When I first read the gut-churning cannibal opus, Off Season, I thought I’d never again read anything quite as depraved, disgusting, and just plain deviant. Then along came Offspring, Ketchum’s batshit-insane sequel to Off Season, to prove me wrong. Here was a book that knew no boundaries. Every time I thought to myself “oh, he’s not going to do that!”, Ketchum did, and, the crazier the book got, the faster I turned the pages, anxious to see just how long of a leash this mad dog’s editors had given him. By the end of the book, I was certain that Ketchum’s editors were either as crazy as he was, or chained to the water heater in his basement.
My money is still on the latter.
Having read Offspring, my expectations for Andrew van den Houten’s film adaptation were fairly low. It’s not that I considered Offspring unfilmable; I just never imagined anyone would be twisted enough to actually try, let alone pull it off as well as van der Houten has.
George Peters (genre fave, Art Hindle) has been rousted from retirement by a brutal double murder in the isolated coastal town of Dead River, Maine. The local police need George’s help, as this case is eerily reminiscent of one he’d worked a decade earlier, involving a clan of cannibals who’d been migrating up and down the coast of Maine and Canada for more than a century, kidnapping, killing, and eating campers, drifters, and hitchhikers. This time, though, it seems they’re after something more.
Meanwhile, young artists David and Amy Halbard and their infant daughter are summering in their seaside abode, awaiting the arrival of Amy’s friend, Claire (Ahna Tessler) and her young son, Luke (Tommy Nelson), who’ve come to Maine to escape Claire’s violent husband, Stephen (Eric Kastel). When Stephen phones to inform Claire that he’s on his way up “to talk”, David phones the police, only to be told that they’ve got much bigger problems to deal with, and that they should be wary of any strangers who come knocking on their door. Little do they know the clan’s matriarch (Pollyanna McIntosh) has already ordered her army of pint-sized savages to invade their home and kidnap their daughter in an effort to insure the clan’s continued survival.
Offspring is a down and dirty low-budget wonder, and easily one of the most daring and outrageous American horror films I’ve seen in quite some time. While van der Houten obviously had to tone down some of the more taboo thematic elements of the novel, this is still a surprisingly and shockingly faithful adaptation of Ketchum’s book. Whether through graphic depiction or none-too-subtle implication, pretty much all of the craziness of the novel oozes its way onto the screen courtesy of Ketchum’s own screenplay, and van den Houten (who also produced Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door”) is more than up to the challenge. His direction isn’t perfect by any means (some of the “fights” are rather clumsily staged, the camera lingers on gore scenes for far too long, etc), but van den Houten wisely avoids approaching the material with the obligatory modern aesthetic of quick cuts and music video edits and, instead, shoots it “straight”, with a borderline industrial approach. The low-budget look and style of the film suits the tone of the story perfectly, and lends the proceedings a sort of grungy, lo-fi 70’s shocker vibe.
The performances range from the pedestrian to pitch-perfect, with the always wonderful Art Hindle and the very effective McIntosh turning in the best of the lot. While child actors are usually little more than deer in headlights, Tommy Nelson does a fine job in the challenging role of Luke, the conflicted young boy who suddenly finds himself the sole protector of David and Amy’s baby. His performance is loose, natural, and totally believable, and the filmmakers smartly avoid making Luke one of those “wise beyond their years” sorts of kids that are all too prevalent in cinema these days.
If I have any reservations about this film it’s the fact that it’s based on a sequel to a novel and I fear that folks who haven’t read either book may be a bit overwhelmed and puzzled by it all. This is one of the few occasions where I can safely say that fans of the book will probably enjoy this movie more than those who haven’t read it. It’s usually quite the opposite, as, more often than not, huge chunks of a novel are excised for the sake of running time or streamlining things. Here, however, all of the major players are accounted for, and, save for Ketchum’s much more graphic descriptions in the book, this is very much the novel come to vivid, ultra gory life. The problem with that, however, is that characters like George and the feral tribe members were all established in the novel Off Season, with entire chapters dedicated to their development and history. Here they are simply introduced with nothing more than a few references to past events, and I’m not sure that’s enough to sell this particular story to a new audience. I’m also wondering if the film will be nearly as shocking to someone who hasn’t read the book, as a few of the more grotesque things implied here seem to hinge on a familiarity with the source material. I’m not saying you need to read the book to understand the movie; I’m just suggesting that doing so will certainly heighten your appreciation for just how vile and disturbing this film really is (and, for sickos like me, those are redeeming qualities).
Offspring comes to DVD as part of the Ghost House Underground series from Lionsgate, and is presented in a deluxe slipcased edition. The 1.78:1 transfer’s a bit grainy and the night sequences border on murkiness, but that’s just another side-effect of the limited budget, and, to be honest, I felt it added to the film’s retro charm. The 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track is very well mixed, with all manner of effects occupying the satellites and rear speakers, making for a very immersive and unsettling viewing experience. Bonus features include a fantastic commentary by Ketchum and producer, William Miller, a short featurette entitled Progeny: The Birth of the Offspring, as well as production webisodes, a stills gallery, printable script, and more.
Jack Ketchum fans will no doubt embrace Offspring as a surprisingly faithful adaptation of one of the author’s most notorious creations. Gorehounds will be in second heaven, so both should consider this one a must buy. Casual viewers, on the other hand, may not be able to look beyond the gruesome imagery on display here (heck, they may not even be all that bothered by it), and write this one off as just another low-budget backwoods inbred cannibal flick. My one suggestion to them would be to find a copy of the book, read it, and then revisit the film later, and I guarantee you’ll appreciate it for the truly sordid and stomach churning tale it really is! Highly recommended!