Can odd indie romance get its act together for love or monsters?
Directed by Justin Benson & Aaaron Moorhead
Cast: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker
A horror-romance? Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Sure, Gothic horror (like Dracula) has always contained elements of the romantic in its DNA. At a stretch, I suppose you could call Bride of Chucky a horror-romance. But a full-fledged love story with occasional elements of extreme body horror? That’s a different sort of beast altogether. If nothing else, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead deserve serious bonus points for going out on a limb and constructing their offbeat, cross-genre whatchamacallit Spring. Assembled on a shoestring budget and shot on-the-fly in Europe, the film plays out almost exactly like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise—if it had been written by H.P. Lovecraft.
We first meet our protagonist Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci of Thumbsucker, Beginners and the Evil Dead remake) as he’s saying goodbye to his beloved mother, who’s dying of cancer. Devastated by her death and sick of his stagnant, southern California hometown, Evan hops on the next plane out of town. He winds up, by pure chance, in Italy. Bumming around the countryside, he drifts into a lovely coastal town (the picturesque, prehistoric village of Polignano a Mare) where he crosses paths with a mysterious woman in a red dress (Benson and Moorhead aren’t exactly subtle on visual clues). Louise (German TV actress Nadia Hilker) is a gorgeous brunette with haunting eyes. In addition to that, she’s a brilliant geneticist. And she speaks 10 languages. She’d be a total catch if it weren’t for the fact that she’s also a ravenous, shapeshifting monster.
This isn’t information that’s exactly forthcoming. We, the audience, don’t even get our first hint this might be a horror movie until about 35 minutes into the narrative. Even then, calling Spring a “horror” film might be pushing the definition. There are few elements in the film that attempt to build any kind of dread or tension. For the majority of its runtime, it looks, feels and sounds like a touristy summer romance—only instead of having to overcome the obstacle of the boy’s inevitable return to America at the end of the film, it’s got to overcome the obstacle of the girl’s inhuman blood lust.
The occasional bit of actor improv doesn’t help, sticking out of the movie screen like a sore thumb. But such things are to be expected in a no-budget indie. Thankfully, things improve quite a bit when the background characters stop speaking English.
Again, the filmmakers deserve plenty of credit for tackling such a tonally mismatched piece of cinema. It seems, faintly, like something a number of European filmmakers (Jean Rollin, for example) might have tackled back in the 1970s. It’s long on atmosphere and short on action. Aside from Evan and Louise’s endless getting-to-know-you conversations (both before and after the big reveal), next to nothing happens. It’s just a question of will they or won’t they stay together. And will she eat him if they do?
The budget is clearly tiny. Benson and Moorhead (who contributed a segment to V/H/S: Viral) have made the most of their limited resources by heading to an extremely picturesque location and capturing some lovely shots. Spring is a beautiful film. The Italian countryside, with its dormant volcanos and crumbling ruins, offers the perfect setting in which both romance and horror can blossom.
The script is credited to Benson alone, and his dialogue isn’t always the most polished. Early on, a couple of the supporting characters have a hard time making it work. The occasional bit of actor improv doesn’t help, sticking out of the movie screen like a sore thumb. But such things are to be expected in a no-budget indie. Thankfully, things improve quite a bit when the background characters stop speaking English. The majority of the film falls on the shoulders of Pucci and Hilker. Fortunately, they have a believable chemistry that helps sell the film—even if they are required to engage in some increasingly ludicrous conversations. (I mean, once your girlfriend has transformed into the sort of tentacled horror that keeps David Cronenberg up at night, what is there left to discuss?)
Spring is a handsomely mounted, ambitiously conceptualized mash-up of love stories and monster movies. It takes risks—some of which pay off, some of which send the film tumbling down the side of a cliff. It’s definitely not for every audience. But it’s different all right. It says that filmmakers Benson and Moorhead might be, with a bit more money and a dash more polish, the sort of fresh new voices genre filmmaking is hungry for.