The Beach House is smart. It has smart characters, a smart “monster,” and a smart main character. It assumes its audience is smart and never talks down to them. But best of all, it is effective, terrifying and unpredictable, and downright perfectly gross.
The Beach House starts out like so many horror films, in a car on the way to a remote house. Emily and Randall (Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros) are in their early 20s, heading to his father’s beach house for a weekend away. They aren’t quite college sweethearts as Randall has dropped out, though Emily is planning to continue on to grad school in the fall. This is causing tension between the two, as Randall vocally disapproves. Very soon, that is not the only thing causing tension in the house.
Mitch and Jane (Jake Weber and Maryann Nagel) are friends of Randall’s father, and they pop in to use the house for the weekend too. This might have been chalked up to a communication error, but it does not seem that Randall bothered to ask for the house in the first place. There is a small sliver of familiarity there, but both couples are amenable to playing house together for a few days and they start getting to know each other. Mitch and Jane are clearly intrigued by Emily’s interest in studying astrobiology (and who wouldn’t be?) and far less charmed by Randall’s attempt at high-brow rebellion by rejecting college. The two couples make their way through all the wine in the house before moving on to the edibles, but then things start to go eerie outside.
This is the moment where The Beach House begins to show its horror literacy and fluency. A less aware film might not be as gifted in toying with audience expectations and then subverting them, but The Beach House knows exactly what it is doing here. The way the source of the real horror in the film unfolds whips us quickly from beauty to horror, and shows us that there is quite a fine line between the two. The wonder of nature, and the unnatural, can still be seen even when it is deadly and torturous.
In addition to this graceful shift, The Beach House also sets us up well for our characters to go through the same journey that we are going through. Much like Resolution and The Strangers, there is organic tension in the situation, before the creepy bits even emerge. Not only is there good reason for them to all be there, but there is also good reason for there to be some astriction in the air. We empathize with them all at that moment and like them well enough to see them as actual people, and not faceless fleshy victims.
Let’s be clear, we like Emily the best. She is a horror heroine that is smart and makes all of the best possible decisions (besides dating Randall). She is an interesting person who thinks very quickly on her feet, especially faced with life or death decisions. She is also not an inhuman superwoman, like Furiosa in Fury Road or the Dora Milaje in Black Panther (though they are incredible). She is not perfect, and that makes her predicament that much more relatable and frighteningly possible.
Though we do care about the two couples at the house, don’t take this as a signal that The Beach House is slow or emotional. No siree. This film takes its time to let you get to know the characters so that you care a bit if they survive or not, but once it starts moving it plows unflinchingly in body horror at a thrilling speed. The effects are drenched in blood and viscera and you feel every single injury that any of them endure. There is no slow burn, this is a wildfire.
The Beach House cuts sharply and swiftly, but it does so with grace and intelligence.It will leave you wishing that it was the standard in horror experiences, and not the brilliant exception.