The less you know about Spring before its arrival, the more enthralling its subtle charms. This is a delicate little gem that reveals its mysteries grudgingly; a seamless blend of moods and genres that never stops surprising you. Darkly comic and unflinchingly romantic, Spring steeps its horror mythology in realism to create a genuine sense of uneasiness. Director Justin Benson’s exquisite story of painful transformation is one of 2015’s best films.
The first 30 minutes of the new horror film, Spring, function wonderfully as a straight drama. It methodically builds its characters from the ground up, showing a strident disregard for horror conventions. We meet Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci); a college dropout working dead-end jobs just to survive. Evan left college to care for his ailing mother, but that’s over now. He’s an orphan with “the same backstory as Batman,” one character observes. After a barroom brawl threatens to land him in jail, Evan flees to Italy on the seemingly-random advice of a travel agent, who tells him that, “White people love Italy!” It’s emblematic of the droll sarcasm that infuses Spring. This may be a serious film, but it never loses its sense of humor.
Once in Italy, he meets the impossibly beautiful Louise (Nadia Hilker). Her confidence and charisma easily sweep Evan into a relationship he’s ill-quipped to navigate. He’s not a lightweight, certainly, but this girl has a magical perfection that would devour most men. They flirt. They hang out. They make love. They even share those superficial secrets that provide the illusion of intimacy.
Meanwhile, there is a darkness growing in the background. Whether it’s a subtle tweak of the musical score, or caterpillars inching along some ancient ruin, director Benson (Resolution, V/H/S: Viral) keeps the dread percolating just below the surface. If the first 30 minutes of Spring are a quiet drama, the last hour is a horrifying confrontation with the secrets that alienate us from happiness.
To reveal more details about Spring would be a disservice. This is a film that defies convention at nearly every turn, moving organically between multiple genres until it’s finally ready for the big reveal. Benson and his co-screenwriter, Aaron Moorhead, will use any means necessary to tell their story: a young man abroad—languishing in his newfound awareness of the indifferent universe—finds a lover with a deep, dark secret. We’ve seen this story before, but Benson injects an extra dose of mood and realism. These are flesh and blood characters, filled with terrifying fears and palpable desires. “I’m not a sociopath,” Louise explains, “I’ve just had really bad luck.” That’s likely a massive understatement given her mysterious history, but Evan is so disconnected from human companionship that he’s blinded to the disturbing reality. They are the most fascinating of kindred spirits; saved and doomed by their soulful connection.
Visually, Benson takes many of his cues from the ancient Italian landscape. Primordial caves become sacrificial burial sites, while claustrophobic city streets serve as inescapable labyrinths. We also get abbreviated sojourns to enchanted outposts, like a shimmering grotto or bucolic vineyards. Benton clutters the frame with waste and transformation, adding thematic heft to an otherwise simple tale. An old orange tree is cannibalized by an opportunistic lemon tree, or a rotting corpse nourishes a scavenger. Nearly all of Benton’s visual and narrative choices work splendidly, though there is one jarring sequence of sudden violence that feels forced. Otherwise, each scene builds flawlessly upon the last, until your heart aches for the inexorable predicament in which these characters are entangled.
The performances by Pucci and Hilker are warm and generous. Each lives in the moment, open to whatever desolation life throws their way. Pucci, in particular, has a casual urgency that allows you to see each nick and cut without ever becoming too brooding. He reminds one of Aaron Paul in his knack for simultaneous bravado and vulnerability. Jeremy Gardner and Francesco Carnelutti also have terrific supporting turns as Evan’s spiritual benefactors. It’s a rare bird of a horror film that can be described as a ‘character piece,’ so it’s nice to see each actor exploit their deliciously-written role.
Horror fans looking for a change from the usual jump scares and bloodbaths need to see Spring. You relate to each character, even as the story grows increasingly bizarre and disturbing. It’s a paean to the hopelessly romantic love that transforms us into a better version of ourselves. This is a smart, deeply disturbing horror film that invests so heavily in its characters that you’re almost afraid to know how ends.