Evan Russell (Lou Taylor Pucci, Evil Dead) is going through a difficult time in his life. His mother has just passed away, and he may soon be facing assault charges in the wake of a violent bar fight (he didn't start it, but he certainly did finish it). One of his friends suggests that he just leave the country for a while in order to get some space and clear his head. On a whim, Evan chooses Italy. He doesn't have a plan and he certainly doesn't have any money, but things work out. He does some odd jobs for an aging farmer in exchange for room and board, and spends his free time drinking and laughing with some rowdy British tourists.

Then, he sees her: the woman in the red dress (Nadia Hilker). Her name is Louise, and Evan can't take his eyes off her. Eventually he works up the nerve to speak to her, and asks if he can buy her a drink. She suggests that they cut to the chase and head over to his place. It's an awfully exciting encounter for Evan, and he immediately falls head-over-heels in love. However, what he doesn't realize is that Louise has a secret. Every so often, she starts to transform into... something... and her desire to hide her secret forces her to act in ways that seem bizarre and irrational.

Spring is both a romantic drama and a horror film, and it mines a great deal of tension from our uncertainty about which genre is ultimately the dominant one. We certainly spend more time on the romantic side of things, but the horror element is always lurking in the background. Louise has medication that keeps her strange condition in check, but she never knows when scales will appear on her leg or when her hand will suddenly look old and withered. As soon as something happens, she has to find a way to excuse herself without raising too much suspicion (“Have you ever just felt an overwhelming need to take a shower?”).

Horror films typically operate in metaphorical territory, and Spring uses Louise's mysterious dark side as a striking stand-in for the secrets about our true nature that we tend to hide from people we're getting to know. If we stay in a relationship long enough, the truth of who we are will eventually be revealed, whether we want it to are not. Once all the cards are on the table, will there be enough love left to make the relationship last? The film suggests that being exposed to a person's flaws is an awfully effective way to divide the line between love and lust.

The film was directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who previously collaborated on the low-budget horror flick Resolution. Spring is also a relatively low-budget affair, but the directors make tremendous use of their Italian locations and give the film a strong sense of place. There's more than a little of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise in the way the film absorbs the atmosphere of its low-key European backdrop while two people walk, talk and navigate their way through a budding relationship. Admittedly, the dialogue isn't always as rich as Linklater's (particularly early on, when the movie casually resembles one of those lame '90s Tarantino knockoffs), but then again, Linklater didn't spice things up with fleeting traces of Lovecraftian horror.

Though a handful of minor supporting characters appear, the film largely feels like a two-person affair, with Pucci and Hilker carrying the bulk of the movie. They both do fine, nuanced work, particularly Pucci as the increasingly exasperated yet reasonably patient young American. Evan consciously attempts to avoid being an “ugly American” stereotype, and his quick temper is balanced by a genuine decency. I also admired the way Hilker adds new layers to her performance as the film progresses; quietly planting seeds for later revelations without fully revealing her hand.

The film's special effects are fairly strong, but they appear in momentary bits and piece – a reptilian tail here, a wolfish fang there – that both grab our attention and keep us guessing about precisely what sort of terrible creature Louise may be. Benson and Moorhead give the film a soft, gauzy look, as if everything we're watching – particularly the romance – may fade away at any moment. There are brief moments when the score (penned by Jimmy Lavalle) seems to drift into Giallo territory, but much like the film as a whole, the music resists the temptation to lean too heavily on homage. Despite some obvious European horror influences, this movie wants to be seen as its own thing.

The film really hits its stride during the third act, which boldly decides to add nervous comedy and exposition-heavy science fiction into the horror-romance mix. It feels messy, but in a dangerous, exciting way that makes us feel the movie could go just about anywhere. Spring might have benefited from a bit of judicious trimming here and there (it drags a little during the midsection), but it's an absorbing, unique effort that builds to a deeply satisfying payoff. It doesn't fit comfortably into any single genre, but it juggles its assorted tonal elements with considerable skill. It reminded me of a lot of things, but I haven't seen anything else quite like it.


Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Year: 2015