Seasonal beach towns feel haunted once balmy temperatures start to tumble. Remove the cheery masses, ice cream vendors and sizzling sands overtaken by crowds, and you’ll be left with eerily quiet streets, alongside waves echoing with distant memories of summer days. Set on one such mostly vacant (and likely fictional) island getting ready to shutter before an impending storm, writer-director Mickey Keating’s unnerving “Offseason” comprehends the particular creepiness of an insular vacation spot braving the year’s colder months. Though thinly conceived overall with not much philosophy to back its daunting visuals, “Offseason” still offers some genuinely spine-tingling images and sounds that will keep midnight audiences on their toes until the end.
Indeed, once you shrug off its thematic emptiness and occasionally clumsy dialogue, Keating’s genre exercise proves to be an absorbing enough watch, with Jocelin Donahue’s resolute Marie leading the way in a survival tale made of nightmares. Mac Fisken’s icy camera of blues and grays tracks the young woman and her boyfriend George (indie multi-hyphenate Joe Swanberg, well-cast with a welcome dose of lightness) on a chilly day, as they approach the town where Marie’s psychologically disturbed late mom Ava (Melora Walters) is buried.
Having received a mystery letter about her mother’s vandalized grave, Marie arrives at the practically abandoned location with a mission. Though the guard in charge of the island’s only access point — a peculiar drawbridge, the distressing geometry of which Keating smartly utilizes throughout the film — seems reluctant to let them pass. His warnings are so obviously lifted from the genre playbook that you’d think anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two would give up at that point. But not Marie and George — they drive onward to where the trouble awaits.
Once the couple makes it to the other side, Keating and Fisken lean too heavily on smoky settings, especially in the graveyard. There is always someone walking into or materializing out of a foggy patch in these atmospherically overworked scenes, and frankly, the amateurish overeagerness of it all feels more showy than frightening. An exception to this is perhaps the uncanny emergence of an old woman, Miss Emily (April Linscott), who calls herself the town’s florist.
With an attitude that suggests Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting, Miss Emily keenly sizes Marie up, before alarmingly disappearing into the woods. Later on, she lends the film its one true jump-scare — the kind that will make all virtual watchers miss the communal theatrical experience, with Keating’s effective play of camera movement, light and shadows expertly milking gasps and screams from the audience.
Equally terrorizing is the moment when the duo walks into Sand Trap, the local watering hole, with everyone stopping in their tracks in hair-raising fashion like they are in The Slaughtered Lamb from “An American Werewolf in London.” Something is clearly wrong with the year-round townies, and the sinisterly sentient land has no intentions of letting the young couple escape their claws. Cue a near-fatal car crash that sends Marie into the wilderness alone, with no ally other than a mystery fisherman (Jeremy Gardner).
It’s unfortunate that the plot, futilely chaptered and propped up with a framing device involving Marie’s mom, goes off the rails fast in the second act, resolving later into an outrageously unearned ending. There is something about a near-mythological curse, an unwitting deal the islanders have made with the demon and carnivorous soils feeding off the living during offseason periods. Keating trickles in the details with a convoluted backstory through a number of distracting flashbacks of Marie and Ava, who appears to be buried on the island against her wishes due to her satanically altered will. But these segments do very little toward advancing the smarts of the narrative.
Despite all the fruitless chaos, the filmmaker still manages to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats, with handsome effects and a devilishly fun sequence featuring a possessed Swanberg. In that regard, never mind why Marie walks in and out of frighteningly deserted stores, creaky attics and echoing woods with white-eyed evil spirits closing in on her. With Keating’s mostly swift direction, her senseless excursions become worthy episodes to follow, with an intricacy reminiscent of “Sleep No More,” scored to various vintage Alan Moorhouse ballads to boot. While there isn’t a single fright here that will endure past the end credits, Keating has a menacing je ne sais quoi that grabs on to you.