Spring Dir. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

[Drafthouse Films/FilmBuff; 2015]

Styles: romantic horror, horrific romance
Others: Cat People (Paul Schrader version), Before Sunrise, Bellflower

Fred Wilcox’s only notable movie, 1956’s Forbidden Planet, centered on Monsters From the Id — mythical, entirely primal psychic creatures that could penetrate Krell metal, the most resilient material in the known universe. The civilization that invented that consummately strong material were also responsible for inadvertently creating the monsters (from their collective Id) that could breach it. Even with all of their technological acumen, the Krell society couldn’t avoid a naturally destructive element inherent to their personhood. It’s a fascinating film and definitely worth checking out, if only to see Leslie Nielsen in an uncharacteristically serious turn. Of course, I bring this up as a roundabout way of saying that horror/sci-fi/fantasy works exceedingly well when it delves into the essential and somehow innately terrifying and destructive primordial past of humanity.

Spring begins almost matter-of-factly with an entirely banal and barely noteworthy death. Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) sits next to his ailing mother, changing out the water compartment of her humidifier while she obviously and inexorably hastens toward her own demise. The scene is shot with a minimum of fuss, just something to show us where Evan is in his life. Closer to 30 than he’d like and with minimal prospects for anything good happening in his native California, Evan’s mom dying sends him into a mini-spiral of self-destructive behavior for just long enough to convince him it’s time to get moving. Impulsively buying a ticket to Italy because a random travel agent he calls tells him that white people love Italy, Evan falls in with a duo of British toughs who take him on a drinking tour of the Southeast Italian coast. These scenes are interesting enough in their own right, but tend to falter a bit under the weight of their own expository nature.

We get to the real meat of the story when Evan decides to stick it out in a beautiful ancient Italian seaside village, since he has no other better option at this point in his almost completely aimless existence. His decision is also precipitated by a seemingly chance meeting with a beautiful and oddly forward woman at a seaside bar named Louise. Played by relatively unknown German actress Nadia Hilker, Louise is as mysterious as she is darkly beautiful, and we soon enough find out why she seems so horny when confronted with an obviously poor American tourist. The horror of the film hinges on Louise’s past and what kinds of crazy physical transformations she goes through after having sex, the directors employing a restrained approach to pull off some truly ingenious creature effects that never seem tacked-on.

Spring calls to mind the very best of what horror has to offer vis-à-vis fanciful explorations of humanity’s primordial origins. This is a film that isn’t merely content to just touch on the body horror of Ken Russell, the slightly-more-cerebral-though-no-less-sensual body horror Cronenberg, and all the myriad ideas about humanity’s bestial nature that have, more than anything else, contributed to horror’s lasting intrigue as a genre. Rather, it’s a movie that transmutes this compelling/terrifying energy into an entirely different genre: the walking and talking neurotic romantic dramedy. The true allure of the Spring is a very basic romance between this world-weary, troubled creature and a kind of mopey sad American with nothing much to lose, naturally helped along by some tightly written and exquisitely performed dialogue.

What makes Spring work so remarkably well is a fantastic sense of pacing and timbre in the developing relationship between Evan and Louise. The most compelling scenes in the film hinge on beautifully shot sequences of Evan and Louise carrying on the way new lovers do, set to the backdrop of her unique condition and the coastal Italian terrain. Spring is a gorgeous movie. It’s not hard to figure out why the filmmakers chose to shoot the feature in places like Polignano a Mare and other parts of Bari, Italy. They’re ridiculously pretty locations, but also exude a sort of crumbling antique atmosphere that complements the arc of Louise’s story. I was all prepared to draw what I thought were some crushingly astute comparisons between this film and Richard Linklater’s iconic Before series when the Austin director just came out and called Spring “A beautiful and unique love story… a real accomplishment of genre and tone.” So thanks for that, Mr. Linklater. We couldn’t agree more.

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