Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House is almost a lot of things. It’s almost a successful low-budget hybrid of John Carpenter’s atmospheric dread and David Cronenberg’s body horror. Akin to Michael Haneke’s Amour, it’s almost a sorrowful glimpse into a character’s crumbling health. It’s almost a spooky Lovecraftian film in which fog and unexplained monsters are meant to conjure up images of the evils that might lurk in the galaxy. It’s even almost a contemporary take on Reefer Madness, by way of Panos Cosmatos’s trippy uneasiness, as it possibly blames the downfall of characters on both legalized and prescription drugs. With all of its “almosts,” The Beach House can’t fully succeed. While clever creature effects demonstrate how low-budget limitations can often make for inventive gross-out moments, The Beach House’s attempts to cover everything that horror can offer makes the whole experience go less than swimmingly.
College students Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato) visit his parents’ beachfront property in hopes of rekindling their romance. When they arrive at the spacious breezy home, they discover that an older couple, Jane (Maryann Nagel) and Mitch (Jake Weber), friends of Randall’s family, were already staying there. After some initial concern (Emily notices the large number of prescription drugs Jane has in the medicine cabinet), they all agree the house is large enough for both couples. But soon, a mysterious fog begins to roll in all around the property, and as the night progresses, the mental and physical health of all four guests begin to deteriorate.
The Beach House has the tell-tale signs of a first-time horror director. Writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown clearly enjoys 50s sci-fi, 80s body horror, and the psychedelics and real-world trauma of present-day. However, none of his influences stick. Those who are hoping for a gooey descent into dubious dark realms will be be bored senseless by the slow and seemingly-purposeless build-up. Those interested in a somber, psychological slow-burn are going to be turned off when the film devolves into another 1950s-esque “don’t let the mysterious fog get you!” trope that was already hokey when John Carpenter paid homage to it in 1980’s The Fog. The takeaway of The Beach House isn’t entertaining, but frustrating in its unfulfilled potential — Brown created a film that seems to misconstrue the unknown with the undeveloped. So, when the credits finally run, it is up for debate as to whether the film even knew what it was about.
Yet, there are glimpses of what The Beach House could have been. Mitch’s concern about his wife’s fragile mental state is spectacular, and the frightening, complex decay of the mind, in combination with the equal terror of what could be crawling beneath your skin, has wonderful potential. The Beach House didn’t have to be as explicit of an allegory as something like The Babadook or Hereditary, but hinting at a deeper meaning only to swiftly heel-turn into just another early-2000s style straight-to-video horror film suggests that maybe Brown was unsure of what he wanted to create.
Some of the plot developments argue that the legal use of prescription drugs results in dangerous disorientation, making stretches of the film oddly conservative. Emily worriedly telling Randall “She’s medicated!,” as if Jane’s unnamed sickness was a time bomb, seems to root the horror in Big Pharma as opposed to the unknown realms of the cosmos. Jane’s sickness is hardly presented as “Dr. Jekyll must take his medicine to not become Mr. Hyde” type of condition, so having an organic chemistry student be deeply concerned about someone she doesn’t know taking strong medication feels right out of a bad horror-comedy. The trippy scenes of drug use feel like an homage to the visuals in Mandy, but contain an underlying worry that recreational drugs might birth hazardous mental and physical manifestations.
Despite all this, The Beach House is able to accomplish quite a lot despite its very limited budget. There are some delightful, squirm-worthy practical effects, and Brown utilizes color filters and darkened undersea footage — as opposed to costly and hollow digital effects — to give otherwise ordinary footage an atmosphere of eerie dread and otherworldliness. Although the first half of the film presents Emily as little more than a bland “girlfriend,” the second half gives her more to work with. She is never a cowardly mess, nor an unexpected warrior — instead she effectively portrays a believable character in an unbelievable situation. While Emily won’t make any lists of the best “Final Girls” in contemporary horror, Liberato does the best she can with the limited characterization she is given.
More often than not, first-time horror directors have a tough time. They almost always struggle to find their own stylistic trademark amidst the influence of decades spent swimming in the seas of inspiration. While The Beach House isn’t a wholly successful film, it peaks interest in seeing what Jeffrey A. Brown will create in the future. In the meantime, The Beach House might crumble in on itself, but at least the view is nice.