At the very start of writer-director Mickey Keating’s latest film, Offseason, the exceptional and exceptionally underrated Melora Walters says, “At some point, you have to accept that your nightmares are a part of you. They’re like family. Like an old friend.” With a haunting scream into the darkness, the film cuts to black and we’re inside the nightmare that is Offseason.
In Offseason, which premiered at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival, Walters plays Ava Aldrich, a movie star and recently deceased mother of Marie (Doctor Sleep, House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue). Marie received a letter saying her mother’s grave had been vandalized and she needed to come to the island where her mother grew up and is buried. The only issue is the island is about to close. “Only until spring,” we hear repeatedly.
From the moment Marie and her estranged partner George (Joe Swanberg) cross the bridge into the foggy, gray island of Lone Palm, the mood is unsettled. The fog makes everything feel both too close and provides a limitless horizon across the seemingly endless road onto the island. A perfect spooky setting, the film exists between a dream world and a classic ghost story. But the being that haunts Lone Palm is no mere ghost.
Upon arrival in the cemetery where her mother is buried, Marie and George meet their first local—Miss Emily (April Linscott), whose hopeful eyes turn to empty horror when she realizes Marie has no idea who she is. A visit to the local bar in search of the cemetery’s caretaker shows that everyone seems to know who Marie is, while she recognizes no one. The locals give us your standard “creep out the mainlanders” vibe but with an air of added darkness. In a move that is understated but clearly on purpose, no one but Marie and George has visible reflections.
When they leave the bar, Marie tells George the island’s truth, something she thought was the near-death ramblings of her sick mother: the island’s original settlers made a deal with a sea demon. He would stop the deadly storms from ravaging the island and its people, but in turn, he would own them—along with their children, children’s children, and so on. Ava begged Marie not to take her back to the island under any circumstances, “not my body, not my ashes.” But a mysterious change to Ava’s will forced Marie’s hand—and sent Ava’s corpse to Lone Palm Cemetery.
From then on it’s a survival game, as Marie and a mysterious fisherman who also seems to have a connection to her (and a broken heart about her lack of knowledge of him), tries to help her escape. It goes spectacularly wrong, with the first big special effect of the film and an effective scare that belies the film’s low budget.
But the atmosphere is the film’s greatest asset, a creepy, dark small ocean town with a simple and rumbling score underneath to amplify its dangers, aquatic or otherwise, and its camera work, lingering shots, and center-framed close-ups give us a nightmarish sense of disturb and dismay. You wouldn’t think a sea monster film would provide so little camp, especially given its clear nods to John Carpenter’s The Fog which gave us a little Halloweenesque lift in between the disquiet, but Offseason remains ominous throughout, the creature at the film’s heart maintaining a distance that keeps it more foreboding than fishy.
The performances, particularly Walters and Donahue, provide quiet terror and dread, speckled with screams and the occasional jump scare. Seeing what Keating’s did with a small budget actually doesn’t make me wish he had more money to use on this film, or excitement at what he can do with a larger budget—he’s a master of mood and no amount of funds can change the production value therein.
Offseason is the pearl of SXSW 2021's Midnighter series, a genuinely spooky and gorgeously shot film that makes me an official Keating devotee. Here’s hoping the ability for the masses to see this film lasts as long as Lone Palm’s own closure—just till the spring.
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