Technology has ruined horror movies. Not cinematic technology, mind you. I don’t have anything against digital filmmaking or even some well placed CGI. But the technology that keeps all of us in constant contact has destroyed the traditional horror film set-up. From GPS to the advent of the smart cell phone it has proven more and more difficult to get characters into that precarious situation. You know, the situation that propels the horror forward. Beyond the “no signal” or “I forgot to charge my battery” trope, horror screenwriters haven’t really figured out how to conquer this modern convenience. Rites of Spring, the first feature by writer/director Padraig Reynolds, counteracts this by placing the movie in 2008, when cell phones could only make simple calls, and with a sporadic success rate at that. While this may not be a complete solution to the technology problem, it at least supplies an effective loophole.
Keeping with that conceit, Rites of Spring looks and feels like a film made decades before its own release date. And, yes, that is meant as a superlative. Through skillful direction Reynolds really succeeds in creating a menacing, dark, and generally morose world. Through the especially well crafted first sequence and the parallel story lines that follows, Rites of Spring doesn’t just present the horrific but really forces the audience to wallow in it. We are introduced to Ben Garinger(AJ Bowen) and his compatriots as they reluctantly plan to abduct a small girl from a wealthy family. From there we spend time with the group of kidnappers, and especially Ben, as they wrestle with what they are about to do. With the exception of some occasional cuts to the other story line, the more traditionally horrific one, the audience is left to struggle with the more realistically horrific ethical dilemma of the would-be kidnappers.
Many horror movies skim over any real character moments with overtly expositional dialogue that succeeds in moving the plot along but also manages to feel hollow and sterile. That’s probably what made the succinct, realistic dialogue and skillful acting found in Rites of Spring so surprising, and refreshing. Led by AJ Bowen, the cast here is shockingly good in their performances. Most likely a combination of the script and the actor’s skills, the realism of Rites of Spring is heightened to a point that when the standard horror movie events kick off it was a bit of a jolt to the system. The audience is so involved with the kidnapping story line, it would be forgivable to forget that there is something far more nefarious happening in the other story line.
Unfortunately, it is when the former story line takes center stage that Rites of Spring begins to falter a bit. When so much time is spent on an intimate study of the workings of a group, especially a criminal group, the point that a creature, that could have stepped out of a number of other horror films, steps into this one the shift in reality is probably too far a leap to ask an audience to make. That said, the film doesn’t lose all of its cleverness and momentum with that introduction. Part of that cleverness is placing itself in the past so that the cell phone and GPS problem can be cleverly explained away, and those explanations really do work within the framework of the story.
Rites of Spring could be seen in two ways. Firstly, it could be seen as a clever mash up of the traditional creature film, adding the kidnapping plot to add depth and heart. Secondly, though, it could be seen as a confusing film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The viewer’s take on this will likely hinge on the horror induced right turn that Reynolds takes the film. For myself, that turn, while a bit jarring, mostly worked and resulted in an effective horror title.