Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are on something of a roll. 2012’s Resolution was a smart character-driven twist on horror conventions. While it may not have lit up the box office, it was well-received in the circles that care about such things. Think of it as the elitist The Cabin In The Woods. Spring sees them continue to play with the expectations of what a horror film should look and feel like.
From the outset here there is little to suggest any particular genre trappings, outside of mumblecore maybe. Lou Taylor Pucci plays Evan, a young Californian whose mother has just died and for whom life at home is increasingly running out of incentives. With no girl to anchor him, no job to speak of and having angered a local thug, Evan decides to travel to Italy; a once sidelined plan that he can finally turn his attention to. He hops youth hostels, grouping up with other travellers, yet he remains the perennial outsider – the American abroad – despite a generally amiable nature.
Early on he ditches the funny but loutish English guys he’s been on the road with when he gets smitten by a beautiful and mysterious local girl Louise (Nadia Hilker). Benson and Moorhead work by some of the same rules that worked so well for them in Resolution, allowing Evan and Louise to develop via long conversations about family, ambition. They have a knack for believable and humorous roaming dialogue, and their young actors are more than up to the task of selling the material. If Spring were just a European-flavoured romantic drama, it would be a success on these merits.
But as with Resolution there is more to Spring than initially meets the eye. When the nature of the film’s secret menace starts to reveal itself, the film is propelled into more overt horror territory than Benson and Moorhead previously employed. Where in Resolution we discovered things right along with the protagonists (and most of those revelations came very late in the day), Spring allows us to know far more than Evan does, and a lot sooner. It’s an altogether different and revealing dynamic, one that plays in the realms of body horror while dependably manipulating the tropes of traditional tales of vampirism.
With this element expertly thrown into the mix, Spring could be seen as a palette-cleanser for the deluge of teen romantic dramas that have cluttered the genre in recent years. It’s almost as though Benson and Moorhead set out to reclaim the genre’s sensibilities from your Twilights, your True Bloods and your Vampire Diaries by building character and piecing out information carefully and deliberately to secure the viewer’s curiosity and therefore attention. And its a genuinely emotional experience. Like Evan, we become invested. When he sees another travelling group of Americans, he decides to keep his distance. Louise is a far more intriguing proposition than indulging homesickness. If potentially far more deadly.
As Louise hides the truth from Evan, and as the film increasingly suggests that truth could lead to dire consequences, the tension escalates, but this is not the main concern. The tone remains youthful, hopeful, wistfully optimistic. By removing many of the standard visual horror cues for much of the running time, Benson and Moorhead leave us guessing at how they’re going to let this pan out. Spring feels like an original. And yes, there are some loving, judiciously subtle nods to the Euro-horror of yesteryear, particularly evoking the just-out-of-frame menace of Don’t Look Now, but they’re refracted through an almost sepia-tinged sun-scorched lens. The film looks beautiful, always.
Technically speaking, Spring is their most ambitious work yet. There are some dynamic set-ups here that add an enjoyable range to the film’s visual vocabulary. It feels like the work of directors trying to do more, expand their film beyond the easy. The budget may occasionally betray the quality of the effects employed (digital blood still looks like digital blood), but the creativity involved in them always makes up for this. Evan’s eventual discovery of Louise’s true nature will live long in the memory, while this is followed up by one of the most impressive sustained takes in years. These bold leaps forward are a very encouraging thing and bode well for future endeavours. Benson and Moorhead have moved from interesting to exciting.
But for the here and now, Spring will more than suffice. It admirably attempts to ground the fantastic in science, while the trappings of vampirism and rot trigger the familiar allegories to addiction and the fear of death. Benson and Moorhead’s additions to the lore, meanwhile, feel fresh and interesting, mingling in more modern conversations about pregnancy and embryonic stem sells. Quite how I will leave you to discover. But aside from all this, Spring is a superbly acted and often genuinely romantic (and heartbreaking) metamorphosis of modern horror. Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker should feel incredibly proud of their work here. As should everybody involved. 2015’s UK release sheet has already gifted us Starry Eyes and It Follows. Now we have Spring too. This is turning into one of the best years for horror in a long time and its only March. Do what you can to find this film.