Some comparisons to The Shining are deserved, though; both movies involve unhinged writers, isolation, hotels, and hauntings. The Off Season begins with Rick Holland (Don Wood) and his girlfriend Kathryn Bennett (Christina Campenella) moving into a tiny tourist trap in Maine. Rick's an aspiring playwright, fleeing the overpriced shackles of New York to focus on his writing. Since it's the off-season, motel rooms are cheap enough for Kathryn to be able to support them both with the meager paychecks she's earning as a librarian. The Fairmont it's not -- the moldy walls are paper-thin, and their neighbors are strange enough that it seems more like a mental ward than a motel. The isolation starts to leave Rick mentally unhinged, and Kathryn is left not only struggling with her drunken, dismissive jackass of a boyfriend but the haunting imagery of a ghostly young woman. As some sort of force makes Kathryn deathly ill, she slowly starts to discover the dark history of the room they've rented.
Although The Off Season labels itself a ghost story, the supernatural elements are the weakest thing about it. Don't take that as a cue to close your web browser, though, as that's not really the focus of the movie in the first place. The Off Season doesn't stick to the usual formula and try to find some excuse to string together Spooky Set Piece #1, Spooky Set Piece #2, and however long the chain takes to hit the 90 minute mark. The Off Season isn't an unrelentingy dark, dour movie -- it doesn't take itself overly seriously, and it has a surprisingly approachable warmth to it.
Although a few scares are certainly tossed in, The Off Season is more of a drama than a straight horror movie. There are only a few moments where there's any direct supernatural activity -- Rick levitating from the bed, a ghostly encounter in the motel laundry room, whatever the shaky-cam in the climax is supposed to represent -- and since they're brief and infrequent, the fact that none of them really work is easy enough to overlook. The movie's eerier when it doesn't try as hard, most memorably the last line muttered in a phone call from someone claiming to be Kathryn's dead mother and a brief flash of a spirit determined to keep Kathryn in bed.
The cast is better than average for a direct-to-video horror movie. Don Wood gives into the temptation to ham it up a little -- the rant about exxxxxxxcrement smeared all over the bathroom is cringe-worthy -- but he pulls off his character's transformation from a likeable, struggling writer to a drunken, undeservedly arrogant prick really well, and since that's all he's really given to do, that's all that can be expected. It's also nice to see Angus Scrimm outside of the Phantasm series, appearing here as the kindly, if just-this-side-of-dirty old man next door. The success of the movie really rests on the shoulders of Christina Campenella, who manages to make Kathryn sympathetic without playing the embattled victim card. It's a solid performance and the biggest reason why I enjoyed The Off Season as much as I did.
The Off Season should also serve as a nice calling card for writer/director James Felix McKenney, who already has several other movies in the pipeline with this same, almost repertory cast. A threadbare budget, a handful of tiny sets, and a small cast are all severe limitations for an independent horror film, but McKenney uses the resources he has on-hand very effectively. He has a strong visual eye; there's one voyeuristic shot in the couple's motel room that really stands out in my mind, but there's a lot of interesting camerawork throughout the entire movie. The Off Season also moves at a fast clip, and despite my embarrassingly short attention span, the pacing doesn't drag.
I have to admit to liking McKenney more as a director than as a writer. He has a good ear for dialogue, but there are some major flaws in the storytelling. Information isn't doled out particularly well -- instead of having some sort of mystery gradually uncovered, most of it's tossed out in large chunks in the third act. It comes too late for there to be any investment or resonance. The subplot with Rick doesn't come to a satisfying resolution, dropped rather abruptly. I think that might have been the point -- to fake-out the audience and push the movie in an unexpected direction a la Psycho -- but there's still this lingering sense of "so, what was the point of that?" As the counter on my DVD player ticked forward to the hour and a half mark, I noticed that the movie didn't seem to be building towards any sort of climax. What follows seems like it was hammered out with an indifferent shrug, and the epilogue is even worse.
Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed The Off Season. It's a nicely-shot movie with a capable cast and a good, if structurally flawed, story. It's not a special effects extravaganza, and the usual exploitative elements like gore and nudity are wholly absent, but there's still a lot to like about this movie besides. Worth a rental for readers who skulk video store aisles in search of something different.
Video: The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescren image looks like it was processed to tune down the digital video appearance and make it look more like film. The Off Season pulls this off a lot better than some of the "FilmLook"-ed DVDs I've seen in the past, although it seems as if crispness and detail took somewhat of a hit in the process. Some video noise also creeps in occasionally, but both of those are just the way the movie looks and shouldn't be considered flaws specific to this DVD. The disc appears to have been authored reasonably well, with no glaring artifacts to speak of, and its digital video origins obviously mean there's no speckling or visible wear. The cinematography is above average for a lower-budgeted digital video production, and so is the presentation of this DVD.
Audio: There are two soundtracks -- the default Dolby Digital stereo mix (192Kbps) and an optional 5.1 mix encoded at 384Kbps. The six-channel mix is fairly subdued, reserving the surrounds mostly to reinforce music and providing the occasional sound effect, and the subwoofer's not used to any great extent until the tumultuous climax. A fair amount of the dialogue sounds somewhat scratchy, and it doesn't always sync up to lip movements on-screen particularly well. Not unlistenable or anything, but pretty unremarkable. Along with the pair of soundtracks, the DVD also offers English closed captions and Spanish subtitles.
Supplements: There's only one extra, but it's a pretty big one -- the half-hour making-of documentary "Closed for the Season". It's mostly constructed from home video footage, feeling a lot more candid and fun than similar featurettes on other DVDs. There's something almost infectious about how enthusiastic the cast and crew are about working on this movie. The doc sports footage of pretty much everything, including extended glimpses at the make-up effects, cross-country reshoots, and even Angus Scrimm looping some dialogue in a men's restroom. Along with the on-set footage, excerpts of casting auditions and a lengthy interview with Scrimm are also packed in. Worth taking the time to watch.
Lion's Gate has also tacked on a trailer gallery, tossing in plugs for Vampire Assassin, The Psychic, They Are Among Us, The Slaughterhouse Massacre, and The Devil's Rejects. The disc is packaged in an Amaray keepcase with no insert, and the DVD includes a set of 4x3 menus and eighteen chapter stops.
Conclusion: Imperfect but still entertaining, The Off Season is more of a drama with supernatural underpinnings than the all-out horror flick its cover art seems to promise. I'd be reluctant to suggest shelling out twenty bucks to buy it, but The Off Season is definitely worth considering as a rental. Rent It.
Related Links: The official site has a trailer and photos, if you'd like a peek at the movie before heading to the video store.