‘The Beach House’ (2019) Review

Sorry this one is so late. It was a long day. I’ll be doing a double feature this weekend, with writeups for those films coming on Monday.

“It’s not fog…”

There are times during the course of 31 Days when I’ll find myself frozen with indecision. Sometimes it’s because I have a bunch of things I want to watch, but usually it’s because I can’t find a film that fits the mood I’m in. When this happens I’ll often spin the roulette wheel and pick a film solely based on its poster. This doesn’t always (or even often) work out, but I sometimes get lucky – last year I ended up watching Possum, which was both excellent and disturbing.

Last night I found myself in the same position and the poster for The Beach House ended up drawing my attention. It’s a shot from the film, with one of the main characters just coming up to the top of a set of stairs with a dark sky and equally dark ocean behind it. There’s a hint of something wrong in this image. The character looks… off. Her one visible eye is wide, staring, and her position – slightly hunched – makes you think that whenever the rest of her appears there’s going to be something bad there. Maybe she’s hauling a body. Maybe she’s got a claw for a hand. Maybe it’s a monster wearing her head for a hat. The point is, there’s missing information and I found myself wanting to know what that missing information was.

I may have also seen the words ‘Lovecraftian’ and ‘body horror,’ which are also attention-getters for me.

The Medium
The Beach House is another Shudder exclusive.

The Movie
A young couple, Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) arrive at Randall’s family beach house for a weekend (though Randall hopes for something more permanent). It’s early season, and the surrounding properties and the vast beach are eerily deserted. The house itself, it turns out, is not. Mitch and Jane Miller (Jake Weber and Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, are staying as well.

It’s slow going, these early scenes. Liberato is good as Emily and manages to make biochemistry sound interesting (when she talks to the older couple about her studies and hopes for Grad school). Le Gros has less range, and maybe that’s a conscious choice, but I found myself wondering what the hell Emily ever saw in a guy with such a flat affect (and poor life choices).

Though we’re supposed to care about the younger couple’s issues – Randall has dropped out of college and wants Emily to join him as he figures out how to live outside of the rat race, Emily is sincerely interested in the world and how it works – but I was initially more interested in Jane and Mitch. Director (and screenwriter) Jeffrey A. Brown manages to suffuse even mundane scenes with a sense of looming dread, enough so that I wondered just how trustworthy these two were. In the end, though, they are what they seem to be – Jane is ill, probably terminally, and Mitch just hopes to give her one last, enjoyable memory at the cabin where they spent so much time.

After dinner and wine (and some edibles Randall purchased at a dispensary on the way) a luminous fog rolls in and the beach and foliage nearby become covered in luminous material, like the bioluminescent plankton that can sometimes be seen on ocean waves. Everyone seems affected by either the edibles, the fog or both and when morning comes Jane seems much, much worse. And Mitch is missing.

There are things that happen during these scenes – there’s much meaningful rubbing of fingers under water and hushed conversations about life and speculation about the fog. For me, the pacing was off, though. I kept waiting for something interesting to occur, but instead I just got lots of talking and Randall passing out in front of the record player. I like horror movies to establish characters, but even after all the conversation I didn’t really feel like I knew them much.

The next day things begin to go really wrong and finally the movie begins to show its hand. Emily finds Mitch on the beach, only to watch him walk out into the ocean and disappear. Rushing down to the water, she steps into a washed up jellyfish carcass, though it looks a bit more like a Portuguese man o’ war. She’s badly stung and sees a worm enter her foot through the wound. She hauls herself up the steps to the beach house, but not before seeing many more of the creatures at the waters edge up and down the shore.

Again, the pacing seems off. Emily has to drag herself up the steep flight of stairs and into the house where she engages in some self-surgery to remove the worm. This should be frenetic, urgent, and yet the film has a sort of ‘well, guess we’re doing this now’ feel to it. The effect are well done and Liberato is very good at conveying horror and disgust, but it doesn’t engage. Following scenes with a sickened Randall pursued by a zombie-like Jane, whose eyes are now clouded over, don’t really increase the urgency either. It’s not until Randall and Emily escape the house and into the rising fog that the film finally beings to feel like a horror movie.

I won’t spoil too much of the rest of the film, not that there’s a lot of running time left at this point. Let’s just say that the other properties may not be as deserted as they appear, and that one of the most frightening things in the film is the utterance of the quote that starts off this review. The horror that happens after this is quite good and there are some really standout moments, but even here there’s the occasional shot that’s held too long or sequence that wastes its built-up tension.

The Bottom Line
In the end I found myself liking The Beach House. It has some great moments of real horror as well as some gruesome effects, but it doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a eco-horror movie with a touch of Stuart Gordon body horror? Or is it a metatextual character study about how the things we don’t know about our own planet can lead us to ruin? It tries to be both, and as a result it doesn’t quite pull together.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.