Being released during an epidemic lends additional if unintended frisson to “The Beach House,” a cryptic yet reasonably involving thriller in which vacationers find themselves under threat. The nature of that threat remains ambiguous, but in its partially-airborne inescapability, it definitely hits a note of creepy relevance. Writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown’s first feature is neither fish nor fowl in terms of fitting snugly into any given genre slot — perhaps it’s best taken as a fantasy-tinged, low-key apocalyptic drama à la “Bird Box,” albeit on a smaller cast and budgetary scale. In any case, it’s skillful enough to satisfy most viewers, if not quite sufficiently original in concept or striking in execution to leave a lasting imprint. It premieres July 9 on AMC’s streaming imprint Shudder.
Young couple Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) drive to his family’s beachside Massachusetts summer house in the off-season, so there seems to be no one else in the neighborhood. As their first priority upon arriving is a shag and a nap, they’re slow to realize that someone is indeed around — and in the house. Fact is, Randall didn’t inform his parents (who are angry at his dropping out of college) they were coming, so he can’t object when it turns out they’d already lent the place for the weekend to old friends Jane (Maryann Nagel) and Mitch Turner (Jake Weber). Despite initial awkwardness, the quartet decide there’s room enough for everyone.
Once wine runs out after a congenial dinner, Randall proposes they share the “edible” (a marijuana-infused chocolate) he’s brought, and somewhat surprisingly, the older pair agree. Everybody has fun in their own individual way, Randall by digging into the available LP collection, others by noting an unusual phosphorescent effect in the air and on the water outside. It would be fair to assume that colorful glow (as well as other audiovisual distortions experienced in particular by Emily) is due to some mild hallucinogenic effect of the drug ingested. But that turns out not to be the case.
Brown’s screenplay plants a number of red herrings, suggesting any number of possible explanations, as well as directions that the narrative might go: relationship woes between the off-again, on-again younger couple, Jane’s apparent medical issues and so forth. Then at the half-hour point, “The Beach House” begins emphasizing an exterior menace which remains indistinct, but nudges the film toward phenomenal-horror tales like “The Mist” and “The Blob,” while keeping their grotesque fantasy spectacle on a much tighter leash. When the protagonists wake up the next day, they gradually realize the night’s after-effects are more serious than a hangover, and that indeed an “extinction event” of unknown cause may be taking place.
It’s up to the viewer to guess whether what’s at work here is some kind of extraterrestrial peril (Emily is, in fact, studying astrobiology), or if our terrestrial Mother Nature has decided to rid herself of the “problem” species à la such eco-horrors as “Long Weekend,” “The Happening” and “The Last Winter.” Characters’ increasingly desperate attempts at survival take place amidst a “fog” not just of apparent lethal bacteria (or whatever it is), but atmospheric psychedelia, with DP Owen Levell’s images often bathed in vivid, unnatural lighting hues.
Despite a few gore and mutation effects, it’s a film more unsettling than frightening, one that maybe overplays its not-so-profound air of mystery with a fadeout that falls rather flat. Still, “The Beach House” remains compelling if never quite riveting thanks to its effectively queasy mood, generally strong performances, and a resourceful assembly in which Roly Porter’s soundscape-type score sets an appropriate tone of science-friction.