by Anton Bitel
Aside from an attention-grabbing prologue and the occasional flashback, OffSeason is set entirely on the coastal island of Lone Palm just as the last summer tourists leave. The key word here is ‘off’ – for although this is a pleasure resort whose blue-skied beaches are for half the year full of people and life, once the season comes to an end and the vacationers go back home and the stormy weather sets in, this place dies. It is an uncanny space, a ghost town, where normal services have temporarily ceased, and where the locals – the only people who stay behind – close their businesses, batten down the hatches and sleepwalk through a ritualised period of hibernation until at last the spring, the sun and the visitors return, bringing the place back to life. Indie writer/director Mickey Keating (Pod, 2015; Darling, 2015; Psychopaths, 2017) ensures that everything here looks empty, out of kilter and unbalanced – a liminal, littoral location closed off from the world, suspended in time and lost to the darkness. In a word, off. And in keeping with these themes of death and rebirth, of infernal imprisonment and heavenly reemergence, Keating is here recrafting the seasonal, cyclical myth of Persephone into Lovecraftian gothic.
OffSeason opens with Academy-ratio home movies of summer fun in the sand that then resolve into widescreen vistas of bleak wintry beaches. “It wasn’t long ago, I was just like you,” says a haggard-looking, unhinged woman, staring with disarming directness into the camera. “Thought I could run away from my nightmares also. If only there was a place I could run to that they wouldn’t follow me. I hate to tell you this, but no such place exists. Wherever I went, there they were.” It will turn out that this woman is Ava Aldrich (Melora Walters), a once famous actress now wasting away, and telling her adult daughter Marie (Jocelin Donahue), in a rare moment of semi-lucidity, that she wishes never, alive or dead, to return to Lone Palm, a place that she has been avoiding for decades. Yet after Ava’s death, Marie is mystified to discover that her mother – or someone else – had stipulated in her will a desire to be buried on the island. Now, just as the summer season ends, a letter from the caretaker of Lone Palm cemetery has arrived, informing Marie that Ava’s grave has been vandalised, and summoning her urgently to come to the island.
Like Ava’s words warning of inescapable nightmares, OffSeason is a film of entrapment. Once Marie and her boyfriend George (Joe Swanberg) arrive at Lone Palm, they find themselves cut off in a misty dreamscape where the roads are blocked, the bridges have been raised, and the locals (hanging out at a bar ominously named Sand Trap) are creepily conspiratorial. As the couple’s initial search for the missing caretaker becomes an increasingly desperate scramble to get off the island by any means – helped or hindered by the Bridge Man (Richard Brake), the elderly florist Miss Emily (April Linscott) and the Fisherman (Jeremy Gardner) – Marie discovers that the curse which holds this place in its purgatorial grip has mysterious claims on her too, and may not be willing to let her go.
“What if this is some kind of trap?”, Marie asks an incredulous George – yet as dread mounts and the irrational encroaches, it becomes ever harder to dismiss Marie’s fears and suspicions. And much as the island is lost in time, Keating’s film too has been carefully crafted to appear stuck in the genre cinema that bridges the late Seventies and early Eighties. For amid all the coastal paranoia (and in the absence of computers, mobile phones or other signifiers of the post-Nineties world), the influence of films like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and The Beyond (1981), John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), Gary Sherman’s Dead and Buried (1981) and J.S. Cardone’s The Slayer (1982) is palpable – and this influence can be felt not just in the narrative, but more ineffably in the film’s style, mood and tone. Even the performance of Jocelin Donahue appears to be channeling the spirits of Margot Kidder and Jessica Harper. So as this story in six formally headed parts (plus epilogue) unfolds mostly over one long dark night, we are being taken not just to an otherworldly twilight zone frozen in time, but also to a place and a sensibility uncannily preserved from cinema’s past, and resurrected by Keating’s pure filmmaking brio. Much like when Marie inserts and watches an old VHS for instructions on how to raise the bridge, OffSeason feels like an artefact from another era, even as it teaches us our place in an eternal, overarching cosmic narrative in which we are all puppets, unable ever truly to break free. Beautifully lit and discordantly scored, this is an experience as unsettling as it is astonishing, spanning the gap between the merely geographic and the awe-inspiringly mythic.
Offseason is playing as part of SXSW Festival