Sunday, February 17, 2013

Rites of Spring (2011)

Written by: Padraig Reynolds
Directed by: Padraig Reynolds
Starring: Anessa Ramsey, Sonny Marinelli, Katherine Randolph

Any filmmaker who tries to leave some questions open in his horror movie is walking a very fine line. When a story leaves just enough unexplained to fire your imagination and keep you thinking about what you saw for hours or days, or in those glorious rare cases the rest of your life as you revisit the movie time and again because you take something away from it with each viewing, it's a magical experience. When done right, it seems so effortless that you never really think about what a great storytelling talent it takes to explain just enough without making it too vague, or taking it too far in the other direction and holding the audience's hand like they're too stupid to figure out your movie on their own.

With high definition digital video being what it is these days, just about anyone can afford to make their movie look like a big-budget studio feature. There are always things like cheap sets and special effects to trip up the independent filmmaker, but the days of direct-to-video features looking like they were shot with a camcorder are getting farther and farther away. With such technical polish on display, and such an intricate and interesting plot during the crime thriller portion of the flick, it's doubly disappointing when the ball gets dropped so hard at the end.

Two girls named Rachel and Gillian are sitting at a bar discussing how Rachel feels bad because one of her coworkers got fired for something she did but was too afraid to admit to, so she let him take the fall. When they leave, they are chloroformed and thrown in the back of a van by a hooded figure. Elsewhere in town, a man named Ben and his girlfriend Amy are discussing Ben's second thoughts about the third party in a kidnapping scheme they've cooked up. Paul Nolan is a twitchy, suspicious character with violence boiling just beneath the surface of his barely-kept-together demeanor, and it's understandable how working with someone you wouldn't trust to butter toast for you without stabbing you in the throat would make committing such a major crime that much less appealing. But Ben and Amy are stuck. Ben just lost his job and they owe $300,000 to some people who, judging from the tone of the conversation, it's even less safe to be in debt to than it is to work with Paul.

Of course the kidnapping goes sour, when Paul shoots the wife of the family whose daughter they're taking for ransom. He also winds up having to bring along the nanny because she knocked his mask off during a struggle and could identify him. Why not just shoot her too, you ask? Well, it turns out she's in cahoots with Paul, and they plan to shoot Ben and Amy and take all the money for themselves. But things go further wrong when the girl's father highjacks their fourth partner who was supposed to pick up the money, and shows up waving a gun of his own around to get revenge for his wife.

Now, you're probably wondering what happened to those girls from the opening scene. The man who kidnapped them is an old farmer whose family has, for generations, fed girls to a bloodthirsty agricultural deity in exchange for good harvests. It must be some serious mojo they get in return for that blood too, because the corn in the man's fields is fully mature several months before it should be (I guess Reynolds didn't think farmers would be watching his movie so no one would notice the movie couldn't possibly take place when it says it does). Gillian gets fed to the demon, but Rachel escapes, and bursts into the abandoned school where the kidnappers and kidnapees are having their standoff with the thing hot on her heels. Suddenly everyone has a much bigger problem than who is going to shoot whom.

Agricultural gaffes aside, the stuff with the creature is frustratingly vague. We never find out exactly what it is, how the old man's family came to be associated with it, or even what it needs the blood for. He says something about having to make sure they're clean, but they're definitely not virgins and they at least drink alcohol. The thing lives in a nest under his barn, sort of like the lair of the thing in Jeepers Creepers, with remains of past victims plastered to the walls with a spider web-like secretion. But the thing looks more than anything like the titular entity from those awful Scarecrow movies that seemed to come out every other week for a couple of years in the early 2000's. It dresses in rags and carries an old scythe, and just doesn't generally fit the image one thinks of when one thinks of a powerful elemental demon. And then Rachel just stabs it in the neck and it dies.

It's like Reynolds is the polar opposite of M. Night Shyamalan. He also makes movies that are ¾ tightly crafted thriller, which piss all the audience's good will and patience down their leg with over-wrought twist endings that ruin everything that went into setting them up. This flick has a tense, punchy setup and then adamantly refuses to do any damn thing with it at all. I think I would have preferred a stupid twist ending, honestly. That's still better than the filmmaker just deciding they're tired and don't want to finish what they started.

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