[This story contains spoilers for The Beach House]
The rules humanity thought it knew are breaking down. There’s a texture of unreality in the air as time takes on a strange new meaning and the traditional channels of communication fall away. And in the eldritch mists that sweep across a small coastal town, two couples discover something primordial and entropic. Jeffrey A. Brown’s debut feature film, The Beach House, is one of the most frightening horror films to come out of 2020 thus far, not simply because it takes us into the Lovecraftian waters of the unknown but because it hits so close to home.
Despite the fact that it was shot before the world was turned upside down, it is impossible not to look at Brown’s film within the context of our current climate. The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world only serves to enhance the anxiety induced by the film. Pandemic films like The Crazies (1973), Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) have found a new audience this year as parallels are drawn between films past and the current situation. Undoubtedly, the aftereffects of this year will be felt within the horror genre for years to come. But Brown’s debut film isn’t interested in depicting a pandemic in the way we’ve seen before — or in looking at the origins and immediate response to the event. In fact, the term pandemic seems too temporary for what The Beach House unleashes. What’s witnessed in this film is sickness as a means of evolution, a global reshaping that the film’s characters stumble into when it is already too late, and the possibility of a cure or refuge are as useless as trying to hold back the tide with a rope.
Before the film gets into the grim nature of it all, it tees up its horror with a breakdown of familiar structures. When college couple Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) arrive at beach house for a romantic getaway, their relationship is already strained. The arrival of a second, older couple, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), friends of Randall’s father who also thought they’d have the beach house to themselves, only serve to put further strain on their relationship. We witness two relationships on the verge of breaking apart — Emily and Randall’s due to the fact that their lives are pulling them in different directions, and Mitch and Jane’s because of the latter’s terminal yet unrevealed illness. Brown digs through the broken pieces of these characters, leaving them exposed and finding further smaller pieces to then break apart. Thus, the inevitable breakup of two couples become mirrored in Randall’s monologue about his decision to leave college, a rejection of a broken American dream, and Emily’s breakdown of her studies in the origins of life on Earth, the breaking apart of biochemical structures to reform and become something new. Later, when the couples share edibles, their inhibitions break down, and the lines between the two couples begin to blur at the edges, foreshadowing the horror that occurs the following day when Jane’s health deteriorates further and strange pods wash up on the beach.
In true Lovecraft fashion, The Beach House is less interested is providing concrete answers to its horror but creating a physical and emotional reaction to that horror, as the biology of the characters and their surroundings begin to breakdown, devolve and reform. There are allusions to a cause, and the film plays with the audience notion of how these stories tend to go. But as Emily later hears on the radio, “It’s not fog.” The beach house and the beach surrounding it are not the cause of the biological breakdown that’s taking place, only a petri dish sample for what’s happening to the whole world within this film.
There are some obvious similarities to Lovecraft’s stories Dagon and The Colour Out of Space, but Brown manages to take those similarities and remold them into a uniquely modern statement about our very existence and how the patterns of communication as well as emotional and structural breakdowns provide a blueprint for the remaking of humanity. As the primordial stew that seeps from faucets and out of the ocean takes hold, the film enters the territory of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna levels of goopiness and gore that’s both stomach churning and impossible to look away from.
Brown ambitiously manages to play upon present-day fears while evoking the horror of the past, depicting the cosmic destruction of the human race thorough the intimate unraveling of a relationship. The Beach House preys on our existential fears, marrying the terror of isolation and body horror in order to breakdown the very concept of self. And as self becomes an increasingly important concept to hold on to during these times of solitude, The Beach House can’t help but get under the skin.
The Beach House is now streaming on Shudder.