Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a rural cult movie, a botched crime movie and a slasher movie walk into a bar…
I see what you’re trying to do Rites of Spring. I want to love you for doing it, but it doesn’t really work.
Let me back up. I was sold Rites of Spring by it’s evocative poster, a few promotional stills I had seen, semi-familiar cast (two vets of The Signal, a movie I really like), and dumb luck. I was browsing the new on-demand titles and this one sounded up my alley.
$7.99 and 81 minutes later: here we are.
I’ve got to say upfront that Rites is not a movie I enjoyed. There’s some qualities here, though. Some aspects that set it above many films of comparable budget and breadth of release, so it’s worth discussing.
The best thing Rites of Spring has going for it is that it’s gorgeous. The overabundance of handheld shots can grate, but otherwise the film is nicely composed and beautifully lit.
The real star of Rites is its locations. Crumbling abandoned buildings, rundown motels, rural gas stations, rustic farmland: everything feels authentic and lived-in. So why do the characters have nothing interesting to say while they’re in these locations?
Writer/director Padraig Reynolds’s greatest sin is giving proven actors (AJ Bowen, Anessa Ramsey) clunky, exposition-filled dialogue. Why are characters constantly referring to each other by their full names? Why does everyone feel the need to tell us what they’re about to do (“I’m going to check it out”, “I’m going to open this door”, etc.)?
Some of these failings can be attributed to the film’s ambitious structure. We split the first forty minutes between two groups: young women about to become pagan sacrifices to ensure a bountiful harvest and a group of kidnappers. It turns out that the protagonists of both these stories are linked and establishing that link is what most of the early dialog is concerned with.
Rachel (Ramsey, the protag of the sacrifice subplot) made an expensive mistake at work that cost Ben (Bowen, the sympathetic member of the kidnapping gang) his job.
The problem is that this shared past is the least interesting part of the film. Sure we can call Ben’s wrongful canning the inciting event, but who cares? Losing your job is a flimsy reason to throw in with a clearly duplicitous crook and violently abduct your boss’s kid.
It’s not like I don’t understand what’s meant to be going on under the hood. The intent is to show that some actions can spiral out of control and that sometimes insane things happen for no good reason, but that’s also the perfect theme to use when your script is reliant on coincidence instead of cogent character motivation/logic.
What’s compelling here is the masked villain and the titular “rites of spring” needed to keep him satisfied. But that’s not what Reynolds wants to make a movie about. The bulk of the information we’re given about this ceremony is jammed into a few haphazard opening text blocks. We’re left wishing the script found a way to deliver this information organically.
At the halfway mark the two subplots run into each other and the film becomes a full-blooded slasher movie, with the remaining characters served up to an intimidating dude with an poleaxe and a skin problem.
By the time the film reaches this second half, we know nothing about this chop-happy guy. The glimpses we get of his makeup are cool, but he doesn’t even get a name. It’s implied but unclear whether or not if he’s of supernatural origin but I want to know what his deal is! I get the feeling that Reynolds wanted to keep the villain’s origins purposefully oblique, perhaps trying to limit our knowledge to ratchet up tension.
It’s clear that Reynolds wanted to make “more than just a slasher flick” but these genres embrace archetypes and tropes for a reason. If you’re missing too many of the essential ingredients: it just doesn’t work. A part-crime, part-folk horror, part-slasher film sounds awesome, but those parts have to function independently for the movie to have a chance.
What should be a rousing climax filled with narrow escapes from our heroes and despicable characters getting their comeuppance is rendered inert by the fact that we don’t care about any of these characters, slasher included. There’s plenty of blood, but even gorehounds will be disappointed in how vanilla the kills are (all variations on the classic “I hit you with a poleaxe” maneuver). In fact, the one minor character I found myself rooting for has their fate left to a cutaway, the story never coming back around to let us know what happened to them.
What’s frustrating about Rites of Spring is not what it does wrong, but what it does right. There’s so much to like here, it just never congeals. It’s rare that a mediocre film is made better when there’s more of it, but Rites (which is on the short end of feature length) would have benefited by either giving us more of the villain or a few scenes in which we’re shown why we should care for the heroes.
Reynolds has a good eye, I look forward to what he can do when he’s making a movie without an identity crisis. Maybe even a sequel where the slasher is given his proper due?