There’s a reason filmmakers on a budget turn to horror. No genre lets you do more with less. David Lynch created existential terror by holding on a spinning ceiling fan in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Phillip Kaufman zoomed in on cells of seawater to create an alien homeworld in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez made a guy in a corner the stuff of nightmares in The Blair Witch Project.
For his debut feature film The Beach House, writer/director Jeffery A. Brown crafts a premise perfect for a limited budget. Hoping to rekindle their romance, biology major Emily (Liana Liberato) and college dropout Randall (Noah Le Gros) make an impromptu trip to the latter\’s family beach house. They discover the house already occupied by friends of Randall\’s father, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) Turner. The Turners have come to find respite as Jane battles an unnamed disease, and the young couple fills them with hope. They see life’s full potential in Emily’s plans to study biology in graduate school and in Randall’s wanderlust. But the trip soon takes a turn for the worst, as microbes from the sea begin infecting and changing the residents.
At times, Brown and his cinematographer Owen Levelle make the most of the story. Like Kauffman, they use close-ups and dissolves onto puddles of water and sea life to remind us that we’re surrounded by the unknown. They find sublime terror in a wide shot of Mitch shrinking as he wades further into the vast ocean and a worm’s eye view shot of a wooden staircase connecting the beach to the house. When it’s time for more overt horror, special effects from Peter Gerner and Andrew Benepe satisfy in every stomach-turning way. Although used sparingly, images of people vomiting goop and worms crawling through appendages stick with a viewer long after the movie cuts away from the carnage.
Weber and Nagel give enjoyably big performances as the troubled older couple, and Brown keeps Jane’s disease as mysterious as the biological threat surrounding them. However, the movie focuses not on the Turners, but on Randall and Emily, who are far less interesting.
Despite a flat reading here and there, Liberato makes an passable final girl. Her character’s education doesn’t come into play as much as the movie’s first acts suggest, but Liberato remains believably determined throughout. Still, anyone who has seen a horror movie already knows the resourceful young woman who continues fighting when all goes wrong, and neither Brown nor Liberato can make Emily standout from that distinguished crowd.
Le Gros fairs worse as Randall. In the first half of the film, Randall feels like dead weight, a privileged burnout who Emily should have dumped instead of agreeing to go on this trip to rekindle their relationship. After the infection, Randall becomes literal dead weight — too weak to move on his own and dependent on Emily to drag him along. Le Gros’s performance doesn’t help, so low-key he almost droops off the screen. The character only comes to life when struck with a sudden case of diarrhea. Hardly the most exciting co-lead.
Unfortunately, the film follows the lead of Randall instead of any of its three more interesting characters. So much of the film is spent sitting, sleeping, or dragging. The characters’ decision to take marijuana edibles the same night the infection begins allows for some trippy visuals, but it also makes them lethargic, which is hardly the most exciting thing on the screen. When they’re awake, the characters limp and stumble, and the actors grunting and moaning hardly builds tension.
When its building suspense with shots of bizarre-looking water or paying it off with quality body horror, The Beach House works. But the majority of the movie is spent lazing and limping around, waiting for something exciting to happen, making too little out of its rich potential.