Considering we’re living through a period of history where none of are allowed to leave the house and the world around us seems to be falling apart, it’s easy to assume that we will get a huge influx of isolation-themed horrors. The feature debut of writer and director Jeffrey A. Brown, Beach House, may well be the first of many films to capitalise on this global fear.
Beach House is the story of young couple Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gross), who are trying to enjoy a weekend at Randall’s father’s beach house in the middle of nowhere, in the hopes of reigniting their relationship. Unbeknownst to them, the world appears to be slowly ending around them as a deadly virus transforms anyone who breathes the misty air into a shambling husk.
No-one is safe from the oncoming apocalypse, especially not after a night of partying with their unexpected house guests. As you have probably already gathered, it is impossible to watch Beach House without drawing parallels to the very real pandemic we are currently living through. From homemade masks to the deadly pathogen being transferred by touch, everything feels very on the nose, but that just makes the viewing experience even more terrifying.
Like all glorified ‘cabin in the woods’ stories, Beach House borrows a lot from previous entries into the sub-genre. In the film’s 87 short minutes, you can see several nods to successful isolation horrors of the past. There is the glimmer of hope afforded by a distant radio signal from 28 Days Later, the shambling lifeless husks of Dawn of the Dead, and the fog from, well, The Fog. Impressively, Beach House is still able to carve its own unique identity amongst this ocean of influences.
It’s certainly a film that feels comfortable playing in these familiar waters. However, by focusing in on the relationship between Emily and Randall, and giving the story a surprising esoteric twist, Beach House defies generic expectations. At its best, it plays like a character study that simply happens to take place during the end of the world.
Despite appearances from other characters, such as older couple Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Magel), Beach House is essentially a two-hander. For a film to take the risk of offering such a narrow focus, the leading performances need to be extremely strong, and for Beach House, that mark is slightly missed. The performances from Liberato and Le Gross are fine, with just the occasional dip into wooden acting from both. However, when these two are almost the only characters on screen for the duration of the movie, ‘fine’ doesn’t really cut it. Often we are left wanting more from the performances in order to sustain the film’s momentum.
Some of this flagging energy is down to the film leaning heavily on dialogue to dump exposition in its opening act. When the limited lines in the first 20 minutes are all used as heavy-handed attempts to drop in backstory, it gets old quickly. Asides from this ‘tell, don’t show’ opening, Beach House is noticeably light on the dialogue, which works brilliantly in creating the eerie, unsettling atmosphere required. The performance and dialogue issues are hugely improved upon in the third act, but it is sadly too little too late.
Beach House’s biggest achievement is how expertly it handles its own tone. At first, the film swims in the bright lights and calming blues of the ocean setting, but it slowly turns to the harsh oranges of hiding places, and the dark grit of a survival story. The use of sound design is instrumental in this. Like we said earlier, there is not a great deal of dialogue in this film, but the moments in-between these sparse lines are just as important. The filmmakers use ambient sound to create an uneasy atmosphere in ways that will remind you of Hush and A Quiet Place. Beach House may be set in an idyllic setting, but at no point in the film will you not feel on edge. This feeling of anxiety is gradually heightened by the extremely slow burn of the story.
Beach House is not perfect. The performances are not always enough to carry the film to the finish line and certain tropes will feel overdone. However, it is still an exceptional entry into the pantheon of isolation horror films. The expertly crafted atmosphere will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout, although the unashamedly bleak and nihilistic overtones may feel a bit close to home with everything that is going on right now.
Beach House premieres on Shudder on July 9th 2020.