If you’ve never read any of Jack Ketchum‘s novels, I strongly advise that you do so, even if you’re not the type to enjoy hardcore storytelling about murder and depravity. The thing about Ketchum’s books that I love so much is the consistency, how he never submits to the temptations of unnecessary dark comedy; he goes for the jugular without ever flinching. And always with a writing style that’s much more eloquent than you’d stereotypically expect from stories that’d make the weak-willed feel queasy and shaken. He covers the horrors of everyday life; no monsters (well, She Wakes is his sole creature text, so there’s one exception) or ghosts, but real people doing very bad things, all with a subtext that fills their actions with drawn-out motives, whether acceptable or deplorable in explanation.
For those who aren’t so keen on horror fiction, I’d recommend Ketchum’s Red as a good gateway drug into his work. The tale of an old man who watches his beloved dog killed before his eyes, and the retribution he single-handedly brings forth, is the softest of the author’s catalog that I’ve read, and it proves that the guy could be one hell of a dramatic scribe if he wasn’t such a sick bastard underneath the skin. Not that I’m complaining about that. If he weren’t so demented, I would’ve never experienced the amazing The Lost, Ketchum’s epic Hannibal Lecter-ish character study of punk teenager with homicidal tendencies; or the even crueler two-book arch of Off Season and Offspring, the sprawling two-parter about a clan of feral children living in a cave out in the woods, when they’re not driving hatchets into residents’ skulls and eating their flesh.
Stephen King, another writer I carry the torch for, is a known fan of Ketchum’s, and the inkling to draw parallels between their respective novels is always there, but hardly fair. They’re two totally different styles of horror, both serving its own purpose nicely. One commonality between King and Ketchum, though, is the hit-or-miss quality of films based on their books. We all know the spotty quality of King-based films—–for every The Mist and The Shawshank Redemption (both made by Frank Darabont, who should be the only guy allowed near King’s property at this point), there’s The Lawnmower Man, or (*gasp!*) Thinner. As for Ketchum, there’s only been four books-to-films bearing his name, and three of them (The Lost, The Girl Next Door, Red) aren’t half bad. Red is the best of the lot, but the other two, while hindered by some poor acting and foolish omissions from their on-page source material, get enough to right to earn passes.
The fourth, the newly-released straight-to-DVD Offspring, is on the total opposite end of the spectrum. It’s every Ketchum fans worst thoughts come true, the in-mind floating notions that Ketchum’s hardest fare is virtually unfilmable. Well, if not “unfilmable,” then intensely delicate and dependent on a spot-on director choice. Andrew van den Houten, the man behind the camera for Offspring, isn’t spot-on; he’s not even passably worthy. He’s clearly an ardent lover of Ketchum’s prose, having previously produced The Girl Next Door. Here, though, he’s a mere spectator, offering nothing in the way of style to what’s basically an “Offspring Greatest Hits” visual compilation. The book’s nastiest bits are all here, but the blood-showers and cannibalism whiz by with such a detachment from emotion that all we’re given is brutality for its own sake. In Ketchum’s beautifully-composed book, the reverse is true; characters are patiently developed, personalities are formed and sympathy is piled up. So when the pack of villainous backwoods killer-kids (who are also given backgrounds and traits in Ketchum’s novel) show up, the resulting slaughter is devastating. In van den Houten’s film, it’s just chaotic and gory, sprinkled with a sparse score that sounds like a cover version of the music used in the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The proof is in the duration-pudding, really—–Offspring the book is over 300 pages long; the movie version doesn’t even clock in at 80 minutes. Two full hours of the film’s mostly wooden acting and bargain bin costumes (the kids look like they’re on their way to a grammar school production of The Flintstones) would’ve been torture, but another 20 minutes could’ve helped its cause somewhat. At 78 minutes, Offspring slices through the book’s heart and leaves the mushy remains as evidence of the carnage. And the worst part of all? Apparently, Ketchum himself wrote the script. Which is tragic, and leaves me to wonder if he should stick to the literature side of the game. Me thinks yes.