“The problem is the tone”, is something I frequently say when speaking negatively about a movie. A movie can have everything going for it, a great cast, good director, and solid premise but if it gets the tone wrong, everything falls apart (see Maps to the Stars). In that regard, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s sophomore feature, Spring, should be a complete disaster. It’s constantly shifting gears and does so at the drop of a dime, giving the audience little to no time at all to catch up. It has elements of horror, romance, drama, comedy and they frequently intermingle with each other. The film often hops from one genre to the next in two or three lines of dialogue. It should be jarring but isn’t and that’s because the filmmakers have the courage of their convictions. The tone is even and steady. While we may gasping one minute and laughing the next, it never feels like the characters are suddenly inhabiting different worlds. The movie is horrifying when it needs to be, funny when you least expect a laugh, romantic in a simplistic yet relatable way that always feels rooted in reality, and so damn sincere you feel the need to applaud even when the dialogue is too on the nose. I loved every second of it.
Most critics are describing the movie (see the poster) as a cross between Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and an H.P. Lovecraft story. Broadly speaking, that’s about right but Spring is so much more than a genre mashup. If it was only that, it would be an interesting exercise and nothing more. The waters in Spring run deep, deeper even than most Hollywood dramas. It’s a movie that will stay with you for quite some time, one that leaves you shaking, pondering, and smiling as the credits role. From a horror perspective, The Babadook and It Follows are much scarier movies but Spring is more surprising. I didn’t think a movie where a guy discovers that the girl he’s dating sometimes turns into a scaly monster would be so affecting and touching but there it is.
Apologies for letting the cat out of the bag but most reviews give away that plot point in their first paragraph, despite the fact that the movie builds up to it slowly and organically. Maybe they think they need to warn you. I get that. It is a pretty jarring reveal even when you know it’s coming. And truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested if someone pitched the movie to me like this: “A troubled American guy goes to Italy, falls in love with a local girl, and discovers she has a secret.” That’s just not as compelling a hook as: “A troubled American guy goes to Italy, falls in love with a local girl, and discovers that she sometimes grows tentacles, scales, and extra appendages. Oh, and she occasionally eats people.”
Lou-Taylor Pucci stars as Evan, a lonely California slacker who loses his mother to cancer early on in the film. He buries her, gets into a nasty bar fight, and finds himself dodging the police. His drunken friends tell him he should get out of town but he’s directionless and has no idea where to go. He picks Italy on a whim and befriends two horny, perpetually stoned British guys. They travel to a small tourist town and it’s here that Evan meets Louise (Nadia Hilker). They have a Meet-Cute straight out of a romantic comedy and soon enter into the sort of whirlwind relationship that only the loneliest people seem capable of. The early scenes of Evan drinking with his buddies at home and with the two Brits in Italy suggest this is going to be a film about how lost and idiotic so many twenty-somethings are. They drink because there’s nothing else to do and travel to beautiful locales to drink some more, under the mistaken impression that traveling equals finding yourself. It’s a point that Benson and Moorhead make with subtlety, through natural, familiar dialogue and organic characters. We all know guys like Evan and his drunken friends. Hell, some of us may even be just like them.
The first shift comes when Evan and Louise have their first date. Their conversation is intoxicating, filled with all the anticipation and giddiness that comes when you make a new connection with someone. They’re both nervous and shifty but eager to please the other by saying the right thing. If you’re a fan of Before Sunset, you’ll fall in love with the date scenes immediately. Hilker and Pucci have instant chemistry, like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did, but their dialogue is perhaps more relatable. They don’t talk about bold philosophical ideas or the nature of love (well, not at first anyway) but instead discuss average things like what they’re doing with their lives and what goals they hope to achieve. They give each other advice we’ve all heard before in a million other movies but everything they say rings true. I kept sitting there thinking, ‘this is how people talk’. There’s nothing pretentious about what they have to say and the simplicity of the dialogue makes their relationship seem familiar. We like them both and are rooting for them to succeed right away.
There’s trouble though. Louise keeps looking at her skin and running off to the bathroom to inject herself with some sort of serum. Evan is oblivious–too gobsmacked by love–until he discovers a needle on the floor. He asks her if she has a drug problem and she laughs it off. She asks him about his past and he becomes withdrawn, not wanting to dwell on the things he’s lost. This is the first crack in their relationship. We also know there is something VERY wrong with Louise. Benson and Moorhead are masters of the slow burn. They give hints of what’s going on but don’t reveal the whole truth until Evan bursts into her apartment unexpectedly and finds her in a condition that we’ll just say would send most people running to the nearest insane asylum.
He doesn’t run though. He stays and listens to what she has to say. I appreciated his acceptance of her condition. So many horror movie protagonists either refuse to accept the evidence in front of them or accept it all too quickly. Evan does neither. He’s terrified of course but he also cares about her enough to be willing to at least try to understand what she is. We understand her perspective too. Louise fully knows how dangerous she is and tries to explain to Evan why they can’t be together. For reasons I won’t spoil, she even tells him she was only using him for her own purposes and doesn’t need him anymore. He’s not having it though cuz he believes they were more than a mere fling. It’s a testament to both Pucci and Hilker that we are able to fully empathize with both characters. We accept their motivations and can’t quite decide who is wrong and who is right.
Once pandora is out of the box, the movie switches gears again and transforms into a sort of philosophical debate between the two characters. Louise lays out the rules of her condition–in a quick, concise scene that does not come off as unnecessarily expository–and the two of them argue about what those rules mean for their future or if they have one at all. This is where Benson and Moorhead truly cut loose and do a stunning job of crafting their own mythology. They did a similar thing in their first film, Resolution, but do a better job in Spring. They’re filmmakers with big, out-there ideas that most studios probably shy away from. The nature of Louise’s condition is something you’ve never heard of before (Sorry Lovecraft fans, she ain’t Cthulu) and that makes the last act particularly exciting. Also, Benson and Moorhead aren’t interested in what her condition is so much as what it means for the characters. It’s a springboard for them to talk; an opportunity for Evan to defend the finite world he lives in and a chance for Louise to let someone into her life for the first time ever. This creates a level of suspense that most thrillers and actions movies can only dream of and the fact that all the tension is conveyed solely through intense, meaningful conversations is a damn miracle.
The conclusion is perfect. Absolutely perfect. It’s one of those movies where you say to yourself, “oh man I hope this is the final shot”, and it is. That final shot is able to convey so much about the characters and where they’re headed and it does so without seeming to do much of anything at all. In fact, most scenes feel that way. The characters are so believable and likable and the dialogue so authentic that we forget we’re watching a movie. We’re simply being allowed to look in on these people’s lives for a couple hours. That’s an impressive achievement. It takes a lot of effort to make a movie that feels so effortless.
One might be tempted to ask why Benson and Moorehead needed to add the monster angle at all. There are a couple of answers I can think of. First of all, it’s an obvious metaphor. Everyone has a dark side that they’d rather stay hidden and one they’d be petrified to expose to their significant other. Most real life relationships are about breaking down that wall. The horror genre is at its best when it uses the fantastical to talk about real things. Is it a bit too blunt of an allegory to literally make one of the characters into a monster? It could have been but in Benson and Moorhead’s capable hands, it works. Mainly because they use it to deepen the film’s themes about love, trust, and death and not as a showcase for special effects. The special effects are pretty damn great though, which leads us into the other answer: it’s fun. Benson and Moorhead are horror fans and they want to play around with the genre’s conventions. You may say, ‘well they should’ve just made a romance’ but I say, ‘good for them’. I like movies that defy easy categorization.
As I’ve often said on this site, horror movies get a bad rap. Hollywood isn’t doing the genre any favors. They release cheap funhouse rides, remakes, and watered down, Pg-13 nonsense. These days, real horror movies are relegated to the fringes and have to settle for an On Demand release instead of a national one on thousands of big screens. That’s a shame but I’m tired of whining about it. Because the fact of the matter is this: there are so many great horror films out there. You just have to look a little harder for them. Spring is worth the search.
Spring is currently playing in select theaters. It is also available On Demand, on Amazon, and iTunes.