The Beach House (2020) | SHUDDER
In 2008, M. Night Shyamalan made a movie about trees that emitted a toxin which forced people to kill themselves. While I often stay awake at night wondering how The Happening happened, not once had it ever occurred to me that someone might attempt to replicate it. This goes without saying, but Shudder’s latest release, The Beach House, is extremely similar to The Happening. The only exception is that the trees have been substituted with water and people aren’t (only) killing themselves. In fact, I can’t even begin to explain what’s going on with the water. Is it driving people mad? Is it transforming them? Very few things are certain in this movie, but one thing I’m certain of is that it’s a wack and washed up mess.
Surprisingly, the direction is one of the better aspects of this film. It’s not the most consistent though. There are a handful of really solid suspense sequences. One of the best scenes in the film involves one of our characters going to use the bathroom. We don’t expect the character to return, and we get a bunch of visual cues that hint he won’t be back, yet the film totally subverts your expectations.
However, for each one of those scenes, there are far too many sloppy ones. That’s only one of my main problems with The Beach House. Another issue I have with the film is that it takes too much pride in its mystery. It wants to remain ominous for as long as possible, even at the cost of making very little sense. Director Jeffrey A. Brown likes to hold his cards close to his chest, and because of that the film fails at being remotely entertaining or enjoyable.
By the end, I had no idea what was happening, especially with the film’s older couple. Even before the cataclysmic event occurs, they’re already unusual characters. Not only is their relationship with each other pretty odd from the start, but the bizarre build-up their characters receive goes nowhere.
The director is also very selective about what the audience sees, and in my opinion, that lack of visual communication hurts the film. This is most prevalent when one of our other main characters steps on a mysterious creature in the middle of the story. While she’s clearly grossed out at first, her reaction seems intentionally scaled back. Paired with the quick camerawork, it almost feels like Brown is trying to hide the fact that she’s been injured. Considering that the injury marks a major turning point, it’s a curious choice, but as mentioned before it’s far from the film’s only one.
As previously mentioned, the plot is very reminiscent of The Happening, but there are some influences from Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers too. Unfortunately, this film is nowhere near as memorable as the latter.
The story revolves around a young man and his girlfriend as they sneak off to his family’s summer home for a weekend getaway. Upon arrival, he bumps into a mysterious older couple that claims to be friends of his family. Things quickly go from awkward to awful as a mysterious fog settles in, the water in and around the house thickens, and everyone begins to get sick.
Honestly, this film had a lot of potential, but it just raises too many questions rather than answers. The only other movie in recent memory that I think is as frustrating as this one is It Comes At Night, but even that one feels more contrived. After really thinking about everything that happens in the film, I’m not so sure that Brown, who also wrote it, has all the answers.
Even at the very end of the film, when I finally thought I was understanding what was happening, one of the main characters encounters a random monster feeding off of a dead body. That moment raised more questions for me than anything, not only about what was happening, but what the film really wants to be. Prior to that moment, it never feels like it’s going to be a monster movie, but in that moment it decides it is almost arbitrarily.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The only thing worse than this film’s inconsistency is its convenience. The young female lead, played by newcomer Liana Liberato, just so happens to be obsessed with aquatic life, as well as the endless possibilities that the ocean presents. With the water being such a threat, she should be the most knowledgeable about what’s happening, right? She isn’t. Instead, she’s clueless, and comes across more as a device meant to set up the plot. She opens up the audience to the idea that there’s more to water than meets the eye, but not once is she ever even willing to face it. In fact, while she technically does become the film’s “final girl,” I’m not even sure she deserves the title because she fails to confront anything in the climax. Still, she’s easily the film’s best character. That’s not saying a lot though.
Aside from the older couple, played by Maryanne Nagel and Jake Weber, the only other character in the film is her boyfriend. And my only thoughts about him are that he’s a generic jerk. He doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself, and the more you learn about him, the less you care about him.
It’s hard to care about any of the four leads really. In addition to them being all uninteresting, you’re never given a reason to care for any of them, which is why it’s so easy to shrug your shoulders when the credits roll.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
"...Shudder’s latest release, The Beach House, is extremely similar to The Happening...."
Now, nearly all of the film’s effects are practical, and I actually didn’t mind them. The only problem I have with the film’s effects is that I can count how many there are on one hand. I’ve actually already mentioned them in this review too. The first major display of practical effects is the foot injury that our young female lead gets. It’s more gross than gory, but it looks absolutely authentic.
The other instance in which practical effects are on display is during the monster’s reveal in the third act. While random, it’s realistic design is undeniably impressive. I think that if Brown focused less on the film’s ambiguity and more the horror, the film would be so much better.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The use of sound, particularly the sound of water, is also indicative of this film’s potential. Whether it be bubbles bursting or waves crashing, a definitive sense of distance from the outside world is established. There are also some key sequences that rely on the total absence of sound. But not even suspenseful silence can save this film. All of this film’s audible elements, including the score, are wasted trying to maintain the overall ominous tone as opposed to trying to enhance the experience.
As a pretty big horror film fan, I fail to see the appeal of this film. I went in without knowing what I was going into, without a single expectation, and I still left disappointed. A part of me wants to be more excited about the clear homages to John Carpenter and H.P Lovecraft and even the questionable resemblance to The Happening, but I can’t. Like comedy, horror is subjective. The two genres have very similar beats, but it’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide whether or not what they’re watching is terrifying. The Beach House is not, and unlike its characters, we’ll never know what lies beneath the surface either.