THE BEACH HOUSE **** USA 2019 Dir: Jeffrey A. Brown. 87 mins
In 2020, we probably don’t need reminders of how fragile our existence is on Planet Earth, but the job of the horror genre, and specifically of writer-director Jeffrey A Brown’s feature debut, is to reinforce it anyway. A deliberately paced exercise in sustained dread, it employs vague but alarming radio communications that recall how anxious we became during our first watch of Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Grotesque physical mutations expose our bodies for the easily warped and diseased flesh bags they are, in the tradition of Carpenter’s THE THING. Moreover, Brown’s film presents a 21st century equivalent of the ecological apocalypse suggested by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, as the environment itself becomes an overwhelming threat to our continued existence.
The set-up sees an estranged young couple (Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros) take refuge at an idyllic beach house on a stretch of beautiful coastline. They are college sweethearts trying to overcome a rift born of their contrasting outlooks on life. She’s a chemistry major with ambitions in the field of astrobiology but has to explain what that means to anyone who cares to listen. He doesn’t see the point of education, considering it a bullshit bridge toward the same routine of paying taxes and watching TV in the evenings. Sharing some marijuana with an older couple also staying at the house (Jake Weber, Maryanne Nagel) they gradually discover something wrong in their shared slice of paradise – confirmed by the disappearance of Weber while his heavily medicated wife physically deteriorates.
Though Brown isn’t interested in by-the-numbers exposition or tidy resolutions, the seeds for this film’s horrors are sewn early on, as Liberato talks of organisms adapting to extreme circumstances and all the life on this and other planets we rarely consider with any serious thought. Repeated shots of the waves find something inexplicably disturbing about the picturesque natural backdrop, hinting at a more powerful force at work than any of us can comprehend. The sense of an escalating natural revolt – and our impotence in the face of such an event – recalls the intimate apocalypse of LONG WEEKEND (1976), which also focuses on a fractured couple as a snapshot of mankind’s possible end. As panic mounts, so does speculation (chemical spill? Algae bloom?), while television stations devolve into emergency alert systems and the dialogue gets ever more ominous (“it’s in the water…”).
Le Gros and, in particular, Liberato are protagonists worth rooting for in a disturbing scenario that nods to everything from THE MIST to THE BAY but feels uncomfortably close to the bone in 2020, the year in which we have been forced to stay in our own beach house, waiting for the next media update to tell us how afraid we should be, both of our collapsing world and of our fellow man.
Review by Steven West