The short version: Benson and Moorhead’s Spring (2014) is an excellent independent film, and absolutely worth watching if you are either a fan of their other works (The Endless and Synchronic are their two most recent films) or a fan of independent genre cinema. Explaining why I enjoyed it as much as I did requires a lot more detail into the film’s plot than I would normally reveal. I suggest tracking it down, and experiencing it for yourself. This is, as the kids say, your ‘spoiler warning’.
What if you set up all of the ingredients for a terrifying monster movie, but then used them to cook up a riff on Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise instead? Spring, written and directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, does exactly that. It is an excellent and unexpected blend of genres, using two very different models of a movie to build something that feels genuinely original.
After burying his dead mother and getting involved in a violent altercation at his workplace, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) flees the USA for Italy. While travelling through a small coastal town he meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a woman for whom he immediately feels a strong attraction – but whose secrets may be too much for Evan to accept.
I have seen a lot of sources – reviews, festival listings, news sites, and so on – describing Spring as ‘a horror film disguised as a romance’. I think they all have the order wrong. Everything about Spring screams about a horror movie. The poster is something of a complete giveaway, for one thing. The theatrical trailer takes half of the scary shots from the film and lines them up in a two-minute barrage. It is fair to say the scary parts are properly scary as well: some creepy and unsettling, others actively graphic and confronting. These moments are not what makes Spring such a great movie, however; the greatness comes from somewhere else.
Spring feels like a horror film. It has an uneasy quality during its first act. Pucci brings a haunted quality to Evan which immediately engages the viewer with the film. That it begins with a successive hit of a dying parent and a brutal punch-up draws them further in. When Evan, who has run away from a police enquiry to rural Italy, first encounters a mysterious and beautiful woman there, any viewer with any experience in horror knows she has an awful secret. It becomes a waiting game for the proverbial penny to drop: for the horrific undertones to break out into the foreground with some combination of jump scares, supernatural thrills, and gory body horror.
Yes the horror does break out as expected and is very effective given the film’s modest budget, but what also breaks out is a genuine romantic drama. As Evan slowly creeps further into Louise’s comfort zone, he not only gets close to unimaginable terrors – he gets closer to Louise as well. Spring is perfectly satisfying as a horror film, but it really feels like an innovative gem when viewed as a love story. Both protagonists feel like real people. Their growing affection feels honest and authentic. Genre elements swirl around them – part fantasy, part science fiction – but the core of the film is something more complex, effective, and worthwhile.
Hilker is excellent as Louise, and does a very good job of unfolding the various layers and assumptions about her character. Francesco Carnelutti is also very affective as Angelo, an elderly farmer who provides Evan with room and board – and who has his own tragic narrative. He gives the film’s Italian setting a strong sense of authenticity. Having visited Italy on multiple occasions, I recognised the culture very easily.
It is remarkable that a film so accomplished is only Benson and Moorhead’s second film. It is a remarkable achievement, and a wonderful blending of genres. I had previously seen their immensely impressive science fiction thriller The Endless and adored it. After Spring, pretty much every one of their films has been launched to ‘must-see’ status.