United States. Directed by Padraic Reynolds, 2011. Starring AJ Bowen, Anessa Ramsey, Sonny Marinelli. 80 minutes.

For almost thirty years, every spring, women have disappeared. Their bodies are never found. Nobody knows what happened to them.

Rachel (Anessa Ramsey) lost her firm an important client. Even worse, she allowed someone else to take the fall. After a night at the bar with her co-worker Alyssa (Hannah Bryan), she resolves to come clean to her boss and make things right. She never gets the chance: a hooded stranger (Marco St. John) abducts the two.

They come to, tied up, in a rural barn. Who has kidnapped them, and why? What will happen to them? The stranger doesn’t give them a straight answer. He asks the women “Are you clean?” and makes enigmatic references to a sacrifice. Then he takes out a bowl and knife.

Under a trapdoor in the barn, a hideous creature stirs.

Ben (AJ Bowen) is down on his luck, recently fired from his job for a fuck-up he had nothing to do with, and half a million dollars in debt. He’s gotten involved with Paul (Sonny Marinelli), a career criminal heading up a kidnapping job. Also working the job are Ben’s wife Amy (Katherine Randolph) and brother Tommy (Andrew Breland). The take is two million dollars, split equally four ways. The target is the young daughter of Ben’s former boss Ryan Hayden (James Bartz).

The job doesn’t go off as planned, but that’s the least of the criminals’ worries. Because Rachel, having escaped the stranger, bursts into their lives, covered in blood, begging for help, and telling a wild story about being chased by a murderous monster.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a horror film so committed to succeeding despite itself as Rites of Spring.

The story combines the setup for a bog-standard horror movie (plucky heroine kidnapped by psychotic weirdo and must escape from murderous monster) and the setup for a bog-standard crime picture (down-on-his-luck anti-hero gets drawn into a caper and finds himself in over his head). Writer/director Padraig Reynolds seems to believe that merely marrying the two setups will result in a fresh take on both subgenres, but it doesn’t, not really.

The problem isn’t the over-familiarity of the premises, but the relentless predictability of the plot development. Everything that happens in a crime-gone-wrong story happens to Ben, and everything that happens in a slasher movie happens to Rachel (and eventually Ben) as well. The identity of Paul’s “person on the inside” is obvious from the moment he mentions said person. Alyssa’s status as cannon fodder is so obvious from the beginning that it barely seems like a spoiler.

On top of this is the most problematic individual plot point, the massive web of coincidence that connects the two stories. If you read between the lines of my synopsis it’s not too hard to figure out that Rachel committed the multi-million-dollar cock-up Ben went down for, and that Hayden is both the boss Rachel plans to confess to and the target of Paul’s ransom plan.

I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why this development is necessary (and like every other plot twist in the film, it’s presented as a major reveal when, in fact, it’s blatantly obvious from the moment the pieces start to fit into place). I guess maybe it’s to give Ben and Rachel more of a motivation to help each other, although considering they are both on the run from a bloodthirsty rampaging freak, I can’t imagine they’d need more motivation. In fact, the twist hinders, not helps, the film, as it makes suspension of disbelief, already a difficult thing for this film, that much harder.

About that aforementioned bloodthirsty rampaging freak: man, was I disappointed. The Stranger’s dialogue foreshadowed the inevitable appearance of some sort of Lovecraftian Thing that Should Not Be, but what we get is a guy in some grotesque makeup running around, beheading victims with a scythe. It’s like being promised Pinhead but actually getting a third-rate Jason Voorhees.

And yet Rites of Spring is much more enjoyable than it ought. Reynolds’s direction creates suspense where his script lacks it and creates a couple of genuine scares. (The “bloodletting” sequence is probably the film’s highlight.) Characterization is quite deft and effective. To be sure, the characters are rats in a maze, but at least they’re fascinating rats.

The real draw here is the cast. If you absolutely must have a Final Girl in your horror movie, you could do much worse than Anessa Ramsey, who was impressive in The Signal and a bright spot in the desperately uneven Yellowbrickroad. Her Signal castmate, the ubiquitous AJ Bowen, stretches out a bit (in 2011, he was mostly known for psychos and villains), and while his take on Ben isn’t entirely successful, it mostly works. Hannah Bryan’s take on Alyssa is better than the film deserves, Marco St. John’s Stranger is one creepy fuck, and Sonny Marinelli’s ruthless Paul makes for a great second-string villain.

All of this is to say that Rites of Spring doesn’t seem to hold much promise but mostly works. It probably isn’t anybody’s idea of a modern horror classic, but it’s a perfectly decent way to kill 80 minutes of free time.

Rites of Spring poster

 

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