Offseason is an undeniably slick film, but one too encumbered by bad aesthetic impulses and a too-shabby framework.
Thirty minutes into Offseason, Marie Aldrich (Jocelin Donahue) tells her beau, George (Joe Swanberg), that the island she has dragged him to may be the home to a very spooky curse, the result of a deal some settlers made with a sea monster long ago — or so said her late mother. Sensibly not believing that story, she has only come to this island because her mother’s grave has been vandalized and it’s urgent that she set things right. When she becomes trapped on the island — the drawbridge goes up at the start of the offseason and won’t go down until spring — Marie discovers that the curse is real and all the townsfolk become possessed, hauntingly still zombies throughout the offseason.
This is well-trodden ground, but as with most generic set-ups in the genre, it can be fertile territory for a novel idea or a filmmaker with a good sense for horror. Director Mickey Keating, unfortunately, has neither the good idea nor the chops to turn this into an effective scary movie. Instead, he seems most interested in aesthetics, both his own and that of his obvious cosmic horror influences. The result is the most shallow of Lovecraft homages, complete with an eldritch abomination from the sea but missing any actual interest in the Weird or unknowable. It plays like the work of someone whose only experience with Lovecraft is from barely paying attention while watching In the Mouth of Madness. Maybe that’s for the best, as this very white film does not possess any of the writer’s racism, but careless deployment of overused tropes turns Offseason into little more than a thoughtless genre exercise that plays with signifiers but means nothing.
As a meaningless genre exercise, it fares a little better, as Keating is not an incompetent filmmaker. This is a slick film, defined by studied steadiness in the camerawork and an evocative color palette dominated by blue and red lighting. When Marie gets lost on the island and wanders through the empty township, the glide of the camera and measured editing make for creepy stretches of tension building. The issue is that, when things come to a head and Keating has to break tension with a scare, he gives in to some bad aesthetic impulses. Take for example a scene at the diner where Marie stumbles upon the townsfolk posed like mannequins, their eyes rolled back into their skulls. Suddenly, a horde of people appear behind her — an image repeated throughout — and one of the women grabs her. Keating films this in baffling slow motion, deflating all tension rather than releasing it. It’s a choice that is symptomatic of the structure of all the ostensibly scary moments in the film. If the effect is supposed to be artful and lend weight to these sequences, Offseason’s framework is far too shabby to support it.
You can stream Mickey Keating’s Offseason on Shudder beginning on June 10.
Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.