'Beach House': Film Review

Pass up the invitation.
6/22/2018

A young woman begins to suspect a houseguest of being a murderer in Jason Saltiel's thriller.

A provocative setup fails to deliver a satisfying payoff in Jason Saltiel's debut feature. A slow-burn psychological thriller all too visibly wearing its cinematic influences on its sleeve, Beach House delivers suitably ominous atmospherics but doesn't seem to know where to go with them, ultimately resorting to familiar genre tropes.

Set largely in a sumptuous Hamptons beach home, the story revolves around Ella (Willa Fitzgerald of MTV's Scream), a college student vacationing with her mother, Catherine (Orlagh Cassidy), and stepfather, Henry (Tom Hammond). Although everyone gets along reasonably well, there are some family squabbles resulting from Catherine's disapproval of how her aspiring writer daughter plans to take time off from university and sojourn in Berlin in search of creative inspiration.  

The arrival of a houseguest, Paul (Murray Bartlett), a former boyfriend of Catherine's from her bohemian days, only adds to the general tension. He's now a successful photographer whose specialty is pictures, many of them featuring copious gore and nudity, that are inspired by such dark themes as the killing of Jean-Paul Marat and Italian horror films. Years earlier, Catherine had posed for one of his projects, a series of photographs based on Alban Berg's opera Lulu; she was the title character that ends up brutally murdered by Jack the Ripper.

Ella becomes intrigued with the handsome and charismatic Paul, a man fond of late-night skinny-dipping.  At the same time, Catherine becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the lingering glances her daughter is exchanging with her ex. One late night, Ella knocks on Paul's door and he shows her murder-inspired pictures featuring his most recent former girlfriend as the victim. It's not long after she has a few drinks that Ella passes out, only to wake up in her room the next morning with no recollection of how she got there. She begins to suspect that Paul's photographs are not staged at all, but rather that he may in fact be a murderer.

It's a premise that Hitchcock, Polanski and myriad other filmmakers would have relished, from the claustrophobic setting to the sexual tension to the main character's suspicion that someone may be harboring dark secrets. But the debuting filmmaker lacks the chops to provide the necessary suspense, resulting in sluggish pacing, banal dialogue and too many scenes that go nowhere interesting. The would-be surprise twist revealed in the awkwardly staged climactic scenes feels artificial and unconvincing.

The film is more successful in its depiction of the erotic tension, thanks largely to Bartlett's rugged handsomeness and Fitzgerald's willowy beauty. Their performances are first-rate, especially considering their schematic roles. Cassidy is also excellent as the mother who soon realizes she made a mistake providing hospitality to a former lover, while Hammond isn't given much of a chance to make an impression with his marginalized character.  

The technical elements are more than adequate for this low-budget effort, especially Andreas von Scheele's gloomy lensing of the beach locations that gives the proceedings an occasional Ingmar Bergman-like feel.

Production company: Border Incident
Distributor: Archstone Distribution
Cast: Willa Fitzgerald, Murray Bartlett, Orlagh Cassidy, Tom Hammond
Director-composer: Jason Saltiel
Screenwriters: Jason Saltiel, Matt Simon
Producer: Matt Simon
Executive producer: Ben Barenholtz
Director of photography: Andreas von Scheele
Production designer: Chloe Reisen
Costume designer: Yuka Silvera
Casting: Lois J. Drabkin, Susan Shopmaker

86 minutes