[16 January 2013]
Designer-builders are ruining America. Creating house plans without the help of an architect, they litter subdivisions with poorly planned, cheaply executed dwellings cobbled together from features of mismatched styles: a Palladian window here, a farmhouse front porch there, a mission doorway around back, a “bonus” room upstairs.
Writer-directors have to answer to similar charges. Sure, there are successful auteurs who both script and helm excellent films, but more often than not writer-directors, eschewing the services of a screenwriter, perpetrate the cinematic equivalent of the tract home. For every new cookie-cutter structure that rises in developments with grandiose names like Sterling Glen, there is a film like Rites of Spring, an incoherent, maddening, and finally dull thriller built by writer-director Padraig Reynolds with cinematic clichés drawn from incompatible genres.
Two plotlines develop independently in Rites of Spring, then converge halfway through. In the first plot, a farmer prepares two kidnapped women as a ritual sacrifice to a mysterious, worm-faced creature in order to ensure a good harvest. Meanwhile, in plot two, a group of disgruntled employees kidnap the boss’s tween daughter, hoping to extort $2 million in ransom.
The two plots join when one of the would-be sacrifices escapes and her flight, with the creature in hot pursuit, takes her by coincidence to the ransomers’ hideout. Rites of Spring then becomes a full-on slasher, as the combined cast fight for survival against Worm Face, who apparently enjoys a good rampage when he’s not making the local fields fecund.
Neither plot is well crafted, and once they join, Rites of Spring really begins to show its shoddy construction. Stock characters abound: the Self-Made Millionaire Who Thinks He Can Outwit the Kidnappers, the Kidnapper Who Turns Out to Be a Psycho, the Townswoman Who Refuses to Help a Victim Because She Is in on the Conspiracy. Prefab locations provide equally thin settings: the Run-down, Rural Independent Gas Station, the McMansion, the Backroom Featuring a Wall Collage Documenting the Murders.
The film ends with nothing resolved. “Rachel sad cause the movie is over”, reads the final panel in the storyboard included among the DVD extras. Is this an attempt at a joke, or did the filmmaker really give so little thought to providing a proper conclusion to Rites of Spring?
Other questions arise. Why does the Stranger (Marco St. John)—the farmer who acts as Worm Face’s accomplice—pray to a steer-headed effigy at the edge of a cornfield AND offer young women to his maggot-headed boss, who lives in a cozy corpse-lined root cellar? Why does the Stranger think he can get away with substituting a guy for the escaped gal? The exposition that opens the film establishes that young women go missing in the area every spring, making it pretty clear that the down-to-earth deity prefers the ladies. Or is the creature, like the worms that inhabit his noggin, hermaphroditic?
Why is the twist in the boss’s daughter kidnapping plot as easy to see coming as a worm- faced monster lurching through a cornfield? What happens to the kidnapped daughter, for that matter? Why does the getaway driver park the car on the side of the road, where anyone can see her? Why is the getaway car an easily recognizable old junker, instead of, say, an anonymous white Ford Focus or silver Honda Civic?)
Why does the title only refer to plot two?
What does Padraig Reynolds have against women? They’re either victims or conniving sociopaths. (On this score, see his short The Election, available on Youtube.com.)
To be fair, there are some remarkable elements to Rites of Spring. Some of the cinematography is excellent. Gorgeous shots of corn moving in the breeze, or of run-down farm structures, would be at home in a documentary dedicated to capturing the spirit of a place, like City of Gold: the classic profile of Yukon gold-rush town Dawson. But these establishing shots are throwaways that do nothing to further the plots, or give depth to characters and events by creating a convincing picture of a particular community. Instead Rites could take place anywhere in the US where corn is grown.
Anessa Ramsey is good as Rachel, one of the two kidnapped women; she displays what seemed to me authentic horror at finding herself in a barn, bound and hanging by the wrists next to her friend. The other performances are mixed, either because of the limited skills of the cast or flimsy characterization.
If this film leaves you hankering for a good harvest-deity sacrifice film, I recommend the original Wicker Man. They don’t build them like that, anymore.