The days of really original ideas are long gone as every movie feels inspired or connected to an older movie in one way or another. This is no reason for critical drubbing either, because it depends on what a filmmaker does with this inspiration. Mickey Keatingis the latest Off-season, will remind genre fans of any number of films from the past few decades through to last year, but despite what it remembers here, the film never finds a way to stand on its own.
Marie Aldrich (Jocelin Donahue) is on the way to the small island community of her mother Ava (Melora Walters) called home once after being called by a city official. It appears that her mother’s grave site in Lone Palm Beach has been disrupted – this is Marie’s first red flag – and she needs to address the problem sooner rather than later. She arrives with her wet blanket lover George (Joe Swanberg) in tow and is warned by Bridge Man (Richard Brake) that a penetrating storm signals the closure of the island, which means they have to hurry as the bridge will not reopen until spring after it has been lifted. The city and its surrounding palm-fringed landscape are an instant source of discomfort as incessant fog, alternating aggressive and strange city dwellers, and a lack of answers hamper their visit. And then it gets really weird.
In barely more than eighty minutes, Offseason wastes no time delving into the strange behaviors and secrets of both the locals and Marie’s mother. The latter is explored through flashbacks and expositions that reveal early on that Ava believed Lone Palm Beach was cursed by a long-forgotten association with a creature that crawled out of the ocean and offered a bounty and eternal life. It was the babble of a dying woman, or so Marie believed, but as she wanders eerily empty streets, facing silent, dead eyes and struggling to escape, she realizes too late that the Lovecraft small town warnings should be heeded.
Keating’s film belongs in the canon of dreamy nightmares that unfold with less regard for logic than atmosphere, and this is just as deliberate as a story that doesn’t try too hard to bring together its details. Information seeps through past and present conversations, and while most city dwellers are opaque, others like the Bridge Man or the Fisherman (Jeremy Gardner) offer a swirling mix of legend and warning. Marie’s focus shifts from curiosity to panic, but escaping an unreal fate seems increasingly unlikely as the streets become disoriented, faces in the forest become ominous, and the end draws nearer.
There is some fear of jumping, but Offseason is more interested in an atmospheric discomfort, which is a strong point for Keating. From the eerie emptiness and day / night ambiguity to frozen locals who don’t move until it’s time to chase Marie through the streets, the film best recalls the 1973 Messiah of Evil. As frightening as her uncertainty Whatever the case, it’s all compounded by a bunch of invading, pale-eyed ghouls getting closer and closer.
While Willard Huyck’s cult classic feels like the immediate inspiration (or even template), other films still come to mind, including Dead & Buried (1981), Dagon (2001), Silent Hill (2006) and The Block Island Sound (2020) ) never the narrative strengths or memorable visual elements found in any of them. Aside from the white-eyed locals, this particular nightmare scenario is almost entirely devoid of monsters, demons, or aquatic threats, despite being included in the lore of the film. Neither are necessarily needed, but without any sort of imagery to name itself, the film struggles to find its own genre base as viewers instead have a wandering protagonist and familiar landmarks.
“What if this is some kind of trap?” asks Marie early after she explains the full backstory and you can’t help but laugh at her at her nose awareness. The character’s plight still works, however, due in large part to Donahue’s performance. She has long since proven herself as a performer who captures the empathy and concern of the audience with her twists and turns in The House of the Devil (2009), the segment “Father’s Day” in Holidays (2016) and more and as the beating heart of the off-season becomes your greatest asset.
Offseason ultimately functions as an atmospheric chiller, though it doesn’t have an identity of its own, and from Donahue to the nod of the Messiah of Evil, there’s more than enough here for genre fans to enjoy. “There’s nothing wrong with these people,” says the fisherman, “they’re just cursed, that’s all.” There’s nothing wrong with this movie either … it’s just known.