Eric’s Review: The Spine of Night (2021) (SXSW Film Festival)

Scary DVDs! Woo!
Lucy Lawless voices the swamp witch Tzon in The Spine of Night (2021)
★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
The Spine of Night channels its inner Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi in this bloody rotoscoped production. This is dark high fantasy, with a touch of horror, and though it mines very familiar fantasy tropes for its plot, it does find an original voice. The whole presentation feels more like a curiosity than a revelation.

Written and Directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King

Adult animation is always a bit of a magician’s trick to pull off successfully. The common belief about animated films made in the west (read: excluding Anime) is that they are kid’s stuff and that almost all studios try and hit the sweet spot of animated films that pleases the kiddos and also engages the kiddos’ parents. Pixar is a master at this, of course, but Pixar will never make an overtly R-rated movie. A PG-13 rated movie is even rare for animated fare.

Horror should be a natural for animated features, but they really haven’t broken through with a big studio release. There is a multitude of animated horror short films that make the festival circuit every year. The amount of imagination and sheer flights of horrible fancy are natural for the independent filmmaker, but this is usually the domain of an ambitious individual and not a big studio. There are exceptions, of course, with a couple of pretty good animated horror features that made the circuit over the past couple of years. To Your Last Death feels like a bloody graphic novel, come to life, and is currently available on Shudder. Attack of the Demons is South Park meets The Evil Dead, complete with paper-cut gore and viscera. But really, these are rarities. It’s just so time-consuming and expensive to create a big-budget animation film, and to limit the audience with an R-rating precludes the ability to recover the cost, undoubtedly.

The touchstone for adult animation, us the legendary Ralph Bakshi, and his portfolio of psychedelic treasures including Fritz the Cat, Wizards, Heavy Traffic, and American Pop. He was a pioneer in utilizing rotoscope techniques; tracing live film cells and painting over them to deliver a near-lifelike quality, particularly with proportions and perspectives. The fantastic elements would be added as context and accenting. Modern rotoscoping using digital motion tracking has been used in films like A Scanner Darkly, and the Amazon Prime show Undone.

The Spine of Night feels like the offspring of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (1978) and Fire and Ice (1983). These were high fantasy pieces that used rotoscope throughout, with Lord of the Rings perhaps the greatest use of the medium ever put to screen. The Spine of Night goes where its source material dared not go, with extreme gore and prevalent nudity throughout the run time. Bakshi felt the need to deliver a box office hit. The Spine of Night has clearly decided to follow a different audience path.

The film features a cast of well-known voice talent:

  • Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess, Ash vs. Evil Dead) is Tzod, a swamp witch who utilizes mystical flowers plucked from a wreath around her neck for divination.
  • Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille, VEEP, Bojack Horseman) is a wicked minor lord, Lord Pyrantin who is looking to drain the swamp in his kingdom, and kill Tzod and her flock of followers.
  • Joe Manganiello (Justice League, True Blood, Magic Mike) is Mongrel, Lord Pyrantin’s right-hand enforcer.
  • Richard E. Grant (Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) plays an ambitious young man who has been sent from the nearby academy to consult with Lord Pyrantin, but sides with Tzod against the tyrannical lordling’s actions. But when an opportunity arises, he turns on Tzod and steals her magical wreath. Eventually, he will be known as The Guardian.
  • Betty Gabriel (Get Out, Upgrade) is Phae Agura, a warrior-scholar, and perhaps the last noble person left in the kingdom.

The stealing of the wreath is the big maguffin of the story. When taken from Tzod it becomes a magic item of immense power and corruption. The descent of the man known as The Guardian follows a circuitous path, and the film takes some cues from another epic adult animated feature Heavy Metal, in that the destiny of the sacred flowers is followed through a series of anthological vignettes that are loosely linked together. The flowers are like the Loc-Nar in Heavy Metal, as the power of the relic manipulates all who come into contact with it, though these flowers are not definitively evil as in the 1981 classic.

My favorite of the vignettes follows a group of wing-suited vigilantes who defend their city from the degradation of the Guardian’s unstoppable armies. It’s a bit of cyberpunk heroism that injected some adrenaline into the third act of the film. I loved the design of the characters and the dramatic tension of that particular story.

Can a movie feel original and derivative at the same time? High fantasy can be a trap for storytelling. Items of wondrous power, the struggles of feudal society, and the cruelty of an existence where absolute power can flourish are commonplace in the genre. The Spine of Night, however, had a unique story to tell. It has a progressive political edge to it, and though the tropes are familiar the characters are memorable and unique, particularly Tzod, Phae Agura, and The Guardian.

This is a hugely ambitious undertaking, as rotoscoping is no easy task for a film of this length, though I’m sure that with digital technology, I would hope that the frame-by-frame compositing would be quicker than in the Bakshi era. With the limitations of the size of the production, you don’t get the vibrant constant buzz of background animations present in the big-budget digital studio movies. The scenic backdrops are lovingly depicted and painterly… but static.

As a voice in long-format animation, the horror infusion comes in the form of impending doom. This is a very heavy piece of filmmaking. It is bleak, ultra-violent, and nihilistic. I think a little levity could have helped this film out a bit, as it carries a bit more dramatic heft than seems a little self-important for a movie that really is about swords and sorcery. Then again, so was Conan the Barbarian, certainly an inspirational piece of source material.

If you are into the works of Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, or Richard Corben, you will be right at home here. I was waiting for a big sword-fight on top of a pile of dead bodies, king of the mountain-style. Didn’t happen. Maybe next time. One thing I would hope for is if the team of Gellatt and King get another swing at the fantasy-horror piñata, that they get enough of a budget to add shading and texture to their line-drawn animations. To do so might require a Disney-sized art department, but that would push the film into the “full Frazetta” mode.

As it so happens, I do enjoy a good bloody high fantasy epic. I also want to support any independent filmmaker audacious enough to do a full-length animated feature like this. It can only be a labor of love. Sure, Game of Thrones brought brutal adult high-fantasy to the mainstream, but for the most part, this is a nerd double-down moment. It is decidedly rough in parts, and the narrative wanders A LOT, but as a visual spectacle, it satisfied my inner 14-year-old nerd-boy. That part of me will go with me to my grave, I fear.

The Spine of Night had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. It is not rated but would be a hard-R rating for lots of gore and viscera, and plenty of nudity. It should be recognized, though that much of the nudity is Tzod and is done in a largely non-sexual way, that felt more tribal. Her culture did not wear much in the way of clothes. It is also notable that she is portrayed as a heavy woman, rather than a swimsuit model, and in a way that really helps anchor the credibility of the character.

Review by Eric Li

Categories: Festivals, ReviewsTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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