Monday, October 26, 2009

Have a Yabba Dabba Doo Death

Stephen King may be the mainstream go-to for horror literature, but when it comes to fiction that digs into your soul and chips away at your sense of what’s right in the world, pick up a Jack Ketchum book. From vividly gruesome novels riddled with torn limbs to stories that break your heart in less than ten pages without a drop of spilled blood, his work never fails to make me reach for reliable reassurance with a hug from my cat or cuddle with the old Pound Puppy. 
In theory, much of his work comes ready-made for film adaptations. Early novels like Off Season leap off the page with visceral violence screaming for some handy makeup effects, while The Lost could easily be a good actor’s dream role along the lines of De Niro’s Travis Bickle. 2009‘s Offspring marks the fourth attempt to bring Ketchum’s words to the screen, and like The Girl Next Door and The Lost (I can’t speak for Red as it’s still making its way up my queue), it works on some levels while failing to capture the true horror of its source material. 

Quick Plot:
The ominously named Dead River, Maine, is about to be revisited by a clan of savage cave cannibals who made their mark eleven years earlier (for reference, read Off Season, Ketchum’s 1980 debut novel which for rights reasons, couldn’t be filmed) by snatching a few babies and devouring a lot of adults. After a gooey prologue introduces the hungry clan, we meet The Brood’s Art Hindle as a weathered policeman coming out of retirement to lend a hand to the helpless police force. Meanwhile, our civilian protagonists are introduced as genuine nice people. The omnivores include Amy and David Halbard, a nerdily sweet young couple with a cute newborn, their visiting friend Claire Carey, and her resourceful son Luke. The latter two are in the midst of dealing with financial woes caused by Stephen Carey, an alcoholic, abusive, and tax-evading father who abandoned them months earlier but is now en route to do even more damage. 
What makes Offspring work--both on page and screen--is the attention given to developing its characters. In most cannibals-hunting-normal-people films, humans exist as mere meat just waiting to be served. Here, the Halbards, Careys, and, to a lesser extent, Hindle’s George Peters are actual people well-deserving of our sympathies. This makes the first attack incredibly effective. Watching feral children gut innocent suburbanites is always going to stir up some emotions in its audience, but when we actually like said victims, it’s truly horrifying. 
One of the most disturbing elements of Offspring, however, is its civilized villain, Stephen. Actor Erick Kastel gives this yuppie sadist a nice sense of misogyny that toes a line between forced evil and true psychopathy. Like in the novel, one of the strongest scenes has nothing to do with hunting knives or hatchets. Stephen picks up a perky hitchhiker, only to quickly unnerve her with nastiness. It’s a nice early twist that further infuses Offspring with a sense of wrongness, much in the way The Girl Next Door features a creepy ant war that works to unsettle the audience before digging into the main action. 

The sense of savagery inside Offspring is at times aided by its low budget and lack of studio rating. Children are shot, babies are tossed, and many a stomach is torn apart in a manner that would most likely have had the MPAA seething. The biggest complaint a lot of viewers will mostly likely have is the low quality camera work that feels nearly homemade. Occasionally, this works for artistic reasons (such as Stephen’s first meeting with the demolition-happy cannibals as he storms away in his Porsche) but unfortunately, some of the actual editing stunts the action by lingering in all the wrong spots. Director Andrew van den Houten doesn’t seem to have any real eye for shooting scenes or building suspense. It’s possible to defend some of the visuals and lack of build-up as modern exploitation, but as you watch Offspring, it feels much more along the lines of sloppy filmmaking.
But as far as the horror goes, Offspring works at grounding itself in one awful night of slaughter. Ketchum himself penned the script and it’s obvious he retained most of his own character work in shaping the victims. The clan, on the other hand, is a mixed bag of effectiveness: evil and athletic children are sufficiently rotten, and  schoolteacher Ed Nelson’s performance as Cow (the crazed and imprisoned sex toy of the group) is quite creepy. Pollyanna McIntosh comes off best as the leading matriarch, but the entire look of these horrific man-eaters feels...well...costume store sponsored. I was more impressed by the fact that Second Stolen’s metal rock wig stayed on when she tossed her hair than I was by her self flagellation. I understand that a limited budget wouldn’t quite capture the nipple belt so well described on the page, but it’s a shame to see these potentially nightmare-inducing creations end up looking like a family dressing up like the Flintstones for Halloween, but forgetting to take their costumes off come Thanksgiving.
High Points
All the gore--and there is a lot--is quite well done, always grossing you out and never inspiring you to pass the ketchup

You can’t underestimate the importance in fleshing out (no pun intended; I need to stop this Crypt Keeper business before I corn myself to death) the characters. With a few gaps here and there, the lead performances are all very solid in creating actual people, thus making their brutal attacks as sad as they are frightening
Low Points
So much about the technical filmmaking misses the mark. For one, the coloring never seems to make up its mind. The hellish cave is too orange, creating a campfire feel rather than a disgustingly bone-filled home base of killer cannibals
Even though I read Offspring less than a year ago, the motivations of the clan were hazy at best. I only remembered the fact that the older children were named “First Stolen” and “Second Stolen” because of the IMDB listing. Knowing that these horrid creatures were once kidnapped babies is a huge part of the novel that adds weight to the newly kidnapped children, but in the film, none of this disturbing backstory comes across. 

Lessons Learned
If you need to escape from an entire town’s police force, simply trot into the woods while they watch you waving their fists
Everybody in New England carries a full flask
Kicking a corpse will not bring it back to life
Don’t expect the 16 year old babysitter to successfully defend your newborn against a feral clan of baby-eating cannibals
Knives are very noisy when pulled out of stomachs

Word of mouth has been pretty turgid for Offspring, but I found it to be an entertaining little slice of 90 minutes. In no way does it fully capture the horrific nature of the novel, but it does offer more than a few moments to unsettle jaded DVD renters. I can see many a cynical horror fan picking more bones with the look and general feel of this film, but I guess those who want to like it will find more than enough to enjoy in a sitting. Whereas The Girl Next Door remains a chilling and troubling film with each subsequent viewing, Offspring’s power lays more in its action, making it most likely a one-watch for the majority of horror fans. The loaded DVD includes a detailed behind-the-scenes featurette, commentary, and a few more little goodies worth checking out. I’m partial to the making-of documentary, where we get to watch the final kid-on-kid battle in a split screen with the child actors’ parents looking on with pride, horror, and gum snaps.  

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