The surprisingly sweet and playful horror movie Spring seems to be heading into Hostel territory, only for writer-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead to instead navigate a far more scenic and affecting route. This is the trajectory followed by Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), who after watching his mother die from cancer ricochets almost immediately into a bar fight that leaves him facing police charges; to avoid those, he hops on the first flight to Europe - Italy, to be precise - where he falls in with a pair of bluff British backpackers and then, after they've swaggered off into the film Spring could so easily have been, starts working on the kind of sunkissed Bologna farm rarely seen outside of olive oil ads. It's while tending the crops that he crosses paths with Louise (Nadia Hilker), a too-hot-to-be-true student apparently in town to research the unusual purity of the local gene pool - a big red flag that young men following their dicks have traditionally ignored to their peril in this sort of film.
One wrinkle is that Taylor Pucci - the thinking person's Ryan Gosling, in his best big-screen role to date - makes Evan an entirely likable travelling companion: a good kid (and loving son) who has his reasons for going a little off the rails, and who might still make something of himself if he could only settle down and apply himself. There's something very charming in the way he refutes Nadia's early come-ons and holds out for the prospect of coffee and a real date; he feels like a properly fleshed-out character, rather than a ready-made victim. Benson and Moorhead similarly play a long game - it's a film of slow reveals rather than cheap shocks, which makes for a pleasant change in the week of Annabelle - and their patience and curiosity pays off: as we explore with Evan the picturesque backstreets and byways of this coastal idyll, the filmmakers give themselves space to pursue subtly significant sidebars on the representation of women in Roman art, and the differences between 17th and 21st century attitudes to the female form.
This time out only deepens our understanding of these characters. Nadia may initially appear a temptress, but she's more than a monster; in Hilker's very capable hands, she's a young woman wrestling with who she is and where she came from. The film has a funny way of calling both Evan and us on our expectations and prejudices. When our boy suggests to his aged overseer down on the farm that a pagan animal sacrifice might help pep up an underwhelming harvest, he is instead referred to the anti-fungal spray in the woodshed; the same employer will later - for a wind-up - warn Evan that immigration is coming, and sit chuckling while the gullible prat runs for the hills. Benson and Moorhead revel in these deft tells - we know Evan has bottomed out back home when he's fired from a bar where an unseen character referred to as "Shitty Carl" has found regular employment - yet they also take death seriously, in a way a smirking yukfest like Hostel couldn't, and this only factors into the romance of Spring, and its protagonist's desire to forge lasting, meaningful connections. It heads towards an unusual, progressive-seeming final act, more Before Sunrise than Dawn of the Dead, in which the leads try to work something out rather than put a stake or silver bullet through it. The effect, true to that title, is genuinely regenerative: if your beloved isn't averse to the odd bloody protuberance, it'd make for a great date movie.
Spring screens tomorrow (Fri 10) at 8.30 at the Odeon Covent Garden, and again on Sun 12 at 1pm in NFT2; it will open in selected cinemas from Spring 2015.