The Beach House is writer/director Jeffrey Brown’s feature directorial debut, and since its world premiere at the Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival in 2019, it’s been a hit with horror film critics and fans alike.
It’s a small-scale story with some very big ideas, and some truly excellent horror deep in its bones. A young couple, Emily and Randall, arrive at Randall’s family beach house – only to discover an older couple already staying there. It’s a case of crossed wires, and the four enjoy a slightly awkward but enjoyable evening together – until a strange fog rolls in during the night, accompanied by mysterious glowing microbes on the beach.
To say much more would spoil the experience; but rest assured, it’s all kinds of weird and disturbing in all the right ways. Kyle spoke with Jeffrey about the literary and cinema inspirations behind The Beach House, which quickly spiralled into a deep-dive of weird fiction, horror filmmaking and the future of cinema itself.
What is your shirt? I have to ask.
That’s Laura Palmer, from Twin Peaks!
Ah, there it is. Very nice. What do you think of the third season?
Oh, I loved it. It’s like nothing else.
Like, the best television ever made? Oh, man, it was great.
I could not have prepared myself for it at all.
The culmination of everything David Lynch has ever done. I mean, it’s all in there. And it’s just like, “oh my god, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life”.
I heard a critic describe it as a straight heroin shot of Lynch’s entire career, and I have to agree.
Oh, that’s so good.
Glad to meet another fan! And I really enjoyed your movie.
Oh, good, thank you!
There’s a lot of very, very unsettling and very cool things going on in The Beach House, so I’m excited to pick your brain a little.
I’ve seen The Beach House referred to as ‘Lovecraftian’, and I can see why. But I feel like that’s a little reductive. To me, there’s a lot more going on in your film than just aquatic creature horror – I wouldn’t describe it as a creature feature. I’m curious to know what specific inspirations you had that weren’t just H.P. Love craft, because it has a lot more in common with some of my favourite weird fiction literature than just Lovecraft.
There is an aspect of Lovecraft, but he has this supernatural horror and fiction essay that he wrote. And in it, he describes what a ‘weird tale’ is, from his perspective. And I wanted to take that paragraph or two, the idea behind it, and make a film out of it. I’m not crazy about a lot of Lovecraft movie adaptations. I mean, I love From Beyond, and Reanimator and The Color out of Space, of course.
But alsothe authors that influenced him, like Arthur Machen. He had a story, I think it was called The Tale of the White Powder, that had a kind of decay of a person – that was a big one.
Shirley Jackson has a story called The Summer People, that was a big influence. It’s a very short story; only about a page and a half, but it sets up these people staying at a summerhouse too long. It was a really great mood of why you don’t do that.
JG Ballard is also a huge influence, primarily his book The Drowned World. It’s not weird fiction, necessarily, but definitely that novel in particular. I mean, the fact that he wrote that in 1962 or whatever is really crazy. He was really way ahead of his time, in terms of doing that.
He’s a beautiful writer, which is a rare quality to have as a science fiction writer; they’re often a little bit more perfunctory or utilitarian. They get straight to the point, whereas Ballard is very beautiful, very descriptive.
Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, where he’s describing this thing that you don’t really see. There’s also another writer – not to keep going on – but William Hodgson, who I think is a contemporary of Lovecraft, or a bit earlier.
He has one called The House on the Borderland that gets extremely psychedelic and weird. And for that era, you don’t really see a lot of that. I really liked it as a piece of fiction.
For me, I wanted to make a movie that was about things I hadn’t seen before. So I was trying to take these influences and work them into the film – not in a way that audiences would be playing spot-the-reference, but more to make something that I hadn’t seen on film before. So those were the literary references, and there’s a lot of movies in there too.
Despite there being some pretty horrifying body horror going on, there is one particular sequence that I found uniquely unsettling. It’s when Mitch starts to walk out into the ocean, and it’s one long take. I think we touched on that idea of the unknown being more disturbing than what we’re actually seeing, and that’s what works so well in that scene. It’s just a guy walking into the water at the beach, but it’s the implication that truly gets under your skin.
Yeah, and also the sense of panic. When something bad happens at the beach, like in Jaws, or just in real life, you typically have a lifeguard who is the authority.
So if something bad happens, you can turn to the figure of authority, and they can be like, “here’s what we do in an emergency”. She doesn’t have that. In that situation, if you were trying to remedy it, you’d be putting yourself at risk. To me, horror is a lot of “what’s the worst that could happen?”, and so I really played on that.
A lot of the writing in the movie is images I had seen in my head, and the difficulty in writing it was connecting to the images. And that particular image you’re talking about in that scene is definitely one I wanted to see.
There’s a couple of shots around it as well where the narrative is almost servicing the images as opposed to the other way around. I know that’s not the best way to write, but that was kind of what I wanted; how I wanted the movie to feel.
Our team was really on board with trying to capture those images and be as explicit as possible. We took a tonne of photos while we were scouting and whatnot, and just really tried to integrate that imagery into the movie.
The practical effects are really, truly gnarly. I’m always a fan of when directors go in that direction; even though I know it’s not always easy to do.
This film does a lot with a little; it’s a limited location. Despite being low-key, it also has the atmosphere of much more going on beyond what we can see. How did you go about developing that feeling?
Well, that was a goal of the movie, for sure. I’ve worked on a lot of low budget, independent films. Very small, micro-budget to bigger. It’s all about what you can do with a limited budget.
But at the same time, I think the trope of having couples go to a home, and they’re laughing, they’re crying, they learn a little bit about themselves; it’s really about “what did they really learn?”.
So I wanted to take that idea and just push it as far as I could – those ideas of deep history, deep time and scientific concepts. So not only are we seeing these four characters interacting, but you’re also rethinking about them in the context of a much broader scale.
Again, that’s something I haven’t really seen in a movie before. It’s what I’m interested in, and I felt if I could pull off – with four characters in one location – the sense of the grand scope of the planet and the universe itself, that would be a worthy goal in making a film.
So if I can do that, I win. Making movies, especially on an indie level, there’s no guarantee that the movie’s even going to work out. There was a long period of time where I was like, “this movie’s never going to be done, and nobody is ever going to see it”. So the fact that we’re talking now is miraculous.
Oh, absolutely. Especially in a year like this.
Well, it’s been a rough year. The horrible irony is how I chalked that up with the fact that the horrors in the film, I see as the anxiety dream of a young woman coming to fruition in real life. That’s horrible.
It’s akin to watching Halloween and then having Michael Myers knock on your door. And you know, nobody wants Michael Myers knocking at our door. And I definitely never wanted to experience a pandemic firsthand.
So these are real, palpable fears, and I think that’s what some of the success of the movie is – that people share the same fears that I do. And that’s why they’re responding to the film well.
That’s obviously ideal for anybody making any kind of art; to put yourself out there and have it resonate in the way you’d hoped it would.
On that note, is there anything you achieved or even fell short with in the making of The Beach House that you’d like to develop further in another project? Or are you happy to move in an entirely new direction?
Both. I love science fiction; I consider The Beach House to be more science fiction than horror. It’s a horrific science fiction film.
So there’s a lot of science that’s I would like to take on a smaller scale, and then on much, much bigger scales. Let’s go out as far as we can – I really like films that go way out there. And I want to take audiences way out there.
In the context of the beach, we scratched the surface. If we can start filming underwater, which we couldn’t really do on this project, that just opens up the door to so many other ideas.
I love intense movies in general. I have some more supernatural or mythological type horror that I want to dive into. Also, something more psychological; I’ve been watching a lot of giallo films lately. So that might come up in the future, you never know.
And, of course, we’re still dealing with COVID. There’s no out yet in America. That really affects production. So a small and intimate film might work, we could get funding in the near future as opposed to something with lots of crowd scenes and all that. So hopefully something might be coming your way very soon.
That’s something I’ve been asking filmmakers about lately. It’s becoming a reality that what’s happening in the real world is going to start bleeding into the films themselves. We might have to write them in a way that accounts for how we’ll even be able to shoot it, for example.
I really am fascinated to see how that idea bears fruit with films released in the coming years.
Yeah, they’re there already. There’s articles written about how love scenes or action scenes are not being written in; they’re kind of getting away from those right now because of the amount of contact people have to make.
I’m in the production world in New York, so I see my friends who are all working on projects and how their projects are adjusting to all this. So you’re absolutely right, and I think there will be a flavour to movies for the next year.
The movie industry is changing drastically. I was talking about this today; about how 2010 was versus 2020 now that Netflix and streaming and all that has started to dominate. And now whether we can go theatrically, it’s going to affect film festivals too.
I think that might even up the attendance of film festivals, because that will be a way for people to see movies in a theatre when they might not be able to if all the theatres in America go bankrupt.
We’ll still be back; movie making will never go away. It’ll just change, just like in our film. It’s adjusting to change as opposed to resisting it. That’s how we go through life.
It’s strange and quite scary, but also fascinating times. Hopefully we come out the other side having learned a lot and being safe and healthy.
I can tell you’re such a passionate person about movies and fiction and all kinds of media, so I’m wondering if there’s anything this year that’s really struck a chord with you – something that just kind of blew you away.
I keep lists of everything that I watch; if I didn’t think would all just turn to mush.
I really liked The Platform, that was on Netflix. A very dark, very upsetting film, but I thought it was very strong and very smart. I also liked Vivarium, which I think is a British film – great actors in that.
On television, I like The Queen’s Gambit, which is a huge hit right now. I really like that – you could blow it all out in a night. The Great, with Elle Fanning, I really liked too. It really progressed well.
And then I liked Host on Shudder. I like a lot of what Shudder puts out, but it’s funny that Host came out after The Beach House and it’s very different to our film. It has a lot of what I want to get into on the next film; there’s a very palpable tension as opposed to The Beach House, which I think kind of seeps into you.
Host is more of a roller coaster ride, and that’s something I want to explore more. They made that for next to nothing, and it’s such an effective film.
There’s comfort food movies that I watch over and over again. I just rewatched The Insider, which I love. Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. It’s not a horror film, but it’s one of my favourite comfort food watches.
We watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre again on Halloween. It’s genius. The lunatics really took over the asylum on that one. It really shows how to make something that feels literally insane. If that movie had had more money, it wouldn’t work. It is what it is, and it works.
I do feel that limitations often lead to movies end up being better in somer ways, because with horror in particular, it’s what you don’t see that’s often the most scary.
Yeah, but you know, in a Fulci movie, someone vomiting their guts up at you can also be pretty scary.
Yes! There’s a way to do it in many directions.
It’s hard to say that you like his movies, but those are another one. Those are films where, the first time I saw them, I was like, “man”. I’d read about him for years, and they were kind of hard to find. And I was like, “these are really awful”.
Later, I’m watching them and thinking there’s something kind of brilliant there. There’s a naivete to them. Even though they’re disgusting, disturbing movies; if he was more sophisticated, they wouldn’t work,
They’re some of the most nightmarish films I think have ever been made; they really feel like a nightmare. They just make zero sense. And I think some of the production problems that they had making them is why they’re as strong as they are. If they were more cohesive, they wouldn’t work. Those are happy accidents.
With The Beach House, it was that kind of accidental quality. I wanted it to have a little bit of that, knowing that we weren’t going to have a lot of money. And it was kind of a sprint, you know, where we’ve got to keep moving forward, because if you don’t move like that you’re not going to finish the film with only three weeks to make it. So it’s all fun.
It’s really impressive that you were able to make it work so well, and the movie really is a lot of fun. I know people’s mileage may vary on what counts as fun, but I can see exactly what you were going for in the movie. And that’s my kind of fun.
Awesome. We’ll hang out sometime, and we can go further. Because if that’s your idea of fun, that’s my idea of fun!
The Beach House is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital platforms including Shudder.