In ‘Offseason’, a woman navigates the unsettling landscape of a desolate island only to find herself trapped in what can only be described as a nightmare with no escape. Directed by Mike Keating, the film makes some trippy choices to play out a surreal horror show that will have you feeling the existential dread of its characters.
Right in the middle of a particularly frustrating driving scene in Offseason, Mike Keating’s horror film from the Midnighters category, the characters Mari (Jocelin Donahue) and Geoge (Joe Swanberg) frantically try to find the road ahead while The Bee Gees’ “Turn Around Look At Me” plays in the background. It’s moments like these that I find really enjoyable in a movie of any genre but particularly in a scary movie. And Offseason is filled with scenes that belong to this category. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it perhaps won’t come as a surprise when I declare that I liked the film even with the random choices it makes. I can explain!
Offseason begins with Mari’s mother Ava Aldrich talking about nightmares foreshadowing the plot. Set on a remote island off the coast of Florida, the story follows Mari, a middle-aged woman who travels back to her family home when she receives a mysterious call from a cemetery caretaker who informs her that her mother’s grave has been vandalised. She decides to make the trip to Lone Palm Island along with her partner George. In typical horror movie tradition, a local warns them against entering the island due to bad weather. Of course, they don’t listen and forge ahead anyway only to discover a practically abandoned town with little or no people. There seems to be no phone reception and just like that, they are essentially trapped as soon as they enter.
Effective atmospheric horror meets campy scares in a whacky surrealist experiment.
Offseason is a film bent on utilizing its desolate locations. The lonely island is a decidedly unsettling place when the tourists leave. Add some fog that’s somehow always there and you have a perfect ground for an unassuming protagonist to be left in a state of panic for hours. Lone Palm Island has a creepy little town with its creepy little people who, you guessed it, seem to be stuck there as well. Hell, even the bar is called “Sand Trap”. Mari’s quest for answers about her late mother’s grave takes her in circles. For starters, she keeps getting separated from George and bumps into strange listless people till she begins to realise there’s something terribly wrong. To top it off she has a nagging suspicion that her mother’s will which had instructions to be buried at the island, had been altered.
But it’s going to be a while before she and the viewers figure out what’s up. In the meantime, the film follows Mari through frames that evoke gothic horror. As she walks and runs around searching for George or just the way out, the film unleashes a barrage of campy scares. The jump scares in Offseason are like any ghosts or creatures you’d encounter in an indie horror production, a hard sell but hella scary when timed right. I’ll admit that some scenes were particularly spine-chilling. What really worked for the film amidst all its trippy choices, is its atmosphere. There’s a silent emptiness accompanied only by sea breeze that sets up impending thrills. Thrown in the mix are some interesting lighting choices and sounds that collide to create a surreal nightmarish environment. Overall, it’s an ambitious merger of horror sub-genres.
That being said, watching this film is an exercise in patience in spite of Jocelyn Donahue’s acting prowess. There are sequences that had potential but just didn’t stick and that might have something to do with the plot itself. Narrated in neatly divided chapters, the film offers little in the way of clarity. All twists and turns seem to lead to familiar tropes that meet a dead end. Offseason also tries its hand at commentary on Mari and her mother’s personal stories. We get plenty of backstories and flashback scenes that attempt to ground the characters. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly enough to keep you hooked on her story.
The most effective kind of horror stories, in my opinion, are the ones about entrapment. The existential dread that comes with the idea of no escape is a sneaky device and the film knows how to make its audience feel it. Is Mari’s story the most engaging thing from the horror genre? Nope! Does it accomplish what it promises? In my opinion, it does. Offseason starts with the promise of a nightmare and with its surrealist tone, gothic locales and campy horror, it delivers exactly that.
Offseason premiered at the SXSW film festival on March 18, 2021.
Cover image: SXSW