A getaway for two troubled college sweethearts turns into a struggle for survival when unexpected guests – and the surrounding environment – exhibit signs of a mysterious infection.
Note on spoilers: this review is no more spoilery than the trailer (below) though the trailer is itself quite spoilery (without giving away the ending!) I have put a link under this review to an article I wrote about my thoughts on the ending, and my unanswered questions…
A romantic weekend at a house by the sea. What could possibly go wrong for lovebirds Emily and Randall? Quite a lot when they’ve accidentally picked the day the natural world decides to fight back.
Writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown’s beautifully crafted first feature is part squelch sci-fi and part eco-horror, a cautionary tale of a planet that’s had enough. 500 million years after their ancestors first expanded out of the sea onto land, the beautiful sea is revolting – even if its new foot soldiers most resemble gelatinous, wriggly creatures not known for cohesive thought.
And while it’s the kind of horror that results in many unanswered questions – part of its terror is the disorientation we share with the victims as they try to work out what they’re up against – it will certainly get under your skin.
Emily (Liana Liberato) is an organic chemist obsessed with the origins of life. She wants to study astro-biology in grad school, how organisms can adapt to extreme environments. The bottom of the sea, she explains, “is the point where chemistry becomes biology”. She’s also stayed in college, unlike Randall who has dropped out and is now directionless, making himself feel better by preventing her moving forwards. And if there’s a moral to this story beyond not antagonising the sea, it’s stay in education as long as you can.
Emily and Randall (Noah Le Gros) pitch up at his dad’s holiday home for the weekend, only to find an older couple, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), already in situ. They all decide to stay, and spend the evening eating, drinking and getting stoned. But going outside they find their world is changing; trees are glowing, the air is heavy with tiny sparkles. Drugs or something else? At first they’re entranced, though the atmosphere becomes steadily more menacing.
Emily struggles to maintain her grip on scientific reality. Windswept microbes she suggests, as the indigo sky glitters and shimmers. Combined with luminous jelly-like deposits on the trees it makes for an enchanting if eerie diamond-scattered grotto.
Jane and Mitch talk of time running out, of the young thinking they have time to waste. Presumably it’s a metaphor for the time we’ve wasted deciding whether to bother saving the planet; and throughout the film this is about one isolated household battling the invaders alone, just as we focus on families not washing out their recycling, or flying to the Med on holiday, rather than big business, the biggest polluters of all.
The next day Mitch has disappeared and Jane looks terrible, her manner confused. Randall’s stomach sounds like his last meal has declared war on his intestines and the shoreline is littered with crimped shell-like objects.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that they appear to be giant Cornish pasties, Brits – these creatures are dangerous AND disgusting, and you’ll be saying “URGH!” as much as “ARGH!”
In fact the couples’ isolation, and the corresponding focus on changes to these few bodies wrought by this gelatinous, wriggling invader, makes the squelchy scares of The Beach House more horrifying. We are up close and personal watching Emily screaming as she tries to extract one from her own body. It’s a hugely magnified version of the teeth-gritting home surgery we’ve all had to do for splinters, boils and pustules, and there’s probably a German word for that combination of bodily nasties that are compellingly disgusting while eliciting massive sympathy.
The Beach House is very well-paced; there’s rarely time to linger during its 90 minute running time but neither does it feel rushed. The move from growing uncertainly in the first half to the fleshy, gooey horrors of the second is smooth and steady. The score has to work hard to crank up the menace – otherwise during daylight hours the beach would be just a beautiful beach, the sea just a sparkling sea.
Brown builds an impressive sense of claustrophobia from their physical and mental isolation. They try to work out what is drug-related in their heads and what is reality: from pretty colours to paranoia, but these creatures really are coming to get them.
The disorientation infects us too. There’s no real explanation about what is happening. Though those worms, jelly globules and poisonous mists don’t make sense as an attack – victims seem to suffer in different ways – unless the sea’s response is meant to be a reflex action to our invasion of it.
The last 20 minutes are incredibly tense and movingly chaotic. Liberato is magnificent throughout. Emily is a particularly engaging and perceptive heroine: on the cusp of breaking away from Randall in favour of science, but ultimately having to rely on her humanity – determination, loyalty and smarts – to try and survive.
Note: there isn’t a mid-credits scene though the credits do roll over a scene. Nothing happens though so you can sit and enjoy its hypnotism, or go off and wash out your recycling.
The Beach House is out on Shudder on the UK, UK, Canada and Ireland on 9 July 2020.
Watch the trailer for The Beach House now: