Director: Mickey Keating
Stars: Jocelin Donahue, Joe Swanberg, Melora Walters
The regional horror scene in America in the 1970s – independent B-pictures that played select areas and drive-ins without the cache for a countrywide release – was largely dismissed at the time, thought of as crummy or half-baked, victims of their own meagre circumstance. It’s only the passing of time and the reappraisal and curatorship of folks like Stephen Thrower (his book Nightmare USA is essential) that has allowed a number of these bygone films to be recognised for their creative worth. Collector’s labels like Arrow Video or Vinegar Syndrome place on such films the reverence usually reserved for established and popular classics. By treating them with such care and attention, they encourage fresh eyes to view these marginalised releases in a new light.
The spirit of these oddballs from the fringes can be felt keenly in Mickey Keating’s latest; a throwback to the heady days of paranoiac titles like Messiah of Evil or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. And while a handful of odd moments belie more contemporary horror tendencies, Offseason is, for the most part, welcomingly old school in it’s efforts. The movie also benefits from the casting of contemporary genre mainstays. Jocalin Donahue, Joe Swanberg and Jeremy Gardner have become synonymous with a particular level of lo-fi craft and creativity. Let alone Larry Fessenden. Honestly, all this needs to complete the set is Barbara Crampton.
Donahue plays Marie Aldrich, a ‘mainlander’ who is urged, mysteriously, to travel to the island her deceased mother (Melora Walters) once called home to tend to her vandalised grave. Said coastal retreat operates commercially on a seasonal basis. Marie and her partner George (Swanberg doing his best bookish Ethan Hawke impression) arrive in the misty region just as the crossing bridge is closing up the town. It’s a fight for them to get across and, when they do, the locals are an eerie and gaslighting bunch.
Already Keating has drawn knowingly – and lovingly – on a number of genre tropes from the period he seems openly fixated on. Both The Harbinger (a staple of Friday the 13th slasher movies as itemised in The Cabin in the Woods) and The Conspiratorial Villagers (reminiscent of the residents of The Wicker Man‘s Summerisle) make early, impressionable appearances. Increasingly lost and perturbed by the island’s mysteries, Marie finally admits to George that there’s a little more to her mother’s backstory than she had previously let on…
Offseason wanders, ultimately, into some familiar Lovecraftian territory, but winds this up in the quietly unsettling trappings of a picturesque, parochial mystery (the intermittent chapter cards have a pleasingly quaint postcard quality). The mists that roll through town might recall the more modern trappings of the Silent Hill videogames (is that still modern??), but the whole feels more devoted to the aforementioned 1973 cinematic masterpiece Messiah of Evil, in which a woman becomes trapped in a seemingly deserted coastal town with cultish locals who lurk in half-formed mobs. Jeremy Gardner has a fun little run of scenes as a friendly and familiar fisherman striving to assist Marie once she becomes separated from George, but this is chiefly Donahue’s show. With wide eyes and an edge of naivety, her work here recalls her own past success in Ti West’s similarly inclined throwback The House of the Devil.
Along the way, Keating’s involving sleeper ruminates on the euphoric bliss (release, even) of hivemind mentality. The horror perceived outside of the herd; the calm and belonging within. The storm and it’s eye. Here, one man’s heaven is another woman’s hell. And, while we’re on matters of sex, there’s a pronounced gender underscoring at the heart of Offseason. A commentary, perhaps, on patriarchal reproach to a woman’s urge to better and broaden herself. Ambition is punished, curtailed and begrudged here. The island and the town are the palm of a masculine hand. Marie – like her mother before her – is at risk of that fist clenching.
Offseason works against itself whenever it tries to placate modern viewers less inclined toward mystery and patience. A smattering of jump scares and peek-a-boo appearances from nowhere do little to assist the picture, and feel like tactics worn thin through overuse in so many Conjuring movies, etc. Still, these are mostly outliers in a movie that finds dark romance and a smattering of darker comedy in the backwoods corners of America; a country so vast as to hide all sorts of fragmentary nightmares. Fittingly, Offseason could have been another of John Houseman’s campfire tales, told at the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Fog (another film it can’t help but conjure).
Most of all, Offseason achieves through it’s sense of spirit against budgetary limitation. This is evidently a shoestring picture, though every effort has been made to stretch the dollars it’s been afforded. Mac Fisken’s cinematography is an open love letter to Dean Cundey’s (and less pastiche than creditable contemporary), while Keating and editor Valerie Krulfeifer keep things tight and compact. Their film achieves as much atmospheric worry as Mike Flanagan’s over-long and over-written Netflix miniseries Midnight Mass, and in just over the length of one episode. It might not re-write the rulebook, but it goes to show you can make an economical impression of greater clout if you’re focused enough.