Humanity is an anomaly. The specific events required to create an environment in which we can survive are so unlikely that we shouldn’t exist at all. In his atmospheric and devastating directorial debut, writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown finds the suffocating horror in this existential fragility, creating a familiar yet alien world that suddenly has no more room for us in it.
The opening underwater shots immediately create a sense of dread, and that creeping feeling of impending doom never lets up. Wide shots of the horizon scattered throughout the film show the impossible vastness of the ocean. Rather than bringing comfort or reminding the viewer of nature’s beauty, however, Brown’s static, lingering camera establishes the ocean as a threat. It looms over the viewer, making us feel frighteningly small and reminding us of the whims of fate that lurk on the ocean floor.
College couple Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) have just arrived at Randall’s father’s beach house for a vacation. Emily is a chemistry major who wants to go to grad school to study astrobiology, but Randall disparages her academic ambition. While Emily is exploring the house, a woman comes in, and Emily runs upstairs to warn Randall about the intruder. It turns out that the woman and her husband—Jane (Maryann Nagel) and Mitch (Jake Weber), respectively—are friends of Randall’s father and had arranged with him to stay there for the season. When Emily and Randall offer to go to a hotel, the older couple insist that they stay with them instead.
They have dinner and get high (as you do with your parents’ friends), and the discussion focuses mainly on Emily’s field of study. She defines astrobiology as the study of “life on this planet, how organisms can adapt to extreme environments that we could not even survive…the point where chemistry becomes biology, somewhere at the bottom of the ocean.” She goes on to say that “life is so fragile. We’re the right combination of elements, the right temperature, the right distance from the sun…one thing slightly off and we would be nothing. Dust or gas or something.”
It is, of course, wildly convenient that the main character is a scientist who can explain the plot to the audience, but I personally appreciated the exposition, and Liana Liberato delivers it in the awed, affecting manner of someone consumed with intellectual curiosity and passion. Once the plot is set up and the characters are nice and stoned, they go outside to enjoy the ocean breeze and discover an odd glowing fog rolling in off the water. Whether it’s due to naïveté, arrogance, or just the edibles, no one is alarmed by this strange environmental occurrence (except perhaps for Emily, but she is far more intrigued than frightened). Jane goes out to get a closer look at the lights, and from there things get stranger and far more terrifying.
Though The Beach House is an original, compelling film, it isn’t shy about paying tribute to its influences. The first half of the movie feels a great deal like The Strangers…uncomfortably long voyeuristic shots inside the house show Emily gazing obliviously out at the ocean while the camera stalks her from behind. When Jane first comes home and Emily sneaks around trying not to draw her attention, the movie feels like a home invasion story. As the overwhelming shots of the ocean recur, you come to realize that it is an invasion story—just not the one you expected. Just like we stalked Emily as she gazed out at the ocean, so too are we being stalked as we look at the glittering waves. Or perhaps by simply existing on a planet where we never really belonged, we are the intruders, and we are being forcibly removed by the implacable forces of nature.
Brown delivers a masterful slow burn that ramps up suddenly and shockingly, turning into an apocalyptic nightmare. Combining elements of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Fog, and Prince of Darkness, Brown nevertheless gives the audience a fresh take on cosmic horror. The most frightening thing about his story is the absence of malevolence—the events of the film are just the inevitable outcome of our relatively brief time on Earth. There’s no question of morality or hope of escape. There’s no monster that you can stab or burn or imprison. Human existence depends on a razor-thin sliver of unlikely environmental factors, and our time is simply up. The tides have finally turned.