Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is a young man stranded in a dead-end town, working a dead-end job. Although charismatic and smart, he is tied to home because he is the primary carer for his mother as she slowly succumbs to cancer. The film’s devastating opening firmly establishes that this was a decision he took willingly out of familial love, which goes some way to ensuring the audiences sympathies are firmly with this character when his life goes wildly off the rails following her death.
An unfortunate bar brawl with a blowhard white trash idiot ends with Evan putting a man in hospital, losing his job, and wanted by the cops for questioning. Without any reason to stay or anything left to lose he packs a bag, picks up his passport, and runs away from his life, catching a plane to the first anywhere davailable.
The first anywhere is Italy, and following some aimless tourist wanderings he falls in with a couple of loutish Brits (a great and surprising cameo from Nick Nevern, usually a staple of films with the words ‘Essex’ or ‘Hooligan’ in the titles). Eventually Evan washes up in Polignano a Mare, a pretty coastal town in the shadow of a dormant volcano. While his disreputable new friends head off to Amsterdam in search of cheaper booze and drugs, the soft voiced Californian finds himself attracted to a mysterious and beautiful woman he meets in a local bar (Hilker). Initial advances are unpromising to say the least, when the woman, Louise, is unexpectedly interested he asks her if she’s a prostitute in a scene that is weirdly offbeat and funny, rather than offensive and creepy due to the two actors immediate and potent screen chemistry.
As Evan tries to find out more about the woman he is falling in love with, he takes a room with an elderly olive farmer in exchange for helping work the land. After working all day, the meets Louise in the evenings and there commences a series of conversations about modern romance, culture, and history that are as witty and charming as they are often awkward and fumbling. All of this is beautifully shot by director Aaron Moorhead from a screenplay by co-director Justin Benson. This is how the first third of this movie plays out, and it has already drawn the obvious and entirely warranted comparison to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. What it does not seem in any way like is the set-up for a horror film.
But a horror film is what Spring is. Although it shares almost no similarities to most recent American horror, it is more firmly entrenched in the genre than other recent slipstream films that have used genre elements. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin share some DNA with Spring. All three draw inspiration from the early body horror films of David Cronenberg. While Benson and Moorhead’s film is genetically closer to these examples than the films of Eli Roth, Spring also resembles Hostel in that it uses the viewpoint of a foreigner adrift in a more ancient culture to create a sense of the uncanny, that Freudian term for the feeling of things being at once familiar and unfamiliar.
In fact, the genre film that Spring most resembles thematically in its early movement is Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Both are films in which protagonists struggling with grief flee to Europe and become embroiled in mysteries, both are horror films about and for adults, and both exhibit an emotional maturity entirely absent in the mainstream of horror that is concerned more with killing teenagers than examining the depths of the human soul.
Spring goes off in an entirely different direction from Roeg’s classic when the impact becomes explicit. While it would be a great shame to expose the film’s plot further, Evan will discover that Louise is harbouring a far deeper and far darker mystery than he could possibly imagine. A woman of contradictions she informs him she is a student of genetics, but he finds evidence of occult interests in her flat. She tells him to quit smoking, but there is evidence of hard drugs in her bathroom. She is very, very reticent to spend time sunbathing on the beach (I see what you are thinking, but no, this is not a twenty-something Twilight).
Nadia Hilker, a German actress in her first feature, is quite sensational as Louise making her a fully rounded personality and not the ‘exotic’ siren the character sounds like in synopsis. As details of her peculiar situation are teased and revealed the film introduces concepts from science fiction, religion and mythology but dances away whenever it appears to be settling in any direction. Pucci may be more familiar to audiences, having had a role in the Evil Dead remake (in which he was better than the movie probably deserved or needed), but he and the script make Evan a character far from the loathsome and stereotypical ugly Americans of Eli Roth’s films. The actor is able to perform grief, but with a lightness of touch that does not kill the film’s frequent humour.
It’s somewhat sad that it seems so surprising to find warmth and romance in a horror film along side the yuck (there is that in Spring also), but while most will key in on this film’s Cronenbergian body horror elements, the genuine sentiment and emotion to be found in the story and the central relationship evokes Cronenberg’s sadly less discussed skill with character, especially evoking The Fly.
Other touchstones are literary. The film suggests dark forces lurking in the shadows with the subtlety of Ramsey Campbell’s short fiction. When the genre elements come to the fore, the film has a very strong Clive Barker feel. Particularly in the way it suggests an underlying and ancient mythology, that is both terrible to behold but also perversely beautiful. There are definite thematic elements in common between this film and several of Barker’s Books of Blood stories, particularly In The Hills, The Cities and Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament.
Many horror fans and critics focus on the ugliness of the genre, which is of course unsurprising as abjection and disgust are near universal themes in horror, but it is all too rare that a film locates and explores the beauty and awe of which only horror can fully express. Spring is a consistently delightful film. Visually it is gorgeous, the setting is an area of great natural beauty, the leads are attractive (both aesthetically and as characters), and Moorhead’s photography gives the film the look of old Kodak photographs from the seventies that have slightly faded under the Mediterranean sun. There is likewise a subtle, but highly effective score from Jimmy LaValle.
This is not a film for those who hate ambiguity, even if there is a little too much quasi-scientific explanation at points, but it leads to an ending is both haunting and will likely deepen upon repeat viewings. If you enjoyed Benson and Moorhead’s ultra low budget debut Resolution you will be astonished by the advance of ambition, scale and skill on display here. If you haven’t seen Resolution? Congratulations, you now have two stylish horror films to discover.
Despite belonging to a genre obsessed with death, as the title suggests, Spring is a horror film that chooses life.
This review was previously published on http://www.veritefilmmag.com