Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Spring (2015)
Dir. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead
Written by Justin Benson
Starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker, Francesco Carnelutti

Any time an artist is coming off a big initial success, there’s always pressure for their next project to be the same, but bigger. This can be a tricky thing to pull off; a lot of time the talent that it takes to craft something intimate and small-scale doesn’t translate well into managing big budgets and bombast. And scaling up, even done right, does not always add up to greater impact, sometimes it can just be distancing and impersonal. But I’m happy to report here we have a rare success story: for their second full-length film (after a handful of shorts and their silly throwaway skateboarders-vs-skeletons segment of VHS VIRAL), co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead have managed to do something pretty impressive. They’ve scaled up their minimalist 2012 horror-tinged drama RESOLUTION in every way: longer, more locations, more horror, more special effects, more ambition. But they’ve kept the thing that made RESOLUTION so special completely intact: SPRING is, for all intents and purposes, a nuanced and surprising two-person relationship drama, interwoven with some slight but important strands of creature horror. It’s intimate, vividly observed, and full of sweet but unsentimental heart. And also there’s a weird monster. My kinda jam.

Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci, THUMBSUCKER, EVIL DEAD 2014) is on a bit of a downward spiral. His mom has just died. He’s working a thankless job as a cook, angry, frustrated, going nowhere. For no real reason he picks a fight with a violent local, and decides that maybe it would be a good idea to skip town for awhile. This turns out to be a good move, because he ends up in Apulia, Italy, which looks like something fairly akin to paradise. I’m betting this is one film production that didn’t mind getting a little behind schedule. Evan quickly meets up with some funny British assholes, but then immediately and correctly ditches them pretty much the moment he sets eyes on Louise (Nadia Hilker, German TV, two upcoming DIVERGENT movies, oh goody, that sounds like a good use of her talents), a beautiful and mysterious local woman who takes an interest in him. He takes an illegal under-the-table job at the idyllic orange farm of elderly Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti, oh Jesus, he was Heath Ledger’s mentor in THE ORDER?) who dispenses some advice and also subtly makes fun of him, but the focus is really on the intense, yet tentative, relationships between these two crazy kids.

The most interesting thing here is that you’d never exactly imagine these two would find a lot of common ground. Evan is brash, young, not especially well-cultured or educated. He’s not wealthy, not especially ambitious, you get the sense he’s been stuck in the insular working-class neighborhood he’s living in for most of his life, hasn’t seen much else. Louise, on the other hand, is enigmatic, brilliant, worldly, a scholar; the kind of person who goes to a museum with you and can lecture on the exhibits without reading the sign and still not sound condescending, because her joy about the subject is so readily apparent. They have almost nothing in common... but you gotta admit, there is something there, some kind of funny spark between them. Evan may not be as educated as she is, but he’s no idiot either, he can keep up with her, not be intimidated by her. He doesn’t have a wealth of knowledge about Roman statuary, but he can follow along enough to surprise her and make her laugh.

Is this what that Love, Italian Style book was about? Because the cover does not make that clear.

She’s sort of charmed by his tenacity, but doesn’t think there’s much of a future for the two of them. And it’s hard to argue with her, because she really seems like she’s working on a different level than he is. I actually assumed Hilker was quite a bit older than Pucci -- turns out she’s actually three years younger. There’s a startling maturity and enigmatic wisdom to her performance which gives the impression of a lot of life experience; Evan, impulsive and full of conviction, seems goofy and naive in comparison. He uses a bunch of cheeseball lines that make her roll her eyes, but she also finds sort of endearing.The movie doesn’t dislike him because he’s young and corny, though -- of course he’s like that, why would he know anything? But he’s a real nice guy, and he’s sincerely doing the best that he can. At his wisest, he simply knows when it’s time to shut up. There’s a terrific scene where Evan and his ancient employer are relaxing after a day’s work, and the older man starts quietly reminiscing about his dead wife. Evan, ever the quintessential American, starts to give him a pep talk, and then suddenly stops. What does a 20-something kid have to teach an old man about love? Nothing. And the moment he realizes that, he just shuts his mouth and the two of them watch the sun set in silence. It’s a beautiful moment which simultaneously tells us something rather powerful about both characters and sets up the film’s central conflict.

See, there’s a reason Louise feels so much more worldly than Evan does; she’s had a pretty unusual life. She’s a woman of many secrets, and one of them is that she’s actually some sort of crazy Lovecraftian monster. You’d think this would be a spoiler, a big reveal at the end of the film which explains her mysterious behavior and sets up a tragic impossible love between them. But to Benson and Moorehead’s eternal credit, Evan realizes what’s going on by the halfway point. So we learn the truth not in a twist, but as just another wrinkle in this budding relationship. And then the conflict really does come down to the wisdom of their being together. Evan, idealistic, youthful, thinks they can make it work. Louise, ancient, tragic, worldly, thinks it’s impossible, maybe doesn’t even want the compromise of having a serious relationship at all. He’s got to convince her that just this once, youthful passion really is a better bet than hard-earned wisdom. Pucci really shines here; he’s ridiculously outmatched by her in every imaginable way, but somehow his uncomplicated resoluteness in the face of all logic makes him seem more of an equal to her than he should be. But an equal partner? She’s not sure. And she’s gonna have to decide relatively quickly, or risk some monstrous consequences.

Part of her ambivalence is that Louise is unusually self-assured and self-actualized both as a female romantic lead and as a silver screen monster. Both these roles so often get bogged down in guilt and loneliness and helplessness and plain need, and our male lead is tasked with saving the day, either by giving a romantic partner something she was lacking or by stopping a monster through violence. Here, neither is necessary; Louise is doing quite well on her own, thank you very much, she doesn’t have any need for some young American hero to fix her life, either romantically or by heroically curing (or destroying) her monster side. In fact, IMDB claims Benson wrote SPRING “as a counterpoint to Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles in that it is about a creature who actually enjoys its strange condition.”* Most screen monsters, starting at least with Henry Hull’s 1935 WEREWOLF OF LONDON, have been psychological symbols of repression and guilt; they strive to be human, but they have an uncontrollable monstrous side which they try to hide and control. Louise, infinitely older and more comfortable in her own skin, finds being a Lovecraftian horror to be inconvenient sometimes, but it’s more a symbol of her confidence and power than a symbol of her shame. She likes it, and probably wouldn’t give it up even if there was a cure for being a were-squid. She’s on the right track, baby, she was born this way. So what can Evan offer her that she doesn’t already have? Well, only one thing -- the kind of long-term emotional intimacy which her current life doesn’t afford much of. It’s fun to be an immortal, ultra-powered being, but she has to admit it can be a little isolating. She’s got to decide if that’s something worth giving up a part of herself to pursue, and she feels genuinely conflicted about it, even as she can hardly believe she’s pondering such a ridiculous thing.

There is something of a conflict here, but mostly the movie isn’t about tension or even mystery, it’s a strange, philosophical romantic comedy by way of a creature feature. Most of the movie is just our two leads, wandering somewhere obscenely beautiful and chit-chatting, trying to get a laugh. The most obvious comparison is Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE, more than DIE MONSTER DIE. The two young lovers feel each other out, push each other apart, reconcile, discover some surprises (admittedly, her surprises are probably more surprising than his, but still). It’s sweet and romantic, but not in a corny Hollywood way. You just really want these two crazy kids to end up together. Sure, she’s an ageless, cannibalistic Lovecraftian horror, but come on, no one’s perfect. She’s also a real cool, surprisingly vulnerable lady. Let’s not pigeonhole her just because of the tentacles and shit.

Still beats a creepy dwarf in a red raincoat.

Gradually, out of the pleasing and bracingly authentic little moments between them, something legitimately philosophical emerges. Louise has a much longer history to draw on than Evan does, and, besides, she’s a biologist and academic. She loves a good roll in the hay as much as anyone, and appreciates the companionship of her dorky young consort, but she fundamentally sees love as a chemical process, a biological function which history and culture have tried to gussy up in fancy words. Having a bit of a compulsive monstrous side herself, she knows how irresistibly compelling biology can be, how easy it is for the body to override the brain, which then scrambles to try to justify itself. The brain wants to turn love into something romantic and ethereal, but of course it’s just a pretty frame around a primal, animalistic urge. Why pretend otherwise? Evan is more of an idealist, he thinks there’s something more to it than that, even if he can’t really articulate what that is or exactly what it means, other than they should be together, dammit, it just feels right. Who’s right? Well, she is, obviously, and they both kind of know it. But maybe it doesn’t matter? Or maybe at least they can pretend it doesn’t?

I would just like to point out that this is my favorite tagline from the whole Chainsawnukah 2015

Nothing is spelled out for you, exactly, but come on, when was the last time you saw a love story on-screen that actually had something to say about the concept? Love as an abstract notion in our society has had the meaning all but ground out of it. I mean, walk through whatever banal, disspiriting public place you can imagine, and odds are there’s a tinny, distant store radio croaking out top ten hits from a few years back. Count the number of times you hear the word love. By the time you buy your snack-sized caramel Bugles, your deodorant and your scratch-off lotto tickets, the word “love” will have been that much more watered down and worthless. SPRING uses its surreal monster premise as a way to subtly probe the concept, to rattle the formula a little and see if it can’t shake off some rust. As a result, it achieves a much more vivid and approachable love story, as our two characters grapple both with the nebulous concept of love itself, and their impossible-to-ignore compulsion towards each other with all the tricky biological and psychological strings that entails.

On the wall of Louise’s apartment, there’s an interesting framed print which would not be familiar to most people. It is to me, though. I can’t get a screencap of the movie, but have a look:

This bizarre sequence is actually two pages of the Codex Seraphinianus, a rather mysterious book, written in an unknown language, which seems to depict through images a strange and unfamiliar world. It was published by an Italian artist and industrial designer in 1981, so its origins are modern, but its closest literary antecedent is something considerably more mysterious, the so-called Voynich Manuscript, a 15th-century work of unknown origin which is similarly written in an unknown language and features strange and unearthly flora and fauna. This is a significant image to Louise, then, for two reasons. The first is the more obvious one, it speaks to her transitional status between human and creature, and even anticipates the sexual element which is an integral part of that transformation. But the second has more to do with the text itself. The Codex Seraphinianus is a modern artifact, but it’s intentionally designed to be unknowable, and with its connection to the Voynich Manuscript, it intentionally evokes the unknowably ancient past.

That, of course, is where Louise has come from. She’s a thoroughly modern woman, plenty capable of living and succeeding in modern life, but she’s also inexorably linked to an ancient past, to experiences and wisdom no modern human would be able to relate to. There’s something inherently primordial about her, something like the Spring itself, which is both intimate and elusive, powerful and compelling in a way which goes beyond the superficial trappings of modernity. Ain’t that love for ya? Bizarre, incomprehensible, compelling, gross, beautiful, with one foot thoroughly in the modern world and one reaching back into timeless antiquity. SPRING invites us to imagine how strange and marvelous it is that this works at all, and how confusing and frustrating it can all be -- but also how much fun it can be to take the journey anyway. It may be an intimate story, but ambitions don’t get a lot bigger than that. Benson and Moorehead are slated to take on a biopic of Aleister Crowley as their next film (!?), a project which promise to be somewhat more sweeping in scope. But movies which balance the vast with the vitally personal as gracefully as this one does are rare enough that I find SPRING a very big deal indeed.
* Reading through a couple interviews with the two, they do reference Rice quite a bit, but it seems like they saw those books more as an inspiration than a rival. They talk more about how they wanted to create a character even older than the 500-year-old vampires, a character that has seen entire civilizations and ways of life come and go. Benson does note in one interview that Louise, “would probably make fun of Anne Rice’s vampires as a bunch of emo bitches. (laughs)”

Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: On a long enough timeline... every girl gets weird.
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No
  • DEADLY IMPORT FROM: Shot it Italy, but by an American crew
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No. Check out the sweet-ass drone overhead shots, though. Fuckin' fly as hell.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Pucci is working his way there.
  • BOOBIES: Yes
  • MULLETS: None
  • MONSTER: Yup, a couple of very nifty designs that I want you to see, and intentionally avoided screenshots of.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: No, the Italian milieu notwithstanding.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: No.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Woman into various creatures.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly high, I didn't even realize it was out til a buddy got it in from Netflix.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Lovecraft stories should be a lot sexier than he seemed to think they were.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: It works on a metaphorical level.

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