Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: Rites of Spring

Ah Spring, when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of kidnapping and murder. IFC’s horror flick Rites of Spring hits VOD tomorrow, and it’s a little slice of old school. That doesn’t mean that it’s a “throwback.” Thankfully, that also doesn’t mean that they slapped some fake film defects on it and dared to call it “grindhouse.” What it means is that it had old school sensibilities. The audience isn’t in on the joke, because there’s no joke. It is what it is, and for better or for worse, we’re along for the ride. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it has enough fun with the familiar ground it’s treading that what we get is a fun slasher romp with a caper flick thrown in for good measure. Now if they had just fleshed out the story (and ending) a bit…
Synopsis: A group of kidnappers abduct the daughter of a wealthy socialite and hide out in an abandoned school in the middle of the woods. But feelings of guilt soon overtake the kidnappers, dividing the group and putting their entire plan in jeopardy. The evening further spirals out of control when their poorly chosen hideout becomes a hunting ground for a mysterious creature that requires springtime ritualistic sacrifices.
What we have here are two parallel stories. On one hand we have the story of two girls that get abducted by a weirdo and held hostage in a barn. No, that isn’t a spoiler; it’s in the opening scene. Relax. The other is the story of the kidnapping caper going down, complete with complications and conflicts of its own. Stories of criminals who end up running afoul of something bigger or badder than them are not new in horror. Films like Psycho, Cannibal Ferrox, The Collector, Malevolence, Last House on the Left, From Dusk Til Dawn, and Dear God No have all pulled gold from that mine before. I love how Rites of Spring keeps you off kilter and guessing though. These two stories not only belong to two different genres, but they honestly feel like two different movies. It’s like you’re flipping the channel between a crime thriller and a horror flick. That may sound like it would cause tonal problems, but it works. The thing that makes it work is that the viewer knows good and well that at some point these two disparate tales have to intersect. Until about two minutes before it happens, we have no idea how these two stories are going to come together. When they do, it is a beauty of an out of the blue, “well isn’t that convenient, what the hell, really?” moment. It’s one step away from “Oh, hey guys, didn’t see you there. By the way, that dude’s gonna kill us all.”
At that point in most current neo-stalk and slash movies, the flick would wink-wink-nudge-nudge at the audience and say “Hey, did you see what we did there? Ridiculous, isn’t it? That’s ‘cause we’re old school.” Sorry guys, that’s not old school. Rites of Spring has no wink-wink-nudge-nudge to it at all. No snarky self-awareness. The viewer looks at ROS and says “I get it” and ROS looks back stonefaced and says “Get what?” That’s because Rites of Spring, while it may not be all that old school in style, is as old school as it gets in its sensibilities. It plays everything completely straight instead of doing the “watch what we do with the horror clichés” thing. The clichés are there. The characters do things that no rational person with half a brain would do. We have the “chick cowers covering her mouth in the foreground while the blurry killer moves in the background” shot. We have the “closeup of murder implement being drug along the wall” shot. It’s all here folks, and it’s all welcome. That’s because it’s done with a purity and no-joke honesty that a lot of horror flicks don’t have these days. What also comes with being old school is an absolutely great score. This is how they used to do horror music, and it’s nice to hear it revisited, because it’s damn effective. Score isn’t something I notice all that often, but this one really impressed me.
Speaking of old school, we’ve got another one of the hallmarks of old school slasher flicks, a cool ass killer. See that ugly mug over to the left? That’s Wormface. Wormface is awesome. Get a good look at that picture of Wormface. That’s concept art that was released to promote the flick. It’s also a WAY better look at him than we ever get in the movie. He dresses in and keeps his face covered with rags, so for most of the film he kinda looks like a homeless mummy. He also has a great weapon. I’ve always looked at those and wondered why they haven’t been used more in movies. Although the flick is pretty light on the gore, Ol’ Wormey is pretty brutal with that thing. My question is; what the hell do you call one of those? It looks like the lovechild brought forth by the unholy union of an axe and a scythe. If any of the Cellmates comments and tells me what that thing is called, then you win my eternal gratitude. That’s worth something, right? Anyway, not only is he cool looking, but I liked the way they built up to the reveal. Not gonna go into detail, but it’s done nicely.
You know what isn’t built up nicely? The backstory. The scuttlebutt around the online horror world is that this is planned as the first part of a trilogy. That’s all well and good, but the first part of a trilogy has to be able to stand on its own while still leaving questions. In this flick, the audience is told just enough to know what’s going on, but nowhere close to enough to understand what’s going on. How are some of these characters connected? How does this whole sacrifice thing work? Who the hell is Wormface? Who the hell is The Stranger? Why did the killings stop for a while? Why are thet starting back? We really needed at least a little bit of backstory. You don’t have to tell us everything, but for the love of hell, tell us something. First time writer and director Padraig Reynolds is obviously planning on answering these questions in the sequel. Sometimes that’s ok. For example, one of my favorite recent slasher flicks, Laid to Rest, did that. They left the explanation of Chromeskull’s motivation, identity, and purpose for the sequel too, but they also didn’t throw as many ideas out there as Rites of Spring did. The story in this flick just felt too thin to hold up all of the plot points it was teasing us with without leaving the viewer feeling a little cheated. LTR also felt like a self-contained unit because it had an ending. That movie stopped at a logical point that left questions, but the story was, for the moment at least, over. Rites of Spring ended mid scene. No resolution, nothing. It just stopped. Just like The Devil Inside did. Just like Supernatural season finales are fond of doing. I hate that. The ending pissed me off. Look at Halloween. Nothing was resolved there, and Halloween 2 started where 1 left off, but there was an air of finality at the end of 1. If you’re just going to stop out of nowhere, call the flick Rites of Spring: Episode 1 or something so we know what we’re getting into.
The acting was exceptional for an indie slasher movie, especially from the people I expected it to be good from. I really like AJ Bowen, and not just because he’s a local boy. He impressed me in The Signal, Hatchet 2, and House of the Devil, and he turns in a commendable performance here. His Signal co-star Anessa Ramsey is a classic survivor girl. Her performance is good, however she should never cry in a movie. Her cry is incredibly annoying. She was entertaining when she wasn’t crying. When she was, I almost wished this was WAY old school so someone could just slap her and shut her up. Marco St. John was awesome as “The Stranger.” You may remember him from a horrible flick that I love called Vicious. No? How about Dylan Dog: Dead of Ni…wait, nevermind. No one saw that flick. Well, he’s good in Rites of Spring. The rest of the cast is varying degrees of decent, from Sonny Marinelli’s effectively scummy heavy to Sarah Pachelli’s near catatonic kidnapped little girl. She may as well have been listed as a prop.
Overall, the movie looked pretty good. For a first timer, Reynolds shows some skill in the director’s chair, and I’m interested to see where he goes from here. Cinematographer Carl Herse (hey, that’s not how you spell hearse) has a good eye for shots and a nice sense of visual flair. Visually, the only problem is wobbly cam. In this one, though, it didn’t look so much like it was intentional as it was just a product of handheld shooting. So the question begs to be asked; why shoot handheld? I can understand in tracking shots. Hell, they masked the shaking perfectly during the cornfield chase. What? Oh come on, that doesn’t count as a spoiler. If there’s a cornfield, anyone who’s ever seen a horror flick could tell you that someone’s getting chased through it at some point. Chill out. Anyway, there is absolutely no excuse for a static shot of someone talking to be wobbling. When I was taking notes on this flick, the first one I wrote down was, and I quote, “Use a goddamn tripod for static shots and simple pans.” That’s good advice if I do say so myself. Steady camera work just looks more professional boys. I know I rant about shaky camera work a lot, so I’ll leave it at that this time. Did I mention that the cinematography was good and that the film doesn’t look low budget at all?
Aside from the story thinness and the wobbly camera work, I enjoyed this flick. It was refreshing to see a horror flick take itself seriously, warts and all, for once. Straight horror flicks are becoming more rare as indie horror trends towards the self-referential and “meta.” Rites of Spring is helping keep that old school attitude alive, and I’m really looking forward to the further adventures of Wormface. There are some problems with this flick, but it definitely does more than enough things Rite…er, right. Dammit. I keep doing that. Somewhere just barely shy of one and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.


Anonymous said...

Loved this one! Loved the acting, the storyline, the villian . . . wasn't too thrilled with one actress's excessive heaving breaths though, got a bit annoying.

James Hankins said...

If that it what I think it is, it's called a Hawkbill or Hawkbilled Machete. Love the name. I've seen it used in two other places, one of which was an anime horror series called Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, aka When the Cicadas Cry. I don't know if you like anime horror, but if so, definitely check it out. It'll have you doing doubletakes double time.

James Hankins said...

Never mind... on second glance, that's not what that is. I don't know what the hell that is. But if tools can look angry, and I think they can, that one looks pissed. Still, check out the anime I mentioned. Hawkbills can be fun, too.

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