by Matt Levine
That old schoolroom platitude of giving an “A for effort” doesn’t really apply to movies, where promising concepts abound on the fringes (many of them never getting a chance to see the light of day). Of course you want to give support and leniency to ambitious, aspiring filmmakers who concoct an original idea and try to give it sincere, idiosyncratic life. But the fact remains that, despite their best intentions and an intriguing foundation, some of the cinematic oddities made by young filmmakers devolve into silly, overindulgent messes, as shrill and unbelievable as the big-budget commercialism they implicitly rebuke in their alterity. This is especially true of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring, which plants semi-naturalistic characters in a Lovecraftian horror-romance and tries (half-successfully) to turn their fling into a metaphor for the volatility of relationships.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/Saint Paul
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Producers: Justin Benson, David Clarke Lawson Jr., Luca Legnani, Aaron Moorhead
Writer: Justin Benson
Cinematographer: Aaron Moorhead
Editors: Justin Benson, Michael Felker, Aaron Moorhead
Music: Jimmy Lavalle
Cast: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker, Vanessa Bednar, Shane Brady, Francesco Carnelutti, Vinny Curan, Jeremy Gardner, Holly Hawkins
Premiere: September 5, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 20, 2015
US Distributors: Drafthouse Films, FilmBuff
Spring is the second feature by the filmmaking duo that labels itself Moorhead-Benson: Aaron Moorhead serves as cinematographer and Justin Benson acts as screenwriter, with both of them collaborating as co-producers, directors, and editors. While their previous feature Resolution (2012) tips its hat to The Evil Dead (1981) and tries to give its characters some emotional depth, Spring wields its increased budget to concoct a more sprawling, special-effects strewn story set (and filmed) in southern Italy.
The first 75 minutes or so leave an impressive mark: beautifully shot, sensitively acted, and leisurely paced, Spring initially seems like another offering in an already-strong year for American horror (see It Follows and the semi-horrific Buzzard). The mysterious opening shot grabs our attention: a medium close-up of the blank-faced Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), who we soon realize is watching his cancer-riddled mother on her deathbed. He starts to offer a heartfelt farewell, knowing she’s about to die, but cuts himself off, simply holding her hand instead. The scene isn’t entirely convincing (the digital cinematography has a grubby, alienating flatness), but it’s an intriguing start.
Spring’s Los Angeles-set prologue has its flaws—especially a thuggish character who starts a barfight with Evan and only exists to push the plot forward—but it also sets the movie apart as something original. (A scene in which Evan’s ex comes over for some sympathy sex after his mother’s funeral seems to provide the obligatory female nudity of sophomoric horror movies, but she quickly covers up when she realizes she’s “too sober for this”—deciding to simply lie next to the exhausted, hammered Evan in his bed.) With a small stash of inheritance money, the aimless Evan hops on a plane to Rome, then makes his way to a village on the southern Italian seaside, tagging along with two boorish but likeable Brits. En route, Spring offers one of its most beautiful scenes: rounding a mountain, a blindingly gorgeous vista of a town on the Mediterranean appears, sunlight trickling over the hills. Evan starts to cry. One of the British bros, instead of ridiculing him for his sensitivity, tells a crude story about an ex that cheated on him, assuming Evan’s woes are female-related—it’s as close as the guy can come to emotional support. At moments like this, visually beautiful and surprisingly compassionate, Spring seems like a truly impressive balancing act.
Then Evan meets a stunning brunette named Louise (Nadia Hilker), sitting in a courtyard in a short red dress; she stares at him as he passes, confident that she’s ensnared her prey (or so the movie suggests). They meet again at a bar later; she asks to go home with him, that fratboy-Hollywood fantasy of European nymphets just waiting to jump into bed with traveling Americans, but he counters with an offer to go on a date first. She resists, he pursues, she finally gives in, and the first hour of Spring (which has only the vaguest foreshadowing of impending horror) at times resembles Before Sunrise, as Evan and Louise spend their time talking about love and art, falling headfirst into a passionate affair even though (or because) both of them know it’s reckless and probably doomed.
There are certain peculiarities, however, in Louise’s behavior: her tendency to leave dates suddenly with no explanation, a cruel joke in which she “pretends” not to know him on the morning after they have sex, the syringes that Evan spots on her bathroom floor. The village itself, too, though it’s rapturously beautiful in the way that Italian villages always are in movies, holds its own morbid secrets; wildlife seems to die and decay without reason, and a shrine built to a girl who recently drowned is more ominous than it is respectful. While some of these moments come a little too close to the “evil temptress ambushes a poor horny guy” cliché (there’s even an image of a fly caught in a spiderweb that kicks off one of their conversations), they also exhibit an attempt to convey realistically complex characters; Louise works as a nurse, speaks at least six different languages, and researches stem-cell genetics, making her more than the simplistic monster she could have been.
For its first hour, with a precarious, bedeviled tone, Spring offers a chilly romantic drama in which the horror stems from the anxiety of beginning a new relationship, not entirely trusting your new lover but totally enraptured by them at the same time. Unfortunately, though, the movie’s real horror plot kicks in. Louise is rarely seen in sunlight, and eventually her skin starts rotting in necrotic patches, which she meekly tries to hide from Evan. There is a grisly murder committed, though at least the victim is a detestable American douche who makes the protagonists of Hostel seem like tactful cosmopolitans. The explanation for Louise’s beastly backstory is both overly convoluted and completely ridiculous—and, since it’s conveyed in breathless dialogue that’s uttered while the characters are running around, very hard to follow. The creature effects resemble a shoddy imitation of the disturbing monster from Possession (1981), though the comparison unfortunately highlights how much better that movie is at achieving hyperintense psychosexual horror.
Even after this horrific reveal takes place, there’s still a good half-hour left in Spring—and unfortunately, this long denouement is the movie’s weakest stretch. It pains me somewhat to say so, given that the filmmakers strive for a bittersweet emotional metaphor (some relationships are worth fighting for, even if your lover is a literal or figurative monster) and clearly prioritize dramatic power over spine-tingling scares. But, as though Benson (as screenwriter) simply grew tired of wrapping everything up, this third act is hampered by awful screenwriting and a misguided attempt to balance numerous tones (including a few moments of comedic relief that fail spectacularly). It’s admirable in theory that Spring remains sensitive to its characters until the end, but that doesn’t matter much if the characters suddenly lose all realism and credibility. The final scene is well-shot and uniquely staged, but it should have been overwhelming; it’s an ambitious portrayal of love’s resilience that is effective only in a technical way.
The movie’s failures are especially frustrating because its successes are intermittently astounding. Aaron Moorhead clearly knows how to light and shoot a scene compellingly, making the most of the digital cameras being used (though at times the gray-and-gold color scheme becomes overly dreary); a number of acrobatic shots begin on a cobblestone promenade only to soar above buildings and out over the ocean, tracing camera movements that seem physically impossible (and are probably partially computer-generated, though it’s incorporated seamlessly).
More impressive, though, are the scenes that rely on subtler composition and staging: Evan’s first arrival in the Italian village, shot in slow-motion and choreographed to flood the screen with sunlight at a precise moment; or a worm’s-eye-view shot of Evan standing on a hill, a large crucifix and the jet trails of an airplane looming behind him, as he stares unnerved at a dead animal’s carcass, through which a pale snake is slithering. (Horror fans should note that this is the only semi-creepy moment in the whole movie; a few other potentially scary scenes are ruined by phony digital effects.) Lou Taylor Pucci offers a charismatic performance as Evan (he helps make some of the late plot twists slightly less ridiculous), and the sense of liberation and boundlessness that Evan feels as he travels Italy is conveyed more thrillingly than almost any movie about travel in recent memory (at least since Museum Hours). Tangentially related is Spring’s bemused portrayal of Americans abroad; Evan might be looking for his own imperialistic sexcapade, but he’s still one of the “good ones,” quiet and respectful of local cultures while some of his fellow Americans roam the Italian streets like they own them, their bellowed English resounding over the ruins and cobblestones.
Spring does a lot of things right, in other words, but when it really matters it does everything wrong: making the characters seem ludicrous rather than sincere, dropping a plaintive tone and flailing at any genre or style that comes to mind, ruining the central relationship with a glut of bad dialogue. (“Can I say something?,” Evan asks at one point. “In absolute sincerity…I’m gonna miss the hell out of you. Like, it’s gonna fucking hurt. Bad.”) You want to give the budding Moorhead and Benson the benefit of the doubt, but they commit too many mistakes to really make Spring work. In any case, I’m excited to see whatever the filmmaking pair does next; I just hope, the next time around, they’re able to finish what they’ve so auspiciously started.