SXSW: THE SPINE OF NIGHT (2021)

Spine of Night.jpg

Studio:      Shudder/RLJE Films
Director:    Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King
Writer:      Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King
Producer:  Will Battersby, Philip Gelatt, Jean Rattle
Stars:     Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, Joe Manganiello, Malcolm Mills, Jordan Douglas Smith

Review Score:

90.jpg

Summary:

Across centuries of swords, sorcery, and flying machines, a magic flower corrupts mankind with dark desires for supreme power and bloody savagery.


Synopsis:     

Review:

Compared with my peer group of genre journalists, I think it¡¯s safe to say I tend to be tougher than most. Being difficult to bowl over isn¡¯t a reputation I consciously strive for. I simply see myself as a ¡°call ¡®em like I see ¡®em¡± critic. I don¡¯t worry about pleasing PR people as a robotic rah-rah cheerleader regurgitating hive mind hype, or promoting a ¡°shiny happy horror¡± perspective where all indie efforts deserve unconditional support and bad to mediocre films don¡¯t exist.

The problem this presents is that when I do bestow high praise, positive scores seem to carry significantly more weight than average ratings. It¡¯s like Mikey and Life cereal, for the first of several references anyone under my age range might not relate to. I¡¯ve received feedback before along the lines of, ¡°Wow! If this impressed you, then it has to be a must-see!¡±

I don¡¯t ever feel like, ¡°Uh-oh. I¡¯d better knock down the number of stars on this one. I don¡¯t want to create a de facto endorsement by implying I enjoyed it too much.¡± I follow Roger Ebert¡¯s advice. Whenever I waffle between ratings, I err toward the higher one because I¡¯d rather encourage someone to see a movie they end up hating than dissuade anyone from watching something they would have liked.

But I do sometimes feel the need to detail decisions behind higher scores because I award them so infrequently, regular readers may sit up straighter and assign more value than I intend. People will invariably see the same movie, have a completely different reaction, then scold my opposite opinion for leading them astray. That, or they angrily ask, ¡°How can you rate this-or-that higher than so-and-so?!¡±

This will certainly be the case with ¡°The Spine of Night,¡± an animated adult adventure into classic fantasy, blood-soaked horror, and surprisingly mature mythology. Everyone¡¯s imaginations obviously aren¡¯t built from the same pieces of popular culture. For those who don¡¯t know the name Ralph Bakshi, ¡°The Spine of Night¡¯s¡± rotoscoped artwork might appear crude next to today¡¯s techniques. For those who think ¡°Heavy Metal¡± is only a type of music, they may not have a mind frame that immerses them in this movie.

For anyone reared on the same media as me on the other hand, 95 minutes won¡¯t be nearly enough time to spend touring the film¡¯s fantastic world. Maybe it¡¯s the fact that I never stopped reading Conan the Barbarian comic books. Maybe it¡¯s because I relived the cartoon magic of Don Bluth while replaying ¡°Dragon¡¯s Lair¡± just last week. But ¡°The Spine of Night¡± mixes an amazing amalgamation of so many stories and styles that have been integral to my entertainment for 40+ years, I can¡¯t help but be entirely enrapt in its epic.

Right away, ¡°The Spine of Night¡± stokes flashbacks to Taarna and Red Sonja when a nude warrior woman, Tzod, scales a snowy mountain to reach a cave formed from a giant skull. A golden-masked swordsman guards ¡°the bloom,¡± the magical blue flower she came for. The guardian warns Tzod that mankind is ill-prepared for the soul-shattering secrets within the plant¡¯s magic. Tzod responds that the bloom already made its way down the mountain, and has been corrupting power-hungry humans for ages.

The guardian can hardly believe Tzod¡¯s claims, so she tells him tales of how the mystic flower turned scholars into necromancers, warriors into warlords, and kings into corpses. Across swampland populated by primitive tribes and besieged castles where flying machines rain fire from the sky, ¡°The Spine of Night¡± seamlessly weaves a centuries-spanning collection of folklore and legends into one cohesive narrative that¡¯s thoroughly enthralling from the origin of the gods to the final fall of man. With recurring characters connecting each chapter, the film never feels like an anthology, but like a richly realized storybook of shared mythos that has existed for eons.

Hand-rotoscoped animation can be an acquired taste. My brain is fried from a heavy amount of recent writing, so please excuse my inability to mull a less uncouth analogy. If you¡¯re unaccustomed to the style, ¡°The Spine of Night¡¯s¡± character designs are akin to sketches you might see doodled on the shopping bag cover of a budding young artist¡¯s schoolbook (if students still cover loaned textbooks anymore). That¡¯s not a knock. It¡¯s a key part of the film¡¯s visual appeal.

In addition to obvious influences like Bakshi¡¯s ¡°The Lord of the Rings¡± and ¡°Fire and Ice,¡± ¡°The Spine of Night¡¯s¡± texture throws things back to the more minimalist animation of late ¡®70s sci-fi like ¡°The New Adventures of Flash Gordon.¡± Frames only use as many lines as necessary and let the fiction fill out rest of the fantasy. If a Pixar production is a PlayStation 5, then ¡°The Spine of Night¡± is a Super Nintendo, which works perfectly for the brands of retro nostalgia the film pulls from.

Brimming with the medieval savagery of limb-lopping battles, occult overtones of dark sorcery, and some nudity, ¡°The Spine of Night¡± is regularly reminiscent of ¡°Game of Thrones,¡± Dungeons & Dragons, 1930s pulp fiction, ¡°Excalibur,¡± and ¡°The Elder Scrolls,¡± among other works spanning multiple mediums. The movie may echo some of these sources, but it isn¡¯t a mere homage. ¡°The Spine of Night¡± builds its own distinctly detailed mythology atop a thematic foundation that criticizes class warfare, modernization, weaponizing knowledge as a method of subjugation, and the evils of absolute power. But because filmmakers Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King present their script as a spectacle of high adventure, action, and gore, entertainment value never bends its knee to the morals motivating the stories.

Time being at an increasing premium the older one gets, now more than ever I rarely desire to revisit a modern movie, instead preferring to experience something new. ¡°The Spine of Night¡± marks the first film in a long time I immediately wanted to watch again to appreciate the multitude of levels it works on: as entertainment, as introspective ideas, and as a touchstone to all the cool comics, cartoons, books, shows, and games that have shaped me since childhood.

Whether they have the same affinities or not, one hopes contemporary audiences similarly appreciate the high concept, wide scope, and deep impact of the tales ¡°The Spine of Night¡± tells. Philosophically sophisticated, yet fully entrenched in Saturday morning sensations tailored to adult tastes, there hasn¡¯t been anything like ¡°The Spine of Night¡± in decades.

Review Score: 90