Producers: Andrew Corkin, Tyler Davidson and Sophia Lin Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenplay: Jeffrey A. Brown Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, Maryann Nagel, Michael Brumfield, Matt Maisto, Steve Corkin, Dan Zakarija and Veronica Fellman Distributor: Shudder
At the close of Jeffrey A. Brown’s debut feature, the proverbial last person standing (or, in this case lying down), keeps repeating the words “Don’t be scared,” but the injunction is not meant to be comforting; it’s merely an ironic period put to the Lovecraft-inspired tale of creeping horror Brown has fashioned, to moderately chilling effect.
The picture begins at the titular abode on the Massachusetts shore, where college sweethearts Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) arrive to spend a weekend. The two have been going through a rough patch, and Randall hopes that a pleasant respite at his family’s beach home can renew their frayed relationship.
But the place proves already to be occupied by friends of Randall’s father: Mitch (Jake Weber) and his wife Jane (Maryann Nagel), who’s frail and obviously ill. The newcomers soon bond with the older couple over dinner, which is topped off with wine and recreational drugs, after which Jane goes off by herself into the surrounding woods.
By then, however, something strange is happening. The night air is filled with luminous balls of light, things of unknown origin. (Actually, though, we’ve been prepared for the mysterious occurrence by Emily’s dinner conversation about her planned graduate studies. By happy chance her field is astrobiology, which focuses not only on strange life forms of an extraterrestrial sort but on those that might arise in remote areas of the earth, like the ocean depths.) And though the lightshow is quite beautiful, the stench accompanying it, we’re told, is not.
And things get worse very quickly. Randall, who has developed a cynical attitude toward education and insults Emily by suggesting she abandon her academic aspirations to move into the beach house with him in permanent vacation mode, slumbers obliviously. Jane, meanwhile, wanders off into the surrounding woods, and Mitch goes to find her.
The next morning Emily walks to the beach. There she encounters Mitch, who after some remarks on the fragility of life announces that he’s going for a swim and disappears into the sea. Rushing to stop him, Emily is infected by a wormlike parasite embedded in some glop on the shore, which drills itself into her foot, requiring an impromptu self-surgery that will probably make one’s skin crawl.
Randall, meanwhile, encounters Jane, who’s returned in physical distress and attacks him. His and Emily’s afflictions take up the long final section of the film, in which they struggle to escape the effects of the contagion, which is now spreading in the form of a dense fog. Their efforts, of course, are both excruciatingly painful and, as it turns out, unavailing.
“The Beach House” unfolds as a tale of possession by inexplicable environmental forces that, despite some generic fright moments, depends more on mood than shocks. It has antecedents, of course, not only in Lovecraft’s stories of mysterious entities taking over human beings, but in movies from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to “The Mist” and even Natalie Erika James’s current “Relic.”
But while the scenario might not be unfamiliar, Brown invests the telling of it with impressively unnerving atmosphere, preferring the slow buildup of tension to cheap gotcha effects (though those are, to be sure, occasionally employed). He’s aided by a strong quartet of performances, especially by Liberato and Nagel, though the men, while not quite so compelling, are fine too, even if all the characterizations are sketchy The technical side is also accomplished, with Paul Rice’s production design, Owen Levelle’s cinematography and Aaron Crozier’s editing all contributing to the mood of increasing dread. The brooding score by Roly Porter serves as a fine complement to the visuals.
And yet the final stretch of Emily and Randall’s grim escape attempt can’t be sustained over the long haul; its protracted, often lumbering, nature seems a strained attempt to extend to feature length a story that might have worked better as an hour-long episode of a television anthology series.
“The Beach House” is nevertheless a generally strong example of independent horror filmmaking, and a promising debut for Brown.