SXSW Film Review: Offseason
Mickey Keating goes to the coast for cosmic horror
By Richard Whittaker,
8:00PM, Fri. Mar. 19, 2021
"At some point, you just have to accept your nightmares and know they're part of you," Ava Aldrich (Melora Walters) warns the audience in creeping cosmic horror Offseason. "Like family, like an old friend."
On the other side of a scream, she adds, "What's that? Just an old friend." Old indeed. The target of her warning is actually her daughter, Marie (The House of the Devil's Jocelin Donahue), but the embrace of death gripped her before that caution to her child could take hold. Meanwhile - or long before - something hideous and arcane seems to have taken hold of the tourist island on which Ava is buried, and when Marie returns at the very end of the tourist season, the ancient stirs. Yet is it her footsteps that have stirred it, or would it have been rousted from its slumber anyway?
Horror wunderkind Mickey Keating has an exceptional gift for playing with classic tropes. Much as his 2015 SXSW Midnighter Pod keyed in to an alien X-Files episode vibe, and Carnage Park found more meat on the bones of The Deadliest Game. Now he embraces the mist-shrouded chills of that oldest of American terror genres, the coastal Gothic. The setup keys into more recent heartland terrors, as the call for her return is a desecrated tomb stone and a graveyard visit (shadows and shudders of both Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seem deliberate). But once Marie and her husband, George (Joe Swanberg), have crossed the bridge before it is raised for the winter, it's clear they've stepped into something more malevolent than just salt spray and mist.
Just as his Revulsion homage Darling was a perfect cinematic distillation of urban claustrophobia, so Offseason captures both the grand vistas and narrow safe zones of coastal life. This may well be Keating's most cinematic work to date, all set amid a disconcerting mixture of island life imagery - seaside bars and palm trees, New England-style fishermen's dives and cold fog - that constantly underline that something is wrong, something is off.
Fortunately, Keating has Donahue and Swanberg (looking more than ever and deliberately like a college professor) to ground the drama within the eeriness, while Walters speeches from before the grave throwing tinder on their already friction-and-sparks relationship. With new genre mainstays Richard Brake and Jeremy Gardner leading the mob of increasingly, disturbingly attentive islanders ("Welcoming to what?" being the main enigma), Keating lets the tension and pure metaphysical dread mix with quality jump scares and terrifying yokel menace, until the malice under the island finally reveals itself. Chilling and unsettling, intimate yet monstrously vast in its cosmic horrors, Offseason is as dangerously welcoming as the island itself.