Although he produced the film adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door (2007), Andrew van den Houten chose to produce and direct Ketchum Offspring - the follow-up novel to Off Season (a book whose film rights are owned by another party).
Offspring is a very odd hybrid of contemporary horror, a statement on latent feral behaviour when humans are pushed into the extreme fringes of the world, and an homage to nasty exploitation films of the seventies, notably Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and some of the vicious Ozploitation flicks filmed in the rough outdoors.
The story is fairly straightforward – nice, decent people are brutalized by a band of feral cannibals – although the backstory is goosed with a legend of mad descendents of a lighthouse keeper who went into the woods, and feed off anyone foolish enough to live close to the edge of wild country.
On the one and, van den Houten managed to pull off a miracle by filming something almost unfilmable - the only way was to go all-out, and in full detail - but it’s an uneven film, due to a tight budget, some technical weaknesses, continuity errors, and variable performances among some smaller players.
Jack Ketchum’s own screenplay also has characters living in a humorless world, and once in a while there’s a moment that may or may not be deliberate black comedy. For example, when a cop bends down to look upon the mangled torso of a main character, the first words out of his mouth are “This was a really nice guy.” In truth, he really was, but the line seems to be in contradiction with the victim’s over-the-top evisceration, which happens on camera in a prior scene.
A better example of where humour leads into dark terrain is the introduction of the abusive husband as heads out to the isolated cottage of his wife’s friends to make amends during a vicious divorce. He’s a drunk, a wife-beater, and he’s got a restraining order against visiting her and their son.
He’s shown picking up a young and pretty hitchhiker, then driving drunk, and then groping her before letting her out of the car – a degeneration towards ugliness that captures his nasty personality.
Towards the end of the film, he saves his own skin (for a while) by offering up a suggestion to the cannibals so they can extract information from his wife. With no guilt or revulsion, he watches her get sexually tortured, and when it’s time for some moral equality, his demise is appropriately gruesome.
The kills are extraordinarily gory and there’s no limit to whomever or what part of the anatomy is defiled - adult or child - and that makes Offspring an edgy film. Most of the effects are based in reality, whereas a few others are so over the top (even the blood is Movie Red) that they become amusing instead of horrific. One kill involves the slashing of a skull cap, and the cannibal gorging on the brain matter as some baroque homage to a Ruggero Deodato cannibal film – not a stretch of the imagination, since van den Houten asked composer Ryan Shore to evoke the synthetic minimalism of Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
The film’s strongest moments include quiet dialogue at the film’s beginning between Claire, the soon-to-be divorced mom, and Amy, her best friend. Their friendship is genuine, and near the end of the film the actresses pull off some very difficult scenes involving emotional and physical vulnerability. Claire’s son is also a noble character, as he’s required to stay put and protect his infant sister from the cannibals, and their goal to find a human sacrifice.
More formulaic, though, are the police scenes, since they don’t really go beyond the familiar, and their battle with a sudden wave of cannibals is also one of the film’s weaker sequences because of the overlit background during what’s supposed to be the middle of the night.
Art Hindle (The Brood) manages to give his archetypal character of a burnt out cop who’s familiar with the cannibals’ first assault a bit more range than what lay in the script, and Pollyanna McIntosh (‘Thumper’ in Daniel Waters’ Sex and Death 101) is virtually unrecognizable as the head cannibal, a resourceful scheming monster with powerful instincts. McIntosh’s interaction with the actors also overcomes the limitations of the film’s interior cave set, which never looks real enough.
Anchor Bay’s DVD includes a clean transfer of the film, and an aggressive surround sound mix, with plenty of bone crunching effects, and Ryan Shore’s eerie score.
The special features include features on the production during filming, a short segment on the director having to post bail for an actor arrested prior to filming his first scene, and webisodes consisting of additional behind-the-scenes footage and interviews to tease audience interest. The audio commentary is also very engaging, and includes material not covered in the featurettes, and is much more laid back, with plenty of appreciation given to the cast and crew.
Although not as successful as van den Houten’s Girl Next Door, Offspring manages to revisit grungy seventies exploitation films – almost fearlessly – and van den Houten’s use of Michigan locations is first rate. The lakeside house and cave supports van den Houten’s own thematic take of the consequences when people stray too far into the wilds, and become too comfortable in their idyllic postcard surroundings.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan