Once in a while, something really special comes along in genre filmmaking. And horror is a genre that often becomes tiresome especially when a trend catches on (long-haired, crawling ghosts, anyone?). Its quality is cyclical in nature, but its popularity is constant.
Spring (2014) is that “special something,” a horror film that transcends the genre but still provides solid, creeping dread and a few shock moments. I believe it’s among the best horror films of the last 15 years.
If It Follows is a horror movie about sex and death, then Spring is a horror movie about love and death. Death and the possibility of death permeate every frame of this film. Shots of worms and corpses, at first deceptive and a diversion to lure us into perceiving a monstrous undertone, are really a reminder that mortality is never too far away.
Death even opens the film. After a protracted family tragedy and some trouble with the law, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) decides to leave for Italy on a backpacking trip. Caught up in the romantic surroundings and desperate for real human interaction, he spots beautiful local girl Louise (Nadia Hilker) and tries to woo her. They begin a whirlwind relationship in a matter of days. But she’s not exactly the girl-next-door-type.
As you can see, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. It’s a small-budget film, and stylistically it looks so, but aesthetically, the directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have achieved much more. It’s quite obvious that they splurged most of the money on the special effects, which, for their brief and sporadic appearances in the film, provide the kind of visual and sensory jolt that is multiplied tenfold by the juxtaposition with the serene and romantic backdrop of the Italian countryside. It’s much like the effect of sudden violence in a Kitano film.
Spring is that very rare creature. It achieves an almost perfect balance of real poignancy and visceral horror, two things that could seem mutually exclusive but not impossible to bring together. Cronenberg had shown us how in The Fly. But Spring is so much more by giving us interesting new insights into love and death, breaking it all down into bodily chemicals and scientific theories but at the same time, admitting that we don’t really know anything and it could all be magic.
But love is indeed horror. Love can consume us, it can destroy us. It’s a beautiful terror, a plunge into the unknown. And if you’re an immortal, your idea of love would be vastly different (this is something no film about immortals has tackled so eloquently).
A story like this, which hinges a lot on the bond between the two lead characters, places all stakes in the chemistry between the two actors. Pucci and Hilker literally sizzle on-screen, and it’s obvious why the movie has drawn comparisons with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Evan and Louise’s playful and inquisitive banter recalls the iconic relationship between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. But theirs has more of an interesting power play that begins to shift as one of them starts to commit more.
We can talk so much about the deft handling of the two well-realised characters, their organic relationship that is really the centre of the film that holds everything else together. But that’s only one aspect of this deceptively simple film which upon further reflection, reveals itself to be a rich, complex and absorbing inquiry into mortality, spirituality and why we love when life itself is so much against it.
In the film’s opening, Evan watches as his dying mother fades away in front of his eyes. Her last words to him is that she loves him. When Evan decides to stay on in Italy, he finds work at a farm owned by a sad, elderly man who never quite recovered from his wife’s death in a car accident.
Spring‘s deeper preoccupations, punctuated by religious iconography, and references to mythology and history, elevate it beyond the usual “Can you love a monster” horror movie trappings. Yet, the proceedings are never heavy-handed nor the emotional quotient manipulative. We are not just invested in the relationship between the two lovers, but also in the questions about the finite nature of life and love.
How would you perceive love if you could live forever? Could you even love? Why do we still take the plunge when our mortality will only bring loss and despair? What is it that makes love worth the pain and suffering? What if there is no God and no afterlife? Would it still be true that love never dies?
And the film rather courageously invests itself in an answer, that perhaps it’s our very own mortality, the fact that we have an expiry date, that makes love all that much sweeter and worthwhile, because you can only have so much in so little time. And in that way, the horror element is not just a mere device in the story but a spark for so much more.
When asked about what it’s like to live a finite life, Evan replies: “When you’re sick, it makes you feel lucky for all the times when you were healthy. Sunrises and sunsets, some things are just beautiful no matter what, and a constant reminder that you only get so many.”
And all the while, the sun is rising behind him, like spring bringing hope and renewal.
Beautiful. Just beautiful.
Note: Spring is available on DVD in the UK. Later this year, Drafthouse Films will be releasing an extras-packed Blu-ray.