South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival – Offseason is a new take on the Lovecraftian gothic from director Mickey Keating (Darling, Carnage Park) which premiered as part of the Midnighters Film Festival at SXSW Online 2021. Marie Aldrich (Jocelin Donahue) has received a letter from Lone Palm Cemetery informing her that her mother’s grave has been vandalized and that she must visit the secluded island town to remedy the situation. She travels to Lone Palm with boyfriend George (Joe Swanberg) in tow, where they’re greeted by a surly Richard Brake, who informs them that the island is closing for storm season and that he’s not to let anyone onto the island. When the couple can’t track down the cemetery caretaker who summoned them, they journey into the sleepy town of Lone Palm, which harbors a dark secret.
There’s a lot to love about Offseason. I was a bit unenthused by the opening monologue, which was well performed but generically written and capped by a somewhat ineffectual scare, but it was pretty much all up from there. This movie lives and dies by its atmosphere, which everything from the cinematography to the sound design contributes to seamlessly. The sleepy coastal town is evocative as it’s built out through long, wide-angled establishing shots in dreary blues and greys, the negative spaces and abandoned places contributing to an ever-increasing sense of isolation. It’s a treat to stare at the occasional stormy coastal vistas and it’s easy to get lost in the foggy foliage and beachside stores even without any inkling of what’s going on– despite being incredibly dreary and making use of a muted color palette, Offseason is very visually engaging.
Unsettling choices abound in both diegetic sound and the score– if you like weird gurgles, chants, and vintage tunes slowed to unnerving speeds you’re going to love how Offseason hits your ear. Every soundscape contributes to the ethereal Lovecraftian world director Mickey Keating is crafting, and even occasional stock sound effects don’t feel too out of place.
Also adding to the isolated and uncanny effect of it all is the fact that this movie feels like it takes place at an indeterminant time. The styles and the majority of technology feel like the movie takes place in the mid to late 70s, but the music heard in scene is often earlier and there are weird instances of anachronism which don’t allow you the familiarity of a set time frame. This isn’t necessarily a new trick, it’s been notably used in recent titles like It Follows, but it works really well with this particular story and it adds an extra flair to that masterful atmosphere.
Another of the stronger elements of the movie is the cast. Jocelin Donahue brings a convincing flat affect to the part of Marie Aldrich which is well suited to the protagonists of strange fiction which Keating is riffing on. Richard Brake’s character is also an archetypal shoo-in that would feel right at home on the outskirts of Innsmouth, strange dialogue repetition and all. The supporting cast and extras in the roles of townsfolk also deserve praise in their strange and offputting performances, particularly the lawyers who appear to have changed Ava Aldrich’s will and the old man in the local watering hole, whose loud outburst and accompanying jig got a genuine laugh out of me.
There are a few little stumbles over the course of the incredibly tight 82-minute run time, but they’re mostly minor visual elements and quirks. I wasn’t sold on the eye-glazing effect used on the townsfolk because, while I couldn’t tell if it was practical and achieved through contact lenses or entirely digital, it looks like there’s some weird visual retouch happening that doesn’t blend well with the rest of the film’s aesthetic.
I was also baffled by the title card for chapter 6 (the film is divided into chapters, which otherwise quickly scored points for me) because, in a misguided attempt at creepiness, the normal card is now framed by inverted crosses and the title is red. This broke immersion temporarily because there’s really no need to invoke Judeo-Christian symbolism into a story strengthened in part by its ambiguity and strong sensibilities regarding the unknown. Less would have been more in that case, especially going into the finale. All the same, is highly recommended for fans of all things Lovecraftian and for anyone who enjoys bleak and atmospheric storytelling with strong visual flair.