Review: Rites of Spring

Posted on July 18, 2012 by Ben

Review by Dustin Hall

Rites of Spring starts off with great promise. Text crawls over the screen, speaking of the eerie regularity of which young girls in this rural area are kidnapped and then never recovered. Cue creepy old Midwestern homes in deserted fields, accompanied by excellent and equally creepy music. Our heroines share some girl-talk in a nigh deserted bar, lamenting the end of school and the journey they face out into the real world. But, hey, at least the blonde was valedictorian. Out at the car, something unexpected is waiting for them. There is a shifting of shadows, the sounds of muffled screams, a bit of blood, a wet thud, and the slamming of a car door. Title.

Rites is a first feature-length project for director Padraig Reynolds, and for a first timer, he shows a lot of promise. The film looks good, sounds good, has a lot of great tension building, and while the blood and gore is fairly limited, its presentation was real enough to actually illicit some real cringes. It doesn’t LOOK like a first film, and its worth appreciating that fact. Also working the film’s side is the addition of Anessa Ramsey and AJ Bowen to the film. Both of these talents were in the awesome indie release, The Signal, and Bowen also had a role in the popular House of the Devil. Anessa works well as the screen beauty, but doesn’t have the typical barbie girl look of your average leading lady; both of them are very likable in their roles.

Toss in a bit of full-frontal nudity, and all the pieces are in place for a pretty damn good horror flick, though Rites doesn’t quite live up to early expectations. The part that will either make or break this film for you comes entirely from script, and that it is essentially two stories in one. The two tales don’t really meld together until about half way through the picture, and there’s a lot of head-scratching from the audience waiting for them to finally collide. When they do finally come together, too, its not through some brilliant twist or subtle plot thread, but through sheer coincidence. Whether that’s excusable or not is entirely up to the individual.

So, obviously, our heroine is the blond valedictorian who is kidnapped at the movie’s get-go. This half of the film is pretty straight-forward, is well done, and provides the most compelling half of the film. Little new is offered, the girl and her friend are tied up by a crazy old lunatic, who tortures them a bit, strips one nekkid, and mumbles some cryptic things like ‘can’t stop what’s comin’, ‘gotta be clean’, and other scary bits you’d expect in a film with the word ‘Rite’ in the title. While we’re never entirely sure of what’s going on, Reynolds does a great job of keeping it tense, feeding off of that ambiguity, and Ramsey’s reactions to the blades and the blood lend credence to the experience.

Meanwhile, the other half of the film focuses on a quartet of kidnappers who plan to heist a little girl from a wealthy family, and ransom her for a couple million bucks. Caught in the midst of this plot is AJ Bowen, who is suffering from the pangs of a guilty conscience, and plays protector for the nabbed child. Of course, there are conspiracies and back-stabbings, and all the other good elements of heist movie…

But none of that matters because HOLY SHIT, HERE COMES WORMFACE! Yes, Wormface, the lovable, deformed, axe-wielding demon and/or mutant guy who is the real villain of the piece. Move over, kidnappers! I don’t know who, or what, this guy is exactly, but he looks pretty cool and he kills people. And kill is just what he does when the kidnappers get just a little too close to his lair, which is where our kidnapped girls have been patiently waiting to do something other than get bled and scream. And thus, we have the rather clumsy joining of our two stories.

Now, this may or may not work for you in viewing the movie, the way the two stories seem so separate, and then so suddenly join together. Some will love it, almost harkening back to From Dusk Till Dawn, but in this case it lacks the organic flow of the storytelling. There is still a long, long period of time spent developing a family to get kidnapped from, a betrayal, a mexican stand-off, and more. And while I love when a horror movie develops its characters and subplots, it’s still pretty jarring to have all these crime drama plots dead-end so suddenly with “this guy gets axed to death”. There are a lot of questions left unanswered, though the ‘net buzz from festivals says that there may be sequels planned to address these dangling threads.

Despite these faults, there is a lot of quality work on display in Rites of Spring. The production value is there, the cast is doing good, you’ve got a cool looking mutant guy, it just lacks the coherent script to make it great. Sequels planned or not, a first chapter in a story needs to stand on its own, really. But, still, its worth a look. There’s been plenty of positive buzz coming out of screenings of this movie, so it has its audience, and if nothing else it shows that Reynolds is a competent director who knows how to make his horror look good. I’ve certainly seen worse. Oh, God, I’ve seen so much worse. Though Rites might not stand out as a must-see, you certainly won’t regret your time spent watching.

Rites of Spring comes to limited US theaters and VOD on July 27th, from IFC.

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