The Beach House: Waterlogged, by Tyler Smith
Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House is, in many ways, a standard, slow-burn exercise in atmospheric horror. The way Brown incorporates the ominous beauty of the ocean and the mysterious creatures that inhabit it works to keep the viewer invested in the strange events that unfold much more than the bland characters and merely-functional dialogue. In the end, though, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, never quite sure about how much information to reveal and when, ultimately resulting in a frustrating shrug that, while often very pleasing to look at, isn’t particularly satisfying.
The story begins with Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) arriving at an empty beach house. The house belongs to Randall’s family and this trip is his last-ditch effort to breathe life into this dying relationship. Upon their arrival, however, Emily and Randall discover that they’re actually not alone in the house. An older couple, claiming to be acquainted with Randall’s father, is also vacationing there. While this new development doesn’t bode well for the relaxing romantic getaway that Emily and Randall were hoping for, they try to make the best of it, only for things to take a strange turn very quickly.
It is to Brown’s credit that the primary danger of the film is not a function of the older couple, ably played by Jake Weber and Maryann Nagel as a little awkward, but largely harmless. A lesser film would’ve used this uncomfortable social situation as a sort of harbinger of things to come, but Brown treats it as an odd turn of events that, were it not for the horrific developments of the film, could’ve made for an intense drama in the vein of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. This could be viewed as a red herring, but I see it as a much-needed element of specificity in the midst of an overly-generic story.
Where the film really shines is in its patience. Brown allows the serene passivity of the setting – a quiet private beach community – to dictate the pacing of the film. We are treated to long stretches of characters taking in the atmosphere, first as a means of relaxation and eventually as a desperate attempt to get their bearings. This willingness to keep things steady and tense serves the film well, as it slowly becomes more and more clear that all is not well in this would-be paradise.
It is, however, in the film’s more overt horror elements that Brown begins to stumble. While there are plenty of truly disturbing images, the threat itself never fully materializes. In fact, the danger seems to be coming from everywhere, incorporating elements of body horror, creature features, zombie films, and several other subgenres. This isn’t to suggest that a more vague, nebulous danger can’t be genuinely frightening; only that to do so – to literally try to make the audience afraid of “everything” – requires a discipline that Brown – a first-time filmmaker – seems to lack.
There are plenty of great horror films that never fully specify the nature of the threat – movies like The Blair Witch Project and The Mist – but the uncertainty always stems from the characters‘ ignorance, not the director’s. The filmmaker is choosing which tidbits of information to share with the audience, but we get a real sense that the film’s mythology is firmly settled. With The Beach House, however, it seems as though Brown casts as wide a net as he can without ever having a solid grip on just what kind of story he’s telling, choosing to keep things vague not merely as a function of tone, but also perhaps out of narrative necessity.
So, with a generic plot, uninteresting lead characters, and only a generalized sense of terror, The Beach House begins to lose its audience. A consistent style is important – especially in a horror film – but can only provide an audience with so much before we start grasping for something else to hold onto. And, like the film’s doomed characters, we eventually just find ourselves stumbling around in the dark, trying desperately to find something solid to focus on, only to come up empty-handed again and again, until we finally just give up and let the film run its course.