When it comes to desolate oceanfront vacations, it’s best to keep your baggage at home. In the case of Jeffrey A. Brown’s debut “The Beach House,” that means leaving behind benign personal crises since things are about to get a lot more malignant. Admittedly, nothing can prepare college couple Emily and Randall (Liana Liberto and Noah Le Gros) from the terror that greets their retreat. Brown lulls his unsuspecting audience into an early trance, abandoning genre altogether for lengthy stretches of scientific discussion. While the inevitable horror is far from punctual, when it arrives it slithers and suffocates.
With diverging goals causing relationship strain, Emily and Randall agree to get out of town to work through their issues. This entails a trip to Randall’s family beach house, abandoned much like the coastal town surrounding it. There is no one in sight except picturesque ocean views. Just when the pair is about to get settled, Emily notices evidence of recent domesticity – food is still left out or stuck to unwashed pans. An elderly woman soon appears, sauntering around the house with lived-in familiarity. Before jumping to a home invasion conclusion, Randall and Emily’s fears vanish once the stranger, Jane (Maryann Nagel), introduces herself and husband Mitch (Jake Weber) as old family friends.
The lovebirds invite the young couple to stay for dinner, hoping to reminisce about Randall’s childhood and discuss future endeavors. Randall has no interest in taking the typical route of education, job, and family. Emily, meanwhile, is an aspiring astrobiologist. She is adamant about the value of academia. Before generational judgment ensues, Randall proposes the foursome get high on chocolate edibles to truly experience the serenity of their setting. Coincidentally, the nearby sea is undergoing a euphoric transformation of its own.
“The Beach House” spends a chunk of time meandering and philosophizing, long-winded discussions foreshadowing the apocalyptic next day. When morning does arrive, the narrative finally lives up to its genre. Instead of invasion of the body snatchers, Emily and Randall face an onslaught of ocean dwellers. These terrestrial organisms are gooey nightmares that seem plucked from Sam Raimi’s creepy creature imagination. Brown’s visual originality flourishes when the mayhem hits its peak, confusion everywhere except for the visceral threat of these wormy monsters.
Unable to escape the coastal mutation, Emily and Randall navigate each area like it’s a haunted horror maze. Had immersion been this immediate early on, the couples’ plight would be even more alarming. The radical shift from innocuous dinner to alien takeover is too jarring a transition. Micro-aggressive visual cues instead of esoteric dialogue are a much better preparatory recipe for disaster.
All four actors make credible the incredulous, especially Liberto whose resourceful heroine is a “Final Girl” of intent rather than circumstance. The cast is given a generous script to chew on, though it often feels like their efforts might be better served in an A24 indie drama. The underlying problem with “The Beach House” is that it’s written like it’s pressured to emulate “elevated horror,” an elitist classification that creates hierarchy within the genre. This nifty thriller might have all the guts at its disposable, but it’s missing inglorious fun.