109 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).
Crossbreed Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" with H.P. Lovecraft's monsters and one has a cosmetic inkling of what he or she is in for with "Spring," an ethereal, understated and shrewdly executed romantic horror genre-bender. Directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson participated in the third and worst horror-anthology installment, 2014's "V/H/S: Viral," and their segment showcased none of the craftsmanship that they have obviously honed. Working from a script by Benson, their feature-length follow-up to 2012's "Resolution" is very much something to proud of and it deserves word-of-mouth. Like Sweden's "Let the Right One In" (or the U.S. version, "Let Me In"), "Spring" is a small but potent discovery that shouldn't scare away romantics or turn down the horror crowd.
After taking care of his cancer-afflicted mother, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) was at her bedside when she slipped away. Everyone keeps telling him to get out of town, so when he punches out the teeth of a belligerent barfly that costs him his job as a sous chef at a dive bar, he escapes to Italy on a whim and puts his professional life on hold. Evan hits a few tourist sites and then has a good drunken time with a couple of Australian mates, who eventually leave him, and then gets a job working with old farmer Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti). In between, Evan runs into an attractive, playful, multilingual woman named Louise (Nadia Hilker). One night, they sleep together, and in the morning, she's already gone. They mostly hang out at night, but it's enough time for Evan to realize that he just might be in love with this wonderful young woman. There's one teensy little problem: Louise harbors a transformative secret that could put her lover boy in harm's way.
For a film that's billed as a horror film with a monster, "Spring" is awfully romantic with an unforced, earth-bound sense of humor. That's not to say that a romance can't also have a little icky body horror to go along with it. "Just because you haven't seen something before doesn't make it supernatural," Louise tells Evan after he witnesses her transformation. When he learns of Louise's true species, he's as shocked as anyone would be and amusingly rattles off a list of any monster she could be. The thing about "Spring" is that Justin Benson's script never gets bogged down in primordial mythology; a line of dialogue like that exists as the couple walks and talks. The tonal throughline that directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson straddle consistently never displaces the horror or the romance. It captures the wistful air of getting to know someone and not knowing their entire truth, and remains perceptive throughout without overplaying the monster elements. Dreamily poetic in the way it's shot by co-director Aaron Moorhead, the film captures both the intimacy of the Italian streets, alleyways and apartments, as well as the massive scope of seaside town Polgnano a Mare in gorgeous aerial shots. Insects wriggling around on trees, predatory animals feeding on dead animals, and flowers blooming and withering also act as a recurring visual motif of the evolution of life.
Remove the fact that Louise is an ancient creature relying on medicinal syringes to keep up her human mystique and "Spring" is still a love story between soul mates. It certainly wouldn't work without an easy, appealing chemistry between its leads and strong performances. Lou Taylor Pucci is nothing short of sympathetic and relatable as Evan, a twentysomething who needs a breather after life has thrown him a few curveballs that will take him a while to recover from. He's instantly smitten with Louise that it's not hard to feel for him when we already know Louise isn't an ordinary girl. The stunning Nadia Hilker is alluring and charming as Louise, an enigmatic woman who tries keeping her metamorphosis hidden for as long as she can. Once we see certain areas of her body changing that Evan doesn't, it's a hideous sight, courtesy of gnarly make-up and CG effects, not to mention the squishy sound design. Seamlessly hopping between genres and putting its talented directors on the map, "Spring" is a beautiful, beastly fairy tale with a beating heart behind a lot of goopy skin-shedding.
Grade: B +