Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE BEACH HOUSE
Not Rated, 88 minutes
Directed by: Jeffrey A. Brown
One would hope that a horror film featuring youthful relationship discord would be more psychologically taut and entertaining than what transpires in Jeffrey A. Brown’s THE BEACH HOUSE. While his insular, atmospheric, environmentally conscious flick contains a handful of intriguing elements, they don’t add up to much profundity, nor many terror-induced scares. His entire semi-clever concept fusing eco-terror with body horror goes adrift before the end.
College students Randy (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato) are looking forward to their weekend getaway to repair some fractures in their relationship. He wants to get married and have kids, but she would rather finish grad school and earn her doctorate in astro-biology. It’s a welcomed subversive flip of the gendered commitment-phobe archetype. Since it’s the off-season, his father’s terminally unfinished Montauk-y beach house provides the perfect secluded sanctuary to chill and ruminate on their future together. Or so they thought. Not long after they arrive, they discover someone else has been using the place – friends of the family, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel). Their marriage has become strained thanks to Jane’s battle with mental health issues.
Rather than either of the couples vacating the premises, they agree to share the home for a few days. Their introductory conversations are hollow. Their chit-chat is awkward and stilted. There’s little attempt by the filmmaker to use the time wisely to dive deeper into the couples’ dynamics except through superficial reads of his characters. Jane is fragile and Mitch is guarded. Though Emily attempts to connect by being her natural warm self, Randy’s immaturity shows, specifically when he suggests getting high. But just as their hallucinatory trip starts, a bizarre unnatural occurrence begins outdoors as glowing blue microbes dance through the air, coating the plants, and bringing with them a foul smell and sinister effect on humans.
Brown demonstrates an astute eye when it comes to his aesthetics, using his camera to indicate Emily’s shifting perspective and conjure up a modicum of atmospheric tension. Lingering cutaway shots of the poured wine, soap bubbles in the sink, and ocean water washing over sand give nature a silent, but foreboding presence. The sideways position the camera takes while Emily is sunbathing on the empty beach the following morning connotes her world being set off-kilter. Even the serene shoreline provides a lovely juxtaposition to the unfolding dangers.
Thematic undertones engage the audience, albeit in a rudimentary manner, with heady connections between man and ecology, positing that humankind’s innate drive to feed on nature is a parasitic relationship. The two couples sport wardrobes made from natural fabrics, feast on fresh oysters from the nearby ocean, drink wine harvested from the land, and partake in weed-laced edibles all before nature strikes out in its environmental attack against humans.
Perhaps the strongest, most assured sequence in the film is when Emily, who’s had to desperately crawl up a comically large flight of stairs after being stung by a jellyfish, has to clean her wound. Not only does she have to sterilize it, she notices something worm-like crawling inside the infected area and has to fish it out with a kitchen knife and tongs. Gross-out body horror comingles with pure adrenaline in this scene, solidifying the character’s internal and external stakes.
However, Brown’s eerie undercurrent is weakened, particularly when things in the third act settle into a predictable, “final girl” survivalist mode with Emily’s inevitable escape. She makes clichéd and contrived mistakes typical in genre films of this ilk in order to service the screenwriter’s wants, instead of remaining true to her previously heralded smarts. There’s a large, yawn-inducing lull in energy when she and her compromised beau flee to a neighbor’s seemingly-abandoned home, seeking shelter from the dense, poisonous fog rolling into the town. The filmmaker works under the assumption that we are rooting for Randy in any capacity, but the character has been a heel from the start. It’s stereotypical ingredients like those that hold the feature back from true innovation.
THE BEACH HOUSE begins streaming on Shudder on July 9.