The Beach House (2020)

One of the pitfalls of regularly watching genre movies is that they start to blend together if you don’t diversify your diet. The way genre films can repeat and reshape the same story templates into thousands of uniquely meaningful variations is a beautiful thing. However, if you watch, say, five varying riffs on The Thing or Groundhog Day in a month the barriers that distinguish each individual film start to break down. All of that is to say that the modestly budgeted Lovecraftian horror The Beach House was very poorly timed, to no particular fault of the film itself. In a year where The Beach House has to compete for attention with fellow new releases Color Out of Space, Sea Fever, and The Rental—all of which cover nearly identical genre territory with much larger budgets & creative resources—it has almost no chance of standing out as its own distinct vision. Still, the benefit of working within the realm of genre is that these familiar templates have their own guaranteed entertainment payoffs baked into their recipes. It took me a while to warm up to The Beach House as a worthwhile, distinct product, but it does eventually get pretty gnarly while staging its climactic mayhem, conjuring a few memorably horrid images that will continue to haunt me despite the rest of the film’s overbearing familiarity.

(Like in Sea Fever), The Beach House features an aspiring scientist, who (like in The Rental) finds herself in a tense social situation while intoxicated with her boyfriend and a strange couple at vacation home, until (like in Color Out of Space) an extraterrestrial infection mutates the people & landscape around her into a grotesque Lovecraftian hellscape. It’s not just the familiarity with these archetypes & settings that makes the film difficult to sink into. The melodramatic CW Network-flavored acting style and the influence of drugs & alcohol also confuse what’s intentionally off in the protagonist’s surroundings and what’s just mistakenly inauthentic & cheesy. It’s impossible to fully get your footing in the film’s early goings, where it’s unclear whether there’s already something sinister in the air or if the dialogue is just being unevenly performed by the subprofessionals the modest budget could afford. Things quickly pick up once the parameters of the beachside Lovecraft horror become explicitly clear, though, and the hideous chaos of the back half more or less erases the tedium of its build-up. I’m not sure the film has anything more to say than “Don’t take edibles with strangers in an unfamiliar location” or “Never trust a fuckboy named Randall” but its pseudoscientific descent into primordial horror is well staged once it gets past those first-act speed bumps.

There are a few isolated, truly grotesque images in The Beach House that should perk up any horror nerds who make it past the doldrums of the film’s early stirrings. Whether seeking out those scattered nightmare visions for their own sake is enough to justify watching an entire movie is dependent on your own appetite for this kind of material. That’s especially true in a year where it’s bested in nearly every way by Color Out of Space in particular, which goes so much further in both its supernatural mayhem and its off-putting performances that The Beach House almost feels wholly redundant, if not just poorly timed. It might have fared better in a different year, but I can’t pretend that it registers as anything particularly memorable in our current context.

-Brandon Ledet

Color Out of Space (2020)

Richard Stanley is back, baby. After decades of Film Industry exile (documented in the bizarre saga Lost Soul), the witchcraft-obsessed genre freak has re-emerged fully charged and ready to explode. It would be inaccurate to claim that Stanley’s comeback feature hadn’t missed a beat since his early-90s nightmares Hardware & Dust Devil. The director seemingly also hasn’t been keeping up with modern filmmaking trends & aesthetics either, though. If anything, Color Out of Space finds Stanley regressing back to the grotesque 1980s sci-fi creep-outs of horror legends like David Cronenberg, Brian Yuzna, and Stuart Gordon. His comeback’s practical gore effects, neon lighting, and ominous synth score all harken back to an era before Stanley’s own heyday. He even mines Stuart Gordon’s pet favorite source material to achieve the effect: public domain short stories penned by H.P. Lovecraft. The only blatant difference between Color Out of Space and its 1980s predecessors (beyond its casting of a post-memeified Nicolas Cage) is that Stanley appears to be a true believer in the spooky, occultist forces that his imagery conjures – opening the movie up to some genuinely heartfelt moments of supernatural familial trauma.

To oversimplify Lovecraft’s fifty-page short story, Color Out of Space is about a horrific, unearthly color that crashes to Earth via a meteor and puts all of humanity in potential peril. In classic Lovecraftian fashion, this unfathomable hue (represented onscreen as a searing neon purple) drives anyone who gazes upon it absolutely mad, representing a kind of forbidden, otherworldly knowledge the puny human mind cannot handle. This global-scale phenomenon is presented in Stanley’s adaptation as an intimate drama among a nuclear family unit, with an increasingly unhinged Nicolas Cage centered as its figurehead. Cage’s family lives on an isolated alpaca farm (a Mad Libs-style variation on the source material’s story template), driving each other into a sweaty, self-cannibalizing mania as the titular cosmic hue spreads from its meteoric landing pad to the plants, animals, and other wildlife who share the farm with them. The prologue before the meteor crash is a little creaky & awkward, recalling the tone of a VHS-era fantasy movie that never quite earned the forgiving lens of cult classic status. Once the horror of the Evil Color fully heats up, however, the movie is genuinely just as disturbing as anything Stanley accomplished in Hardware – if not more so.

Most audiences are going to treat Color Out of Space as an excuse for yet another memeable Nic Cage highlight reel to pass around via YouTube clips. The movie’s exponential mania setup provides more than enough fodder for that kind of ironic mockery, eagerly leaning into the humor of Cage’s patented freak-outs. If all you want from the film is some classic Nic Cage stunts, you’ll get what you paid for: Nic Cage milking alpacas, Nic Cage ferociously gnawing on vegetables, Nic Cage foaming at the mouth while repeatedly firing a shotgun. He even revives his classic Vampire’s Kiss accent fluctuations to update them with erratic backslides into Donald Trump parody. When his petrified children ask each other, “Dad’s acting weird, right?,” it’s a hilariously cautious understatement. This movie totally delivers on the Nic Cagian absurdity that ironic goofs recently searched for in the much more somber Mandy, only to find it in isolated scraps. I just think framing Stanley’s film as a pure indulgence in over-the-top buffoonery is selling its merits short. As consistently fun as the Nic Cage Freak-out is as a novelty from scene to scene, the movie at large registers as a genuine, heartfelt nightmare. The thing about Stanley’s 90s films is that they were always a little cheesy & over-the-top, but they were also legitimately scary. So is his decades-delayed comeback.

The Lovecraftian theme of forbidden, maddening knowledge can be (and has been) applied to a wide range of metaphors, from the philosophical to the psychosexual to the purely surreal. As I took it, Color Out of Space finds deeply personal resonance in the source material specifically as an illustrative metaphor for the spread of cancer. Mirroring Stanley’s mother’s death by lymphoma in real life (as well as bit player Tommy Chong’s real-life struggle with prostate cancer), the nuclear family unit at the film’s center immediately starts the story off in a grim mood, suffering the aftershocks of their mother figure’s battle with breast cancer. The supernatural, maddening growths that later mutate from the purple meteor crash site aren’t entirely contained to the plants & animals in the area. They also scramble the cells of the family’s cancer-survivor mother figure so that she’s an unrecognizable, difficult-to-stomach burden on her family. Meanwhile, her loved ones devolve into increasingly hostile maniacs, unable to maintain their cool as the mutinous growths resulting from the meteor tear their bonds to shreds. On the surface, Color Out of Space is a genre film throwback to Lovecraftian horrors of the 1980s like Society, Possession, and From Beyond. What really enables it to terrorize its audience, however, is that it’s also a fucked-up family drama about cancer wreaking havoc on a household. It’s just as heartbreakingly grim as it is colorful, Nic Cagian fun.

I was genuinely horrified by this film’s total nightmare of a third act; it’s the same lingering chill I picked up from Hardware, Stanley’s powerful debut. He may not know how to construct a recognizably human prologue before his supernatural plots take off. Nor does he know how to conduct a Normal conversation, if his recent interviews and past clashes with potential financiers are any indication. He sure does know how to deliver an upsetting, fucked-up horror show, though, and I hope it doesn’t take another two decades before he’s allowed to stage another one.

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: Dagon (2001) on the We Love to Watch Podcast

I was recently featured as a returning guest on an episode of the We Love to Watch podcast discussing two Stuart Gordon-directed adaptations of classic HP Lovecraft stories: Dagon (2001) & “Dreams in the Witch-House” (2005), as part of the show’s ongoing “Summer of Lovecraft” series.

Aaron & Peter were incredibly kind to invite me back after previous discussions of The Fly (1958) & Xanadu (1980). It’s always super fun to guest on their podcast, since I regularly listen as a fan. Their show is wonderfully in sync with the sincere & empathetic ethos we try to maintain on this site (especially when covering so-called “bad movies”), so I highly recommend digging through old episodes & clips on the We Love to Watch blog if you haven’t already. And, of course, please start by giving a listen to their episode on Dagon below.

-Brandon Ledet

From Beyond (1986)

Despite my lifelong obsessiveness as a horror fan, I have several personal taste hang-ups with a few directors considered to be the titans of the genre that I cannot explain, but cause me great shame. I cannot put into words, for instance, why 80s splatter mayhem excites me to no end when Peter Jackson’s behind the camera, but I’m not at all amused by tonally similar work from Sam Raimi. There’s no accounting for why the works of George A. Romero tend to bore me, but I have deep love & appreciation for the gore hound & social critic devotees that followed in his footsteps. I’m not at all proud of these “I don’t get it” reactions to a select few horror greats, but I do have to admit that Stuart Gordon is among the spooky titans whose appeal escapees me. I can laugh & swoon over the misshapen oeuvre of a Brian Yuzna or a Frank Henenlotter without ever tiring of their cartoonishly juvenile sex & violence, but Gordon’s own additions to that exact aesthetic, most notably the Re-Animator series, has always left me cold (except maybe in the case of Dolls, which feels more like a Charles Band production than a standard Gordon film). As I’d obviously much rather enjoy his work than decry it, I recently sought out Gordon’s surrealist, Lovecraftian horror From Beyond (made largely with the same cast & crew as Re-Animator) in hopes of finding something that would finally clue me in on what makes him so beloved. It was only a moderate success.

Produced by Yuzna and starring returning Re-Animator players Jeffery Combs & Barbara Crampton, From Beyond follows a classic HP Lovecraft/”The King in Yellow” plot about people who get too curious about supernatural forces and are subsequently driven mad by their experiences with a realm beyond normal human comprehension. A scientist is accidentally killed and his assistant is driven mad by an invention known as The Resonator. Through a series of intense purple lights and bizarre sounds, The Resonator is a machine that “accesses the imperceptible,” syncing up what we understand to be the world with an entirely different dimension of invisible threats & dangerous sensations. The mental capacity to access this invisible world is linked to schizophrenia and the pineal gland (which protrudes & throbs at the skull walls of characters’ foreheads like a tongue pressing against the inside of a cheek), but its ramifications extend far beyond our understanding of science. Invisible sensations (later echoed in titles like Final Destination & The Happening) terrorize the film’s characters as The Resonator’s immeasurable effect introduces them to Lovecraftian tentacle monsters & increases their desire for kinky, transgressive sex. Even in scrawling this plot description at this very moment, I’m shocked that From Beyond wasn’t instantly one of my all-time favorite films. Assuming I would’ve loved this exact setup with the touch of a Cronenberg or a Ken Russell behind the camera, I have to assume it’s Stuart Gordon himself who’s holding its potential back.

The major letdown of From Beyond is that for a movie about unlocking a sinister realm of infinite possibilities, the places it chooses to go are disappointingly unimaginative. On a visual craft level, I’m wholly in love with the film’s D.I.Y. feats in practical effects mindfuckery. The soft, shifting flesh of the film’s oversexed, inhuman tentacle monsters from another dimension are deserving of audiences’ full attention & awe. The story told around those creations is disappointingly limited in its juvenile white boy masculinity, however, which makes me wonder if you have to be a preteen horror nerd when you experience Gordon’s work for the first time to fully appreciate him as an auteur. Of the four main victims to The Resonator, it’s the two white men who most fully experience its mindbending wrath and transform into surreal monstrosities. The remaining two victims, The Black Man and The Woman, are treated with a much more limited imagination. Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree’s character as “Bubba” Brownlee (even that name, ugh) is an ex-athlete bodyguard who throws out lines like “I know this behavior. I’ve seen it in the streets” in reference to Resonator addiction. His being locked out of the machine’s more extreme effects is disappointing, but what’s even worse is the way Barbara Crampton is immediately sexually violated in her first monster encounter, then asked to sexily model fetish gear. She also never fully devolves into the pineal gland demon her male colleagues transcend to despite her equal exposure to The Resonator. This should be a movie about an endless galaxy of cerebral terrors, but instead it’s mostly about impotence & other sexual hang-ups of white men in power, which is disappointingly reductive at best.

I can see so much DNA from some of my favorite horror titles seeping in at From Beyond’s fringes (Society, Slither, Videodrome, etc.) that it’s a huge letdown that the film is ultimately just Passably Entertaining. The feats of practical effects gore are impressive enough that I enjoyed the film more than Re-Animator’s more minor pleasures, but that isn’t saying much. There’s a violent, over-the-top goofiness to Gordon’s work that I appreciate in the abstract, but he’s so unselfaware about the unimaginative cruelty in the way he treats certain characters (especially women & PoC) that stop me short of heaping on praise. I might have been a lot less critical of it had I seen it for the first time as a kid, but I can’t help but find it a gross letdown now, especially since the infinite possibilities of its premise should have opened it up to so much  more. Then again, this all might just be a matter of taste, and there’s no accounting for that.

-Brandon Ledet