Randall (Noah Le Gros) takes Emily (Liana Liberato) to his father’s beach house for what they hope will be a romantic break and an opportunity to repair their increasingly troubled relationship. Randall has dropped out of college and is ready to drop almost everything else in order to live a quiet life out on the coast but the smart, inquisitive Emily has other aspirations.
The chance to mend some emotional fences is not immediately helped as they discover another, older couple at the house who have also chosen that weekend to stay there. Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) introduce themselves as friends of Randall’s father and talk about how they remember Randall as a young boy. The four try to make the best of an initially awkward situation by agreeing to share the house and have dinner together but it’s not long before there’s the unmistakeable feeling that something strange is going on…
The Beach House is a film of two very distinct halves and your ability to delve into the evolving mystery of the second may well hinge on your ability to plough through the first. I’m not going to dress this up, the first forty-five minutes of this are slow and, considering the potential of the set-up, if you’re looking for mind games between the protagonists and a build of tension as to what exactly is motivating these people you’re not going to get that either.
As a dramatic and unexplained mist closes in on the area, the hints of an age reversed home invasion tale dissipate and a Lovecraftian eco-shocker takes centre stage. It’s at this point the pace picks up noticeably and even though the action is confined to a small number of locations its wider implications are communicated neatly and economically.
Instead of a town full of panicked locals charging around, the unusual, eerie quiet of the place – sidestepping the need for a much bigger cast – is played for all its worth, resulting in a couple of skilfully played suspense sequences before the sheer desperation of the situation finally dawns on the characters.
The fact that both the plot and budget avoid the portrayal of the escalating, larger scale chaos on screen is neither here nor there, as this is a more low-key piece about personal reactions to the unknown. those of Emily in particular. An early conversation she has with Mitch points up her passion for discovery and she’s by far the most well-drawn of the main players, her intelligence coming to the fore as she looks for ways to save herself and those around her.
With the bulk of the screen time and with most of the plot developments to make sense of, Liberato makes for a down to earth, vulnerable, resourceful heroine, highlighting her academic nature without turning her into the bespectacled fantasy science babe that show up in so many genre pieces to dispense doctorate-level wisdom while still being undeniably hot. It’s good to see a movie that deals in identifiably real, pleasingly ordinary people rather than stereotypes.
Having said that, the other characters don’t fare quite so well in terms of detail but the performances are engaging enough to hold the interest. Le Gros has the most difficult balancing act in making the stroppy, rather selfish Randall someone you’d want to make it to the end credits but he does a fine job. Nagel is affecting as the frail, ailing Jane and Weber is always worth watching. He’s reliably off-kilter as Mitch, his sympathetic but subtly odd demeanour generating the most unease during those early scenes where we’re not sure exactly where things are heading.
Even if you don’t get disaster movie-style screaming, running and carnage as a payoff, the third act certainly delivers in terms of grisly, squirm-inducing effects plus flashes of grim violence as things turn ominously dark and the prospect of escape appears minimal. There’s even a tense, well-shot, quasi-chase sequence from in and around a pickup truck. The resolution of the story isn’t especially unguessable – and arguable there’s few other places it could have gone, both dramatically and geographically – but it fits agreeably with Emily’s need to explore and experience what’s out there.
The Beach House may frustrate those looking for louder, bloodier, more immediate thrills but if you can stick with the rather pedestrian opening three quarters of an hour the subsequent reveals, icky effects, splashes of gore and an eventful climax should, on the whole, reward your patience.