It's been a long time since I saw a story take as sharp and skillfully negotiated a U-turn into the Twilight Zone as Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's singular horror film Spring. A woozily romantic creature feature – there's two descriptors you don't generally hear together— that follows sensitive and blandly handsome American bro Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) on an impromptu soul-cleansing trip to Italy, the first act plays like it was written and directed by Richard Linklater. Having lost his job and his mother in the same week, the intelligent but obviously directionless Evan decides to skip town for a while and flies off to the first destination suggested by the airline agent. Once there, he befriends a pair of hard-partying Welsh tourists and accompanies them to a picturesque town on the Adriatic coast. It's on his first day there that he encounters the beautiful Louise (Nadia Hilker), their initial exchange of wordless glances worked into a sinuous and beautifully staged slow-motion take. The British leave the town soon after but lovelorn Evan stays. Act Two, however, involves tentacles.
What's particularly impressive about this film is its organic melding of two genres that couldn't be more disparate but, when you think about it, feel like a natural match: romance and body horror. Eventually, Evan does manage to get himself a date with Louise, soon discovering that she's a polymath research scientist who can speak a dozen languages and discuss art history with as much ease as evolutionary biology. Their nights together flow easily into the heady narrative mode of films like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, hitting all the points on the indie travelogue-as-romance template and doing so with aplomb. The two fantastic leads generate some intense chemistry and, in conjunction with the canny scripting and direction, manage to capture the intoxication unique to falling for someone new in a strange land. Hilker is particularly good, easing into the character's mercurial shifts and teasing her mysterious depths without straying into off-puttingly oblique territory. In her hands, Louise feels like a real person you'd want to get to know. It's too bad she's not entirely human.
Benson and Moorhead make no bones about the fact that something is off about Louise. As the pair's winsome romance unspools, odd little portents and images start filtering into the narrative, unexplained but provocative. Flowers bloom at an accelerated speed around Louise, stripped animal carcasses start popping up in unlikely places and a sense of foreboding creeps into the proceedings. Where foreign locations are often little more than superficial trappings in many horror movies, the filmmakers use the winding alleyways, plunging cliffs and old architecture of the town to great effect. In some of the wider night-time shots in which the moon rises over the town, it could easily be mistaken for an illustration of R'lyeh, home of Cthulhu, or the titular community from Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth. As it happens, the (in)famous writer's influence hangs heavy over this film, manifesting itself most strongly in the gruesome scene in which Evan discovers Louise's true nature.
I won't give away Louise's backstory but, much to my delight, its supernatural dimension does not detract from the essentially human aspect of both her identity and the pair's relationship. The film's outré elements are in service to its characters and their story. When Louise kills people—one especially memorable and thematically loaded murder is that of an obnoxious and chauvinistic American tourist—it's less about the gore and more about why she's doing what she's doing. And the reasons turn out to be surprisingly poignant. What Benson and Moorhead pull off is a real rarity: a monster myth that works as an extended metaphor for love in all its transient/permanent glory and also for the sacrifices we make in order to be with those we fall for. The filmmakers also earn major brownie points for letting the duo's relationship and not any contrived man versus monster climactic action dictate the direction taken by the really rather lovely final minutes. They take the absurd high concept and Louise's (tad over-elaborate) mythology to a place of such intense emotional honesty that everything cycles right back round to total believability. As far as boy-meets-girl stories go, this one's a real novelty.