“Don’t drink the water
There’s blood in the water.”
—“Don’t Drink the Water,” Dave Matthews Band
“For me, it was like a return to the womb. I was absorbed by mother ocean … in all her wondrous glory.”
—Frenchman, “Happycake,” Sealab 2021
You may have noticed a mini-trend in the cinematic discourse recently: As theaters remain physically closed thanks to COVID-19 and there’s an increased focus on films available digitally or through streaming services, there’s been an upswing in essays labeling certain movies appropriate for this current pandemic moment. There was that initial wave of pieces about films like Contagion and Outbreak. Then a series of pieces about the comfort movies we can turn to during this time (full disclosure, I wrote one of these myself, about Good Will Hunting). And now we’re beginning to hear about, or even watch, films actually produced during quarantine, like that upcoming project with Zendaya and John David Washington from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, or the horror movie Host, which is now available on Shudder and which Kristy reviewed for us.
So, it’s a weird time in the movie world, with a number of different films overlapping with what we’re all currently living through—with the panic, isolation, and anxiety that is affecting us. The horror genre has long reflected our collective fears, using social and cultural issues as subtext for grotesquerie or gore. Think too of how so many viruses like COVID-19 or infectious diseases like Ebola or MERS seem to come out of nowhere to endanger us. The world around us, our forests and jungles and oceans, hide all sorts of threats we cannot see, and the best movies I’ve seen recently that distill those unknowable terrors in a way relevant for us now are Sea Fever (which Kristy initially reviewed) and The Beach House, both currently available on streaming (the former on Hulu, the latter on Shudder).
SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR BOTH SEA FEVER AND THE BEACH HOUSE
The films are slightly different in form. Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is more of a sci-fi thriller with horror elements, and its cast has some recognizable faces, including Hermione Corfield (of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Rust Creek), Dougray Scott (of Batwoman most recently, and Ever After and Mission: Impossible 2, most famously), and Connie Nielsen (of Wonder Woman and Gladiator). Set on a commercial fishing vessel trapped in the Atlantic Ocean, Sea Fever wonders what is unleashed when our greed takes us too far—when we trespass upon the few spaces we’ve set aside for preservation.
Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House is also tightly focused, taking place in a—you guessed it—beach house in a remote vacation town in the off-season. The location is where young couple Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) hope to rebuild their relationship after he dropped out of college and abandoned Emily for some time, but their reunion is interrupted by an older couple already at the beach house—family friends of Randall’s father. When a glowing fog mysteriously envelops the beach house, everyone starts acting strangely, and the way The Beach House progresses puts it most in line with films like Colour Out of Space or Annihilation.
AGAIN, SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR BOTH SEA FEVER AND THE BEACH HOUSE
But there are details shared between the two films that underscore how appropriate they feel for our current conversation, and most important is that both Sea Fever and The Beach House focus on young female scientists whose knowledge, curiosity, and concern about what is happening to them are disregarded. In particular, their warnings about maintaining quarantine and not straying too far outside what they know to be safe are ignored—and catastrophe ensues as a result. Sounds familiar, no?
In Sea Fever, marine biology student Siobhán (Corfield) signs up for a week onboard a fishing trawler, tagging along with a crew who, from the instant they see her, consider her a sign of bad luck—her red hair is an ill omen. The crew is already wary, owed money by captain Freya (Nielsen) and her husband Gerard (Scott), who runs the ship alongside her, and when they set off, they’re warned by the Coast Guard that they’re heading into an exclusion zone. Undeterred, and convinced that because of the exclusion-zone order, the ship will have sole access to the fish that area, Gerard and Freya decide to plow forward—and get the ship stuck.
Some sort of green slime, oozing from cracks in the ship’s hull, begins leaking inside; when Siobhán dons her scuba gear to investigate, she sees a gigantic, glowing creature clinging to the ship. Some sort of mutated squid? Something not yet discovered? Whatever it is, it’s not letting go—and that slime is carrying hundreds of miniscule organisms that, when they find a home inside someone’s bloodstream, begin parasitically eating them from the inside out. Crew members start dying. The remaining crew foray to another ship, thinking they can find help, but stumble upon a monstrous scene of stabbed bodies and gouged-out eyes. When they return to their own ship, they learn their water-filtration system is compromised. And even amid all this obviously devastating shit, Siobhán still can’t get the crew to pay attention to her—only ship engineer Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) takes seriously her insistence that they maintain quarantine. Gerard is more concerned with saving the ship; Freya is concerned about her husband; and no one can put aside their individual concerns for the greater good.
When Siobhán repeats again that the crew should stay on the boat rather than send sick crew members to a hospital and potentially spread the infection, she nearly incites a riot among the shipmates: “Who are you to say that this poor kid has to die for somebody else to avoid a risk?” they yell at her. That’s the concept of “individual freedom” at its worst! It’s very frustrating to watch! Especially given, you know, the world around us! But Sea Fever is well-designed, doling out jump scares and gross-out images thoughtfully and maintaining tension throughout. The narrative alludes to the Gaelic mythological figure Niamh Chinn Óir, who “gave herself to the sea” and whose golden hair “lights up the sea” (a way to explain bioluminescent plant life), and the characters are efficiently developed. Not everyone gets a ton of dialogue, but Sea Fever takes the time to show us how a group of people who spend so much time together, months at sea without anyone else, would be fractured and torn apart by this sort of fast-moving infection.
And the film’s best invention is Siobhán, a clear-headed heroine who pulls on her knowledge and her training to try and figure out how not to kill what’s hunting them, but how to keep her shipmates safe instead. There’s a difference in those approaches, and Corfield captures a woman torn between fascination toward the creature, the slime, and how it is both defending and reproducing itself, and realization that everyone here might be doomed. “It’s in the wrong place. It only wants to survive. Just like us,” Siobhán says, and that line resonates because it makes clear the choice Siobhán must make: Only one group can make it out of this situation alive. The end of Sea Fever poignantly explores the idea of self-sacrifice: Is it worth abandoning hope for ourselves if there is a possibility that our surrender could save others? In the film’s final scene, Siobhán, realizing that she’s been infected while saving Omid from drowning, resigns herself to her fate. She dives back into the water, swimming toward the creature’s many pulsing tentacles, glowing with green and blue light. She is illuminated in its luminescence, a golden figure underwater, choosing her own fate. In that moment, Siobhán is Niamh Chinn Óir, a woman who chooses death—but also immortality. Because Siobhán’s life isn’t ending; it’s taking another form.
The “enemy” in Sea Fever is somewhat recognizable, if not entirely explainable. According to the National Ocean Service, more than 80% of our oceans are unmapped. The deep sea, at a depth of 1800 m or greater, contains an abundance of life forms that have adapted to those harsh, light-lacking conditions. Did the creature in Sea Fever come from there? What else could be waiting? The Beach House also takes advantage of the opacity of this part of the Earth and our lack of understanding of it by beginning underwater. The water is cloudy, nearly impenetrable, and there is some kind of gas billowing upward from the depths. The bubbles are rising quickly, and the combined effect for us as viewers is as if we’re spying on some kind of great change.
On the surface, though, things seem … fine. Young 20somethings Emily (Liberato) and Randall (Le Gros) arrive in this quiet beach town, with Randall explaining that because it’s before Memorial Day, the neighborhood is mostly abandoned. Randall had told Emily that he checked with his father before using the beach house, and Emily takes him at his word—but this relationship has clear problems, and they all come back to Randall. There’s a real Midsommar vibe to Randall’s insidious shittiness. Randall suggests they stay at the beach house year-round, literally telling Emily her plans to attend grad school are “such bullshit; you know it is.” It becomes clear that Randall’s insistence that he checked with his father about using the house was the real bullshit because some other people are already staying there: Older married couple Jane (Maryann Nagel), who has nearly a dozen prescription pill bottles organized in the bathroom’s medicine cabinet, and Mitch (Jake Weber, of 13 Reasons Why). They seem nice enough, but Emily is obviously uncomfortable—and Randall, ignoring her feelings, plows ahead by agreeing to all stay at the house together.
Randall’s ignorance is one issue, and the strange phenomena that occur during the beach stay are another. Emily spots a slug-like creature dying outside the cottage; although she’s an organic chemistry major, she struggles to identify what it could be. The viscosity of the water coming out of the taps puzzles everyone—it looks thicker than normal, almost filmy, and seems to put a trance on all who touch it. When Emily discusses her grad school goal of studying astrobiology, “the point where chemistry becomes biology,” so she can understand how life developed on Earth, Jane, dying of cancer, speaks longingly of an “alien planet.” Brown and cinematographer Owen Levelle rely on stationary shots to build a sense of tranquility tinged with menace: the endless expanse of the ocean outside their back door; the bubbles in a glass of wine; the mucus-like texture of a fresh oyster. How can things transform without us even noticing? “We’re delicate,” Emily says, and that also means we’re weak.
After Randall, Jane, and Mitch eat fresh oysters from the water, and the entire foursome spend their night doing edibles provided by Randall, The Beach House takes a horror turn. A glowing fog has advanced from the ocean onto land; Emily wonders if they’re “windswept microbes of some kind,” but then the drugs hit, and everything gets weird. Emily glows and reverberates onscreen, her body outlined in different flashing colors. Jane wanders out into the fog; she fondles what look like luminescent jellyfish growing on trees. The next morning, she’s practically a zombie—her eyes filmed over and turned white, her skin red and raw and scabbed. Mitch is gone in the morning but reappears silently on the beach alongside Emily, leaving her horrified when he purposefully walks into the ocean, drowning himself. Emily, running to the water to save him, steps onto a hugely mutated jellyfish that has washed up onshore—a whole row of them lining the sand—and sees a worm-like tentacle slither into the sole of her foot. And Randall, who had left Emily on the beach to visit the restroom (“It’s a guy thing” is how he explains what is implied to be explosive diarrhea), starts uncontrollably throwing up—with what looks like little jellyfish swimming among his bile.
Sea Fever flirts with body horror but The Beach House leans fully into it, using ocean imagery to build our unease. A shot of crashing waves is repetitively used as a scene transition; the sand underneath the water sometimes looks like a million blinking eyes. The increasingly gelatinous water is unnerving; the recurrence of jellyfish is revolting (in particular, a scene where the practically minded Emily uses kitchen tools to pull the burrowing worm out of her foot). With the fog increasing in intensity, Emily tries to save herself and Randall, communicating with an outside police officer who informs her the entire town is “exposed”—and what they’re seeing isn’t really fog, just like how the creature Siobhán saw in Sea Fever wasn’t really a squid. Instead, this is “an extinction event,” with microbes released from underwater rocks by that gas we saw in the beginning of The Beach House, and the film ends, like Sea Fever did, with Emily acquiescing to a future in which she is personally transformed. In the film’s final scene, she is laying on the beach, her eyes filmed over, repeating to herself, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.” A wave crashes over Emily, engulfing her—and then she’s gone. Like Siobhán, another young woman interested in the mysteries of human life and how we might have come from the sea, Emily too gives herself up to it.
There is a certain melancholy hanging over each of these endings, given that both Sea Fever and The Beach House posit that their intelligent, capable female protagonists are unable to survive in this world. But at the same time, I get it, since practically everyone in Sea Fever is motivated by either greed or superstition, and because Randall in The Beach House is the literal goddamn worst and I have rarely been as irritated by a character as I am by this bland, boring baby who tries to strong-arm Emily away from her dreams just so she can be around all the time whenever he wants to fuck. Honestly, if my choices are a society that rejects tried-and-true public health techniques or going to hang out with a potentially mythical jellyfish in the deep sea, or potentially living but being tried for killing my awful boyfriend in self-defense after he becomes a flesh-craving mutant or becoming one with the ocean from which I’m convinced all life originated—yeah, I’m probably going to go with the latter two options. Move over, glowing tentacles! Make way, underwater gaseous jets! Humanity is mostly bad, and I’m ready to see what the deep sea has to offer.
Sea Fever is streaming on Hulu but also available for digital rental or purchase through Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and other services. The Beach House is streaming exclusively on Shudder.
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