"Well, I'll tell you, the reason I think we've got another go-round, George, is what's not here. All the meaty bits, if you catch my drift. Familiar?"
- From Jack Ketchum's Offspring
Horror-blogging icon, tastemaker, wit, humanitarian, Charles Nelson Reilly fan, philosopher, and all around swell human Stacie Ponder of "Final Girl" fame once opined that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise suffered greatly from the odd tendency of that particular product to produce sequels that were more remakes than sequels. Instead of extending the storyline, each sequel would be the first flick with more or less gore as the filmmaker's tastes determined. Perhaps family members would be added or dropped, but you could expect to see teens stumble across the old homestead. Several would get quickly processed and one of them, the final girl, would end up at a surreal feast with the family. To be fair, I'm not certain that TCM's sequels are any more derivative than the sequels of other franchises (barring Jason's recent space adventures, which possibly show how being utterly non-derivative is no guarantor of success). I think TCM sticks out because no matter how the story template shifts, something like the dinner scene always seems to pop up as a sort of showpiece scene. Since the dinner scene was one of the most memorable scenes in the original, its constant reappearance strikes us as especially glaring. Take the second TCM: with its bizarre carnival setting, almost slapsticky humor, and neon color scheme it is about as far from the original as you can get and still get away with calling it a TCM flick. But, despite all this, when the overly long and too familiar dinner scene pops up, a dragging and weary sense that we've seen it all before takes over.
My point is not to argue with Final Girl or defend the TCM franchise as it is to suggest that sequels are hard to pull off. People want more of the same, only different. Give us too much of the same and we horror fans will bitch that we got nothing but a re-shoot of the original; change too much and we'll bitch that you lost the spirit of the original. I almost feel bad for the suckers that end up helming sequels. Almost – they've made too many utterly disastrous sequels to excuse them completely, right?
Unfortunately, Offspring, Jack Ketchum's sequel to his cannibals of Maine thriller Off Season, is on of those sequels that tries to give fans more of the same, only different, and somehow misses the mark.
The plot is remarkably similar to the original: the residents of a Maine shore house will be attacked by a tribe of feral children tuned cannibals. Jack adds a joker to the deck in the form of an ex-husband psycho who may turn out to be more dangerous than the cannibals and ups the ante by putting a couple of children in harm's way. Aside from that, we've got pretty much the same book. After a few chapters of character development and some ominous foreshadowing, the house is attacked. Some of the cast dies. Some are dragged to the tribe's cave. Some give chase. We've seen it.
Not that Jack doesn't try. I might be splitting some very fine hairs here, but this outing seems a little less gory than the first book and the extra inches freed up by the dialed down splatter are given over to developing the characters in the tribe. In the first book, the cannibals were basically monsters or animals – not so much characters as crisis that must be dealt with. In the sequel, Ketchum sketches out a sort of Search for Fire-esque social structure. The cannibals have also developed language use, something I don't believe they had in the first book.
Offspring is a perfectly serviceable thriller. It lacks the gravity of Ketchum's Girl Next Door and the ruthless simplicity and exhilarating bloodthirstiness of the original. After all, we're talking about a book about a bunch of cannibals chewing their way through coastal Maine. If you're looking for Proustian introspection or the psychological rigor of Henry James, you should probably stay away from mass-market paperbacks featuring a meat cleaver and a human skull hanging above a soup pot on the cover. The book delivers what you'd expect. The only complaint is that Ketchum often delivers more than what you'd expect and, this time, readers don't get the A-game.