'Offseason' Review: An Aquatic Horror Nightmare Worth The Plunge [SXSW 2021]

Where Mickey Keating's filmography has often lent itself to easily identifiable cinematic inspirations, Offseason carries more of a literary mood while fitting into a persistent coastal horror trend of late. Somewhere between the McManus' The Block Island Sound, Andy Collier and Tor Mian's Sacrifice, and an even quieter Silent Hill is this Florida-shot call to the sea's mysteries. While it still fits Keating's enthusiastic jumping about genre history with every project, this particular delusion feeling akin to radio drama spookiness. Something you'd hear read through adjustable static, as your imagination might conjure the same inescapable mistiness that chokes Keating's abandoned township shuttered until spring.

Jocelin Donahue stars as Marie Aldrich, who's beckoned to Lone Palm Beach after the vandalism of her buried mother's headstone. The bridge man (Richard Brake) warns Marie and her companion George (Joe Swanberg) that the island is closing for the season but grants entry due to the cemetery caretaker's urgent letter. It's not long before Marie finds Ava Aldrich's (Melora Walters) engraved pillar cracked in half, but there's no help in sight. Nothing adds up from the off-kilter locals to shapeshifting roads, especially since Marie recalls Ava insisting not even cremated ashes return to her wretched homeland. Some cite dementia, but as Marie discovers, maybe her mother had a reason to fear Lone Palm Beach.

Thanks to Keating, we also find instances in which we fear Lone Palm Beach. Where Carnage Park is his psychobilly freakout, and Darling his Hitchcockian stab at mute but deadly, Offseason sees Keating evoke the chilling unease of haunted ghost-town remnants. A nightmare driven by restaurant patrons who freeze like dioramas, characters vaguely named "The Fisherman" (Jeremy Gardner), and ghouls that appear with sunken milky-white eyes against intentionally cooled backdrops. It's adjacent to Mike Flanagan's The Haunting series in terms of outright scare tactics, and while less inclined to stir a ferocious fright, the film still understands how to stage drearily salty, moonlit eeriness.The secrets that endanger Marie, the reasons why florists gaze with glassy-dead eyes or outsiders fear the island's bridge drawing upright, are a blend of ritualistic curses and Lovecraftian depths. A universe where Marie must weigh her mother's ravings about pacts with aquatic demons against earthly threats, which Keating chooses to structure with more lyrical flows using title-card chapter inserts. Mac Fisken's cinematography ensures viewers understand the sprawling isolation of resort destinations without tourists and hides Keating's ghouls behind dewy fronds shrouded in thicker fog machine expulsions. If there's a relatable vibe, John Carpenter's The Fog isn't a far reach—but Keating's always better here at subtle creeps than Carpenter's more monster-mashy formula.In recalling The House of the Devil, Donahue proves herself the correct lead in Offseason for similar performative reasons. As Marie wrestles with grief, responds to bloodline bombshells, and reconciles why she's been forced to return from where her mother fled, it's with escalating alarm but survivalist motivations. Donahue's fear is authentic, and her shaken psychological state shapes a range of reactionary responses—yet, she persists. Whether that's aiming a flare gun, breaking into a weapons storefront, or dashing down vacant streets while a foghorn signals the closing of her only safe escape passage. That's not to downplay other performances under the purgatorial spell of Lone Palm Beach, more to emphasize how Donahue's sensibilities elevate an otherwise hazy bout of unanswerable storytelling.Your appreciation of Offseason will hinge on feelings about dreamscape cinema, where narrative intentions blur and impossible becomes the norm. Mickey Keating attempts a gothic-and-dreadful kitchen sink approach, but he's best when unsettling through understated imagery synonymous with barren-and-forgotten Americana most travelers would drive on through. It's rough around the edges when heavy special effects are required, yet proficient in shanty-shady tones and detectable darkness that hides secrets from one sequence to the next. It's an experience that lulls you in with hospitality and scored choral chants, plunging its stinger once you've become helpless beyond defense./Film Rating: 7 out of 10