining some of the most inhospitable and mysterious parts of the Earth, of water found on Mars and all the life on other planets we rarely consider with any seriousness. Weber talks frankly of his wife’s chronic illness and conveys a relatable personal terror at how she has changed while he is rendered helpless in the face of inexorable decline. Repeated shots of the waves find something inexplicably unsettling about the beautiful natural backdrop, and hint at an infinitely more powerful force than any of us can comprehend. There is the sense of an initially unspecified natural revolt – and of our impotence in the face of such a thing – recalling the intimate apocalypse of Colin Eggleston’s LONG WEEKEND (1976), which also focuses on a fractured couple while documenting mankind’s possible extinction.
Brown offers speculation as increasingly visceral horrors punctuate the unravelling story. Originally screened late 2019, the movie – like other 2020 genre releases THE PLATFORM and SEA FEVER to name but two – now feels unintentionally, eerily prescient. Characters question strange smells and taste anomalies before their bodies are host to something unknown and relentless. There is a spot of wince inducing D.I.Y. surgery and well-realised human mutations, but more unsettling are glimpses of the bigger picture, of panicked speculation (chemical spill? Algae bloom?) as television stations are hijacked by an emergency alert system and paranoia mount (“It’s in the water…”). Le Gros and, in particular, the smart, convincing Liberato are protagonists worth rooting for in a scenario that nods to everything from THE MIST to THE BAY but feels uncomfortably close to the bone in a year when we have been forced to stay in our own beach house, waiting for the next TV update telling us how afraid we should be of our usual stomping ground and of our fellow man.