The Austin Chronicle

The Beach House

Not rated, 89 min. Directed by Jeffrey A. Brown. Starring Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, Maryann Nagel.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 10, 2020

The essence of horror is powerlessness. The more power an antagonist has, the more terror they illicit. Jason isn't scary because he has a knife. It's because his victims cannot outrun him. Freddie Krueger isn't scary because of his balded glove. It's because he can intrude into dreams – the one sacred place away from the real world. That's why cosmic horror is so monstrously terrifying. It's not tentacles or portals to distant stars. It's that eldritch forces can devastate and manipulate the most fundamental components of reality. It can be light, as in The Color Out of Space, or sound (Pontypool), and that the mechanisms of our inevitable destruction are so ubiquitous that we will never see them turn, implacably, against us is what makes the genre wrap so tight around our spines.

In The Beach House, as the name would imply, it's the sea. Ominous bubbling from an undersea thermal vent give dark warning that something sealed in the ocean is awakening. But the depths of most concern to Emily (Liberato, Light as a Feather) and Randall (Le Gros, last seen playing the source corpse in Larry Fessenden's Frankenstein reenvisioning Depraved) are those of their strained relationship. It's not fractured or broken yet, but his plan to take her away for a weekend retreat at his estranged father's Massachusetts beach house is intended to relieve the pressure of what could become divergent paths. She has ambitions of academia, he (the son living in the shadow of the never-seen "Doc") would rather waste his time on the coast than in the classroom. Their efforts to bind their bonds together again face additional stresses when a couple of Doc's friends, Mitch (Weber) and Jane (Nagel), turn out to have been invited to stay as well, but they're nice enough.

The fact that Emily aspires to be an astrobiologist, fascinated by the study of extremophile life forms, is foreshadowing that could seem clumsy in a less crushingly doom-laden and exquisitely eerie story. Instead, it allows her to have the faintest clue about the world-wrecking menace that lurks between the waves. Her tiny insight ramps up the tension because of how her stomach drops with each revelation. That's because writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown truly grasps that what makes this kind of horror work is the sense of corruption – of the surface hiding the menace, whether it be the calm waves above a roiling, toxic ocean, or the skin that is being consumed and degraded from within. There are no big character beats, because the form requires humanity to look insignificant in the face of the impossible. Instead, the concerns of the characters fade away as they become something other than themselves – the true face of cosmic horror.

As the audience's avatar, Liberato catches the requisite sense of growing despair and fear as the nature of the threat rolls in slowly like a foamy tide. She's the narrative anchor, allowing Brown to left the subtly slimy menace slowly surge. Rather than relying on those classic Lovecraftian tentacle, his is a different kind of seaborne alien (as Emily explains, it's human hubris that limits us to seeing life as anything other than like us). His bleak vision doesn't see the world washed away by a tsunami, but eroded by the inexorable tide.

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