This is the first article in a regular series on culturised aiming to give some much deserved attention to the great films available through online streaming services (for more details see the “About The Author” section at the bottom of this article). The film I’ve chosen to kick off this series is what Guillermo del Toro has called, “…one of the best horror films of this decade. And the only Lovecraftian film that had blown me away.” But this horror flick is also a love story, and a good one. The film is Spring (2014), directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. So without further ado, lets dig into it.
Spring is the second feature film co-directed by Benson and Moorhead, a project that started gaining traction after the success of their first project Resolution (2012). Originally filmed in 2013, it found wider release with the Drafthouse Films branch of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain. It has since found a niche on the Netflix queues of indie film buffs everywhere. The story itself has a very narrow cast of characters. Evan (played by Evil Dead’s Lou Taylor Pucci) finds himself adrift after the death of his mother, who was his last remaining family member. After a run in with a local drug addict at the bar where he works, and taking the advice of the girl he’s contacted for a sympathy one-night-stand, Evan decides getting out of the country is exactly what he needs. Taking the advice from the travel agent that, “white people love Italy”, Evan catches the first plan he can. He ends up in an unspecified small, coastal town, with a couple of affable, drunken, Brits on holiday, and it’s here that Evan first meets Louise (Nadia Hilker).
The first encounter in any love story is its own sort of mini-climax, it’s the moment from which the rest of the action progresses. Evan catches a glimpse of Louise upon first entering the town, but their actual first meeting is a moment of sublime unbalance and one Benson and Moorhead get absolutely right. Evan approaches Louise—cheerfully egged on by his UK counterparts—at the bar overlooking a stunning vista view. Contrary to normal filmic expectations, Louise latches on to him immediately, offering to leave with him after little more than a sentence or two of conversation. Now it’s Evan’s turn to defy our expectations, instead of playing easily into the loveable-oblivious-idiot that proliferate the American romantic comedy genre, Evan acts intelligently. He’s infatuated without a doubt—Louise is a walking teenage fantasy—but Evan decides needs a bit of time to, “figure out if she’s the kind of crazy he can deal with,” Louise calls his bluff, dismissing him and making eyes at the older gentleman one barstool over. It’s a scene played with delicious amounts of awkwardness, earnestness, and depth.
Suffice it to say, after Louise storms from the bar stating that, “You [Evan] made this so much harder than it had to be,” Evan is smitten enough to hang around the city even once his British counterparts have moved on for the greener pastures of Amsterdam. Evan manages to secure a room at a local olive farm in exchange for working the orchard with its owner, Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti). With this the primary cast of the film is set and the story begins. Evan does eventually find Louise again, and does a wonderfully awkward-earnest job of courting her. But, almost immediately, we become aware Louise is hiding something, something that stalks the town at night, something that may have large teeth, and tentacles.
To give away any more of the plot would be to spoil the movie, and that is not my wish. My hope is that those of you reading this seek the film out and watch it; what I really want to outline are the technical and narratorial choices that make this film worth watching as Spring has one of the best written stories I’ve encountered in a long time. It’s full of moments that click into place long after the fade to black; it’s smart, funny, and, most of all, warm. It’s certainly more than run-of-the-mill love story.
From a technical standpoint, Spring represents one of the greatest advances in low-budget filmmaking since the original The Evil Dead (1981). One of the brilliant innovations Benson and Moorhead make is the use of drone photography in place of cranes and dollies. It’s something I’ll get into further a little later, but for now I’ll just say that what the drone does is allows the camera an ability to move wherever it wants, whenever it wants, which in turn is a very simple way to convey the sense of unease. It looks very similar to what film audiences are used to, but has the ability at any point to do something drastic like fly off and over a railing. In these moments the film’s camera work and the questions raised by the story are working in tandem to imbue the film’s horrors with uncommon depth.
The cast of the film is uniformly excellent. There is a real world sense of connection and empathy that runs through the characters. An example is when Evan calls his friend Tommy (Jeremy Gardner) for assistance. Tommy is a deeply relatable and believable character, he’s a great friend, but also flawed: he will help you carry the casket over your mother, but he also may drop it—an event alluded to at the films start—and its these small moments and touches that creates the audience’s connection to the characters of Spring. The film sets up these character encounters for Evan to knock into and maneuver his way through, all while dancing around the enigmatic figure of Louise. Through his portrayal of Evan, Pucci anchors the film with a down-on-his-luck grace; he’s just a guy for whom the blows keep coming, and now that he feels like he’s finally seen a hole in Life’s defenses, he’s coming off the ropes swinging. Hilker is also a pitch perfect Louise: mysterious, foreign, but constantly pulling off layers—both physically and metaphorically—in performance with heart-aching depth.
For other “Filmmaker Hobos”, as Benson and Moorhead have been known to describe themselves, Spring represents a watershed moment for what is possible with consumer level camera equipment. Throughout watching Spring there is a fluidity of the camera the likes of which I haven’t seen since The Shining. Much of the credit here goes to William Tanner Sampson, who it is revealed in the “making of” featurette on the film’s special features was both the Steadicam operator as well as the one who provided the camera drone for the production. What Benson, Moorhead, and Tanner Sampson were able to create with their flowing camera work is a sense of purpose to Evan’s quest for Louise, but also a sense of inevitability. During the introduction to Louise, the camera actually catches hold of her before Evan does, and it is in this moment the audience understands that this is the “mini-climax” the film has been building too. The camera occupies the traditional “overlooking” eye, in the style of Kubrick and Hitchcock, but the modern technology on which it is mounted enables it to have a life of its own.
As an audience we follow the camera nearly as much as we follow Evan: the camera is allowed to lose interest in the characters and may go off looking for other subjects to follow. It’s a similar trick that used by Iñárritu in Birdman (2014). However, whereas in that film the camera is used to push the plausibility of the character’s depicted psyche and is as much a deconstruction of the comic book film phenomena as it is a characters study, Benson, and Moorhead, and Sampson’s camera is focused entirely on the story of their subjects. It is perhaps this point which is the most important in making the film as engaging as it is: there are moments in which we see what is happening with Louise, moments when we see what is happening with Evan, and, crucially, moments when we see what is happening with neither of them. It’s the camera which is telling the story, the camera which is organizing the events and through its machinations we understand what the fate of Evan and Louise’s relationship will be.
There is one moment in Spring that I want to focus on from the purely technical side of things and why it is significant for low budget filmmakers. It is the scene when the camera floats down a walkway that is enclosed by buildings before focusing on a wall with a large bloodstain on it before ducking over the railing to the left of the walls and off into open space over the ocean. It’s a shot that previously would have been impossible, but has very recently been made achievable through the use of drone photography. Not only does this shot add to the unsettling bits of the movie, but also is an example of how close the world of consumer level equipment and professional grade camera are brushing. Anyone can go to a shop, or online and purchase the drone that achieved that shot. It’s expensive, but not as expensive as a dolly and crane would be, and infinitely more maneuverable. What this means, and what’s exciting about it, is that the gap between consumer and producer is narrowing, giving more and more freedom to the everyman filmmaker.
What else can I say? I really loved this film, it speaks to the heart of relationships, the writing is fiendishly clever making commentary on the wider world around us with its narrow focus, and the visuals are stunning. Spring is truly a lovely film and more than enough reason to be excited by the next offerings of Benson and Moorhead.
Spring is available on Amazon Prime in the U.S. and is streaming on Netflix in the U.K.
 @realGDT. “Just in case I wasn’t clear: Spring is one of the best horror films of this decade. And the only Lovecraftian film that has blown me away.” Twitter 10 June 2016, 9:05 a.m. twitter.com/RealGDT/status/752217217929019393