North Truro, being one of the quietest and most detached parts of Cape Cod, makes a perfect setting for epidemic horror. The houses dotting shorelines feel at once stacked on top of and completely removed from one another. Even if you can see your neighbors sitting on their deck, you’re distanced from them. That eerie spatial contradiction is the key to Jeffrey A. Brown’s new movie, The Beach House, yet another oopsie-daisy horror story suited too well to the age of COVID-19, which has quite possibly left a slew of genre directors anxiously shearing down their nails like beavers on birch in response to their work’s accidental topicality.
Brown at least chose a location where coronavirus has had a lesser impact on the great state of Massachusetts compared to other parts, so maybe he’ll welcome that as a small mercy. On the other hand his protagonists, Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros), chose poorly. There’s no COVID-19 in The Beach House, but there is something arguably worse, and it’s in the water, which is a real “fuck you” to vacationers hoping to dip their toes in the Cape Cod Bay. The picture begins with shots submerged beneath the waves, capturing the image of billowing grey clouds of unknown origins just before cutting to the couple’s arrival at the oceanside abode where the story takes place. Emily and Randall are in a rough patch. She has great academic ambition. He has great 20-something slacker white guy ambition. Their respective goals interfere with the other’s, but Randall really wants her to hop on board with his.
“Think about it,” he mumbles. “It’d be vacation all the time. Isn’t that what we want?” Emily being a young woman in 2020, vacation all the time most certainly is not what she wants, but the conversation goes nowhere further because they’re interrupted by the arrival of Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), two unexpected visitors. Though, really, Emily and Randall are the unexpected visitors: Randall’s dad, who owns the house, got his wires crossed over dates. No matter. The quartet get along mostly fine, though Randall is a self-regarding wannabe countercultural asshole and nobody at the dinner table can easily stomach his casual narcissism. Then the sickness takes hold and Emily’s the only one blessed with sense enough to do anything about it.
The Beach House plays an adept slow burn game. Brown fleshes his characters out nicely, giving them all ballast without worrying about whether we’d want to sit down for shellfish with them. Randall, for instance, is immediately, unctuously unlikeable, but he’s real, which makes the horrors inflicted on him matter, and while Mitch has a soft spot for his glory days plus genial envy for the way kids Emily’s age see the world, he’s not a bad sort at all, though his ultimate function is to provide perspective more so than meaningful guidance. It’s Liberato who does the real heavy lifting here as the Person Who Gets It™ and figures out with a quickness that something has befouled the house.
An underrated rule in horror is to trust whoever has the biggest brain. Emily has a damn galaxy brain, in a very literal sense. “One thing slightly off, and we would be nothing,” she tells Jane, waxing poetic about her own chosen field of astrobiology. “Dust or gas or something. I’m in awe of it.” Brown admires Emily’s mind as much as Emily admires the cosmic implications of her study, continuing the emphasis horror has put on intellect in 2020 beginning with Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever. In the event of a bodily alien contagion’s spread, get in the foxhole with the genius.
The Beach House works so well in that survival-science mode that its climax comes as a real letdown, mostly because it comes far too soon. Grant that revealing too much of what lurks in the Atlantic and skulks in Cape house basements would ruin the effect of Brown’s careful filmmaking, but this is a case where more would’ve been better. He’s working in the tradition of films like The Thing and Slither, among others, and if that’s a lot to live up to, he’s capable of doing it. He just doesn’t quite make it there. Luckily, the body of The Beach House holds an abundance of icky sticky joys to behold, even if the ending deserved just a little more time to tease out to maximize its stomach-churning impact. That’s a boon for horror fans, and a blight for anyone with dreams of a 2020 Cape Cod summer.
Director: Jeffrey A. Brown
Writer: Jeffrey A. Brown
Starring: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, Maryann Nagel
Release Date: July 9, 2020 (Shudder)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.