Still waters run deep, so the old saying goes, and it could apply to many things in Jeffrey A. Brown’s hugely impressive cosmic horror The Beach House. From the strange substance that seems to originate from below a calm, crystal clear sea, to the hidden cracks in the relationship of its attractive young central couple, and the well of ambition in Brown’s ominously calm and controlled film-making, the film is replete with hidden depths. It’s a work of constant intrigue with an all-too-relevant theme of infection and disease that will richly reward viewers who like their horror to come with delayed gratification.
Emily and Randall (Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros) escape the city for a restorative break at the holiday home belonging to his father, hoping the fresh surroundings will help to resolve some of the difficulties in their relationship. However, because Randall and his dad don’t talk much these days, he doesn’t know Randall Sr. has given the keys to Mitch and Jane (Jake Weber and Maryann Nagel), a middle-aged couple who have their own reasons for needing a break. As the two couples resolve to make the best of it, their idyllic seaside environment may be beginning to work against them.
If it wasn’t for the opening shot of something black and bubbling billowing up from the seabed, The Beach House is ambiguous enough in its first act that it could go in a number of directions: the anxious parable of mother!, a home invasion like Funny Games, or a sunny spin on the cabin in the woods formula would all be possibilities. Every little detail feels sinister in a different way. Even the apparently friendly older couple sets things on a knife-edge. The scariest thing about isolation is discovering you’re not alone. The hefty implication of that opening scene always gives a strong narrative mooring, but the opening half hour constantly and convincingly teases other possibilities.
This is all done through the direction and the performances as the two couples interact. Not only does the dinner party act as a natural method of gradual exposition, but the quietly interrogative camera picks up every micro-signal in conversation and tic in body language. It all expertly adds to the increasingly tense atmosphere. The small cast are a model of restraint in these scenes; an exercise in self-discipline that extends to the score. Roly Porter keeps things sparse and understated, and Brown utilises long periods of silence where a less-confident director may have chosen to telegraph their intentions with a more invasive cacophony.
It eventually becomes clear that the titular dwelling is falling prey to some outlandish threat masking itself in beauty and bioluminescence, and then Brown hits the accelerator and suddenly we’ve wandered into H.P. Lovecraft‘s holiday getaway. The Beach House lands somewhere between a stripped-back Color Out of Space, a less-aggressive Cabin Fever, and the early Cronenberg-inflected chamber piece Honeymoon. For a movie that’s studiously low-key, it also contains a few scenes of the purest horror. These include the most wince-inducing instance of foot trauma since Coralie Fargeat‘s Revenge.
If anything, Brown may be guilty of trying to stuff too many ideas and themes into its optimum length 90 minutes, which is an understandable impulse for a first-time feature. There’s an undercurrent of impending loss that comes through really well, exacerbated by elemental terror of being failed by your own body. There are however, some threads that aren’t fully developed. Emily is a student of biochemistry, hoping to explore the deepest depths of the oceans. This knowledge gives an air of plausibility when creatures that resemble slimy, malignant Cornish pasties appear on the beach. But, although Emily is a resourceful and resilient heroine, her area of expertise is not utilised or even referred to again when the threat is confirmed as being biological in nature. One of the character’s has a fate that is somewhat underwhelming, and after the masterful control of the first half, it does become a slight melange of eco-parable, infection movie and body horror with jarring speed, although with indelible consequences. What could be more horrendous than the sight of your own vomit wriggling and writhing?
With its incredibly taut storytelling that gives way to genuinely horrific imagery The Beach House is a pearl of a an indie horror, although it will make you wary of anything that comes from the sea. Given the threat of Covid-19, it’s microbial menace is all the more potent. With a fine central performance from Liberato, it’s one of the finest horror debuts in recent years.
Available to stream on Shudder from Thu 9 Jul 2020