Lovecraftian horror has proven to be a challenging task to accomplish over the years. Cults, creatures, and craziness have to be embedded into the film, and very rarely do the pace and the reveal collide without one succumbing to the other. Premiering this week on Shudder, Offseason is a film that manages to get a lot of these elements in place, and somehow there’s still something about it that’s missing.
Beginning with a journey through Floridian islands, Marie (Doctor Sleep’s Jocelin Donahue) and her friend George (You’re Next’s Joe Swanberg) drive to the remote island where Marie’s mother (Melora Walters) was buried after receiving a very Texas Chain Saw Massacre inspired notice that her grave had been desecrated. Unbeknownst to either of them, the island is in the process of closing for the season, and they won’t be able to leave if they don’t vacate before morning. Of course, the island isn’t exactly what it seems, and it becomes glisteningly apparent to Marie and the viewer that she’s been lured here, and if the trailer is any indication, we can guess why.
Director Mickey Keating (Darling, Carnage Park) knows his Lovecraft and uses whispering, disappearing roads, blacked-out scenes, and mannequins to instill the kind of mental instability John Carpenter imposed on us in In the Mouth of Madness. As Marie traipses through the island’s main street, “The Outsider” in an empty town has some vibes reminiscent of Silent Hill, Phantoms, and Children of the Corn. That’s all well and good, but we’re already pretty sure her investigation is leading her into Wicker Man territory.
There is some exceptionally good build-up in the film and plenty of atmosphere. The dense fog, wardrobe, and Marie and George’s arrival at the gravesite draw a vague resemblance to the first scene of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It isn’t long before the audience is also thinking, “they’re coming to get you, Marie.”
With Offseason, it genuinely isn’t about the destination. Any horror fan with half a brain is going to figure out where the film is heading as soon as Marie and George cross what I’ve come to dub Richard Brake’s bridge. Instead, Offseason is much more about the roller coaster of paranoia the viewer is put on, and their experience freaking out before the film lets them off at the obvious conclusion. It doesn’t bother holding information back, progressing the story like anyone watching just wants to see some freaky-weird stuff. The movie gets to the good stuff immediately but knows where to interject exposition instead of throwing it at you all at once in the beginning. Any fan of Lovecraft’s stories likely won’t be surprised where the film ends, though it’s still possible to have a hell of a time getting there.
The sound design that’s slightly louder than the dialogue volume commands your attention immediately. And while the score’s use of sharp sounds and ear-piercing noises may be off-putting to some, it definitely helps create some effective jump scares. The visual effects are all slight, but one in particular will linger in your nightmares long after.
My biggest problem with Offseason is that it doesn’t begin as a necessarily hurried film, but it always feels that way. It starts with the bridge closure, and from there, the threats only cause a pervasive sense of pressure to retreat from the island. The injected backstory slows this down at times, and the film feels choppy, though I can’t imagine a better way to do it. As a bottleneck thriller scenario, the island allows for plenty of area to cover, but the movie doesn’t employ everything in its arsenal of creepiness and opts for ambiance over substance which creates momentary jump scares instead of scaring the absolute sh*t out of us. Richard Brake’s appearance may be the most exceptional part of the film, and he’s criminally underused in Offseason but makes his few scenes in the film count with unflinching and unforgettable commitment. In the end, it feels like Marie has been toyed with, and her fate —which, trust me, you’ll never guess it— was sealed long before ever arriving on the island, and honestly, that’s fine.
There are also some unintentionally funny bits. The barroom scene is almost straight out of the Cyanide and Focus Entertainment video game, The Call of Cthulhu. An old woman begins talking like Calculon from Futurama, interjecting some overly dramatic pauses. It’s meant to shock, but honestly, I grew fascinated why no one called this woman a doctor. One time is a fluke, but after Marie sees her like this on multiple occasions, it should have been enough cause to take Nana to the hospital. And The final Tales from the Crypt–inspired “Marie’s fate” scene provided a couple of hearty belly laughs.
To me, Offseason is a very riffable (easy to make jokes through) horror film that sits on an enjoyable line between eye-rollingly ridiculous and total blast. We don’t get many good Lovecraftian films, and I think Offseason is worth experiencing at least once. Keating tries his best, and while it isn’t always gold, it still has some mesmerizing moments.
It’s funny that Shudder didn’t decide to release Offseason on Memorial Day weekend as opposed to two weekends later. While A Banquet does extend itself to the food-eating aspects of the holiday, Offseason is filled with beaches, palm trees, and creepy locals. It feels like a perfect stream for a summer vacation weekend, crowded around friends having fun, and I think that’s the best kind of entertainment.
Offseason premieres on Shudder on June 1.