A Beast For All Seasons, by Craig Schroeder
When Louise – an Italian woman who harbors a two-thousand year old secret in the very structure of her DNA – is first introduced in Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s new horror-romance film Spring, she’s a person who can only exist in a shitty movie: impossibly beautiful hair, lips that would have justified the Trojan War and a cold demeanor that suggests she’s more of a conquest than a person. But the brilliance in Louise’s character–and in her introduction–is that Moorhead and Benson are playing on the audience’s expectations of this kind of marginalized female stereotype. In actuality, this moment is a beautiful piece of post-modern filmmaking, one that establishes a recognizable horror trope only to break it down and extrapolate a meaningful story from a cliche we’ve seen thousands of times over.
For nearly an hour, Spring is Evan’s (Lou Taylor Pucci) story. Evan’s mother has just died and he’s wanted by the police for knocking the teeth (or more specifically: the gold fronts) out of a macho, pub denizen. With nothing to lose, Evan books a spontaneous flight to Italy to “find himself.” There he meets the impossibly beautiful (if not entirely human) Louise (Nadia Hilker). It’s a tread-upon, creature-feature premise (1995’s abysmal Species immediately comes to mind) that Moorehead and Benson invert and manage to find humanity in at every turn. There’s a shift about two-thirds of the way through the film, one that all but abandons any investment in Evan’s previous life. But Evan’s “story” is trite horror movie fodder, fodder that Moorhead and Benson consciously use as the foundation to a story that’s more spectacular and intelligent than even the most engaging B-movie monster flicks.
Patience is a virtue lacking in most modern horror films, where the quality of a scare seems to be much less valuable than the quantity. It’s a genre that appeals to primal instincts, often resorting to pedestrian gimmicks that may cause a jump in the theater but don’t translate into lasting horror or dread. With Spring, the scares work precisely because Moorhead and Benson are so patient. Though the film becomes Louise’s story, Moorhead and Benson use Evan as the audience surrogate for the first two acts, until the totality of Louise’s secret is revealed. Whereas a lesser film may linger on the gore and ooze associated with Louise’s “condition”, Moorehead and Benson are too smart to show their hand that early. Opting to go for quick cuts and the occasional, ominous tableau, they avoid the easy gags and build to a reveal that is as meaningful as it is unsettling.
But the strangest part of Spring as a horror movie, is that, by its conclusion, it ceases to be a horror film entirely. It’s a stark change in tone that seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does. From the immediate deconstruction of their initial meet-cute, Spring revolves around Evan and Louise’s relationship, so when the mystery and horror of the film is torn down and exposed, what remains is an intimate romance between two troubled people. It’s a testament to the film’s strength that its horror tropes can be shed entirely and the film only grows stronger. Even when the film’s finale threatens to stall with expository, pseudo-science hokum, Louise and Evan’s relationship is so well conceived and shaped that it isn’t a terrible inconvenience.
Despite their narrative and thematic innovations, Moorhead and Benson could use a bit more structure to their visual storytelling. The film’s reveal is carefully plotted and conceived, but in laying the foundation, Moorhead and Benson frequently repeat themselves. The teasing tableaus that are so effective early in the film are often recycled without ever being compounded. Multiple animals are found disemboweled, frightening at first but when the scare is regurgitated several times over, the effect loses its bite. Similarly, Louise’s repeated (and sometimes comedic) efforts to hide her increasingly conspicuous transformation eventually grow tiresome and are speed bumps in the film’s otherwise excellent pacing. The plateaus, where the film’s stakes are reiterated but never raised, are sparse and infrequent; they’re minor issues, but in a film plotted with such confidence, any misstep in narrative form is immediately disengaging.
If Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett and Drew Goddard are reviving (or deconstructing, depending on your perspective) formalism in horror, then Moorhead and Benson are resuscitating the genre’s humanity. Both Resolution (the duo’s first film, a subtle piece of horror filmmaking) and Spring thrive on the interpersonal relationship between their characters. Though a horror film through and through, Spring is emotionally nuanced and mature in a way that makes referring to it simply as a horror film seem like a slight. But Spring is a horror movie; the fact that it becomes so much more is what makes it a good one.