Two outsiders are trapped on an island that harbours a horrifying secret.
Some lower-budget horror movies chill or tantalise by exploring good ideas in an original way, making up in the screenplay for what they lack in technical fireworks. Others are slicker, if emptier, well-crafted slight variations on over-familiar themes. It’s rare to lack redeeming features in both concept and execution, but Offseason almost succeeds.
There’s the germ of an interesting idea here, in fusing the wind-battered, spray-soaked tradition of coastal horror stories with the corrupted atmosphere of southern Gothic and a cautionary tale about the perils of going back to the place where you grew up. But it’s lost in clumsy and unengaging storytelling, with one-dimensional characters and an almost complete lack of fear and suspense.
Offseason does have a few nice touches, certainly, so followers of writer-director Mickey Keating won’t be completely disappointed. (He uses his trademark title cards, too, dividing the film into chapters.)
At moments it capitalises well on the spookiness of a deserted resort town (much like the sinister feel of an empty funfair), occasionally recalling the disorientation of Carnival of Souls (1962). A scene in a deserted museum with disturbing voices emanating from offscreen works too, the epilogue is blackly amusing, and so is the use of the Bee Gees’ song “Turn Around, Look at Me”—“there is someone walking behind you” being a perfect lyric for horror.
But these aren’t enough to overcome fatal problems. Offseason is more a premise than a fully developed plot, and what narrative substance it does offer is stretched painfully thin by an apparent compulsion to depict the most trivial actions rather than leaving the audience to fill them in.
Almost an entire minute, for example, is wasted on showing Marie (Jocelin Donahue) attempting to make a call from a payphone that doesn’t work; we see her standing and thinking about it, we see her walking toward the phone, then we get the failed call (the five-second bit that actually matters), and then we’re treated to a lengthy shot of the abandoned receiver swinging on the end of its cord before we see her walking away.
A slow, observational pace can create mood, of course. But if there’s nothing interesting to observe it only creates redundancy. For example, there’s another scene where Marie is leaving a law office and we see her walk to the elevator, then we see her in the elevator, and then we see her walk from the elevator to the front door. It’s as if nobody thought to edit, so the many sequences like these—as well as the frequent pointless shots of Marie doing nothing except looking scared or annoyed—combine with the lack of character development and plot depth to make Offseason tedious. And that’s the worst thing a film can be.
The film opens with what might be home-movie footage of a beach, a happy place, but soon cuts to the same beach looking far more foreboding in the half-light. It’s seemingly a few decades ago (a VHS tape is featured and smartphones are absent), and Marie and her husband George (Joe Swanberg) are travelling to the tourist resort island of Lone Palm Beach, Florida, after receiving a letter from the cemetery there informing Marie that her mother’s grave has been vandalised. (Quite why they agree this requires a personal visit remains unclear…)
The unkempt keeper of the only bridge to the island (Richard Brake) tells them it’s about to close for the winter… but on they press, of course.
So far so promising, even if the bridgekeeper’s gurning is a little silly, and early on there’s a genuinely unnerving close-up monologue to the camera from a character whom we later realise is Marie’s mother (Melora Walters). “At some point, you just have to accept your nightmares and know they’re part of you, like family,” she says, in one of the few really strong passages in the film. We will also learn later that she begged not to be buried at Lone Palm Beach, changing her will only at the last moment.
But while that could be a mystery to draw an audience in, Offseason’s big secret is now abruptly revealed in a single info dump where it’s explained the islanders have cut a deal with a sea demon under which they get protection in exchange for submitting to all sorts of nastiness once the tourists have gone home.
And with that out in the open, the film really has nowhere to go beyond plenty of running around in the dark, a visit to a bar which could almost be a parody of Slaughtered Lamb-type scenes, and the appearance of dead-eyed figures in the woods who are presumably supposed to be terrifying but might have got lost on the way to a Halloween party.
It’s a dark and stormy night for most of the runtime, and many of the settings are conveniently swathed in fog or mist too (though the beach does have a little spookiness, to be fair). With trope piled upon trope, not to mention an over-excitable score by Shayfer James that uses every boom and rattle available even when it’s completely obvious a moment is intended to be scary, it would be tempting to wonder if Offseason is a parody…
After all, many of the performances in smaller roles are cartoonish, too, although Donahue’s is the opposite (she just recites lines). At least Swanberg is a little better, while Walters as Marie’s movie-star mother is the one character who makes a real impact, her girlish voice at odds with her temper. But Keating’s film doesn’t seem to be intended as tongue-in-cheek, and in any case Offseason is not outrageously bad enough to be funny. It’s just very dull.
USA | 2021 | 83 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Mickey Keating.
starring: Jocelin Donahue, Joe Swanberg & Melora Walters.