Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Spring (2014)

'A young man in a personal tailspin flees the US to Italy, where he sparks up a romance with a woman harboring a dark, primordial secret.'

So says IMDb, and it's a fair summary of a film that tries to redefine the modern horror shocker. It does it, quite sensibly, by going back to the roots of the genre and paying tribute to some of the classics. At the same time, Spring is original and enjoyable enough to hold the interest of even a jaded viewer like me. While it's not perfect, it's as close as we're likely to get. 

The film begins with Lou Taylor Pucci's Evan, an American twenty-something whose life is not going well. We first see him sitting by his mother's deathbed. He then loses his job in a bar after punching an obnoxious customer, which gets him into trouble with the law, so on impulse he goes to Italy. There Evan falls in with a couple of drunken, foul-mouthed Brits who take a road trip to the south. The latter are, unfortunately, quite believable. 

The Brits decide that Italy is too expensive, so they go to Amsterdam(?), leaving Evan to his own devices in a small town near Naples. In this quaint setting Evan encounters Louise, played by Nadia Hilker. She is a beautiful, enigmatic, and cosmopolitan student who at first sends mixed signals for reasons that, later, will make sense. They spend the night together, and while Evan sleeps we are shown in no uncertain terms that Louise is more than simply quirky. 

We are led to think this is a werewolf movie. The reality is a bit more complex and non-traditional, and there is a nod to Lovecraft. Suffice to say that there's a major obstacle to what Evan considers the romance of his life. Meanwhile he gets work and lodging with an old Italian farmer who owns an orchard. Cue much discussion of women, life, growth, the seasons. 

Spring is approaching. And in the narrow lanes of the old town, something prowls...

This is a very good-looking film, with the coast of southern Italy reminding us that Romantic was once a dangerous word and that the past can be more alien planet than foreign country. The constant emphasis is on the way the modern exists as a thin stratum overlaying a more ancient and mysterious reality. At once point Louise performs a ritual of blood, following instructions from an old book but accompanied by music from her iPhone. Roman paintings reveal part of the truth about her mysterious origins. The moments of genuine horror are handled with an intelligent realism (and some grim humour) that contrasts with the 'dumb music stab' approach that still packs them in. Perhaps this is why the film didn't have as great an impact as the endless rehashes of simplistic shocker tropes.

It has an unusually intelligent script. There are lots of nicely-turned lines, with Louise telling Evan that he as 'Batman's origin story', only for him to discover that hers is far stranger. Directors Justin Benson (who wrote it) and Aaron Moorhead realise that genuine horror can move from romance to humour to violence and back with ease, because they all belong in the grand Gothic tradition dating back to before Poe. And Poe would approve of the tagline 'Love is a monster', not to mention the alternative: 'On a long enough timeline every girl gets weird'.

Young people today. 

The script does stumble a little, at the point when Louise's bizarre heritage becomes clear to Evan and she resorts to quick and dense exposition to unburden herself. Sometimes less is more. Still, the central premise here could have made a superb X-Files episode. There remains a shadow of doubt as to whether Louise is a strange mutant or something more magical, but whatever the truth the film's finale hinges on the redemptive power of love. This is pure Gothic in the original, eighteenth century sense, complete with a finale that takes place in the ruins of Pompeii.

Spring is, oddly-enough, as close as you can get to a feel-good horror movie without being outright comedy (such as the splendid Tucker and Dale v. Evil). There are plenty of comic scenes, though, not least when Evan sees the police approaching Angelo's farm and asks if he, as an illegal cash-in-hand worker, should make himself scarce. 'Si,' observes the old man laconically, whereupon our hero hares off across the fields. There are plenty of such playful moments, when the mundane intersects the weird to good effect. 

The trailer is, perhaps inevitably, a bit more straight-faced than the movie. Don't let it fool you. It looks like this, but it's a lot more fun. This is atavistic horror for the horror film fan who knows what's wrong with the stuff that packs 'em in at the multiplex.

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