Shudder’s new horror film Beach House isn’t exactly trying to be innovative: it’s basically a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with some zombie-movie tropes thrown in. But there’s nothing wrong with going back to tried-and-true favorites, especially when you’re smart enough to update them so they resonate with current anxieties and horrors. Writer-director Jeffrey Brown may not be an innovator, but he has a poetic knack for coaxing the old roots of dread into fresh, cancerous bloom.
The Beach House opens with young twentysomething couple Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) driving up to Randall’s dad’s beach house for an off-season romantic getaway. They’re surprised when two of Randall’s father’s friends show up to use the house too — the seriously ill Jane (Maryanne Nagel) and her husband Mitch (Jake Weber). The four agree there’s room enough for all of them, and they get to know each other over some edibles.
Shortly after everyone gets high, the world predictably descends into chaos, as a weird mist leads to gross infection, vomiting, flesh-penetrating worms, and gargling zombies, not necessarily in that order. Emily and Randall desperately try to go for help, hindered by the fact that they inexplicably don’t seem to own cell phones. Low-budget special-effects ooze is deployed with canny, nauseating precision, and sensitive viewers may not eat seafood or walk on the beach for some time.
The early part of the film delves into Emily and Randall’s relationship tensions. Emily wants to go to grad school. Randall wants them to live together at the beach house on a permanent vacation. Brown initially seems to be setting up a Midsommar-esque parable about crappy, self-absorbed boyfriends and their downfall. He also drops hints about Jane’s illness, and Randall’s tense relationship with his offscreen father, Doc.
But these are all feints rather than serious thematic concerns. Jane, Mitch, and even Randall fade out fairly quickly, and the film focuses on Emily, played by the talented Liberato with a brilliant mix of nerdy oddity and grit. Emily is planning to become an astrobiologist, studying life in extreme environments at the bottom of the sea, and she recites her monologue about her chosen profession with a half-embarrassed wistful power. “Life is so fragile, and we’re the right combination of elements, the right temperature, the right distance from the sun. And this measure of time spent developing and changing — billions of years, and one thing’s slightly off and we would be nothing, dust or gas or something. I’m in awe of it.”
That monologue, and some ominous soundtrack drones as the camera zooms in on water coming out of the taps, are among the few clues the viewer gets as to what exactly is happening in the house or on the beach. Brown isn’t interested in explanation, so much as in evocative imagery: Jane wandering through an oddly glittering landscape at night before she starts to cough. Someone walking into the water from the beach in a long shot, getting farther and farther away, barely visible, before they disappear in the vast, empty blue. Strange shells on the beach stretching to the horizon. The world being swallowed in a red, billowing cloud. Crackling voices over a two-way radio whispering warnings about infection.
Even the zombies, when they arrive, are atmospheric rather than a concrete threat — an ugly meat wallpaper mask worn by something without a face. The Beach House’s blank-eyed infected are more hapless than the classic slow-moving George Romero undead, who at least stand upright. Brown’s zombies simply crawl along the ground and rasp in an agonized parody of sickness. They hardly seem dangerous. Their one successful attack on a live person is offscreen, and not even recounted as a memory. It’s an ugly, eloquent blank. In The Beach House, humanity never sees what has devoured it.
Horror fans who have watched various versions of Body Snatchers and related films, from John Carpenter’s The Thing to Richard Stanley’s recent Color Out of Space adaptation, will have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. But the contrast with earlier tales creates its own kind of queasy resonance.
The original 1956 Body Snatchers film is a Cold War parable, as the Communist-like hive mind slips an alien ideology into the good people of small-town America. The equally famous 1978 remake keeps the conspiratorial plot, but massages the signifiers; when mustachioed, funky hero Donald Sutherland falls to the aliens, the metaphor seems to be more about the stifling effect of domestic American conformity than about foreign socialist imposition.
Whatever the specific analogies, both movies, and the later adaptations, are about rationalization and regimentation. The intergalactic invaders have a plan, and the horror comes from characters learning that they’re part of. It’s a war of terrible purpose. The victims whose bodies are snatched become pulpy cogs in a frighteningly organic machine.
After the fall of the USSR, the vision of implacable outside subversion doesn’t quite have the same relevance. Instead, Brown turns Body Snatchers into a more obscure apocalypse. There doesn’t seem to be any controlling intelligence behind the mist or its effects. There’s no plan to conquer the US, or even to get those damn hippies. Instead, as Emily says, life is simply fragile, and starts dissolving into slimy waste almost of its own accord.
Even though the film was created before this current pandemic, the COVID-19 analogy is obvious: particles in the air lead to mysterious, ugly symptoms, transmitted via uncertain means. “You see someone change in front of you, and you know they’re not getting better. There’s no going back. It scares me to death,” Mitch says.
But while The Beach House evokes fear of disease, it’s really more broadly about a world in which the apocalypse goes on in spite of, or even because of, a lack of clear enemies. The only thing worse than being plotted against is to lose the plot entirely. The heroes in Invasion of the Body Snatchers at least have foes to fight. You can punch the people who have gone over to the other side, but you can’t shoot a mist.
The Beach House isn’t as great as its most famous predecessors. The 1956 and 1978 Body Snatchers films are both masterpieces of carefully paced, escalating paranoia — they’re hard to top, especially on a modest budget. The biggest problem for Brown is that he isn’t entirely willing to commit to his own obscurity. There’s a David Lynch-style dream-logic film squirming around inside Beach House, which Brown has to placate with occasional gestures toward conventional exposition and reasons. The worst misstep is the unfortunate schlock-shock coda at the very end of the movie, which is so out of keeping with the tone that it seems to have skittered in from another film altogether.
But where the Beach House isn’t exactly a masterpiece, it’s still an impressively deft heir to some of the horror genre’s best apocalypses. Brown should be commended for figuring out that the world these days isn’t ending with a conquest, but with a quiet, wet cough, like the sound of water over sand.
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