THE SPINE OF NIGHT is written and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King and boasts a glittering all-star cast, featuring the vocal talents of Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, Abby Savage, Rob McClure, and Joe Manganiello. This ultra-violent, fantasy fittingly finds a home among the SXSW Midnighters slate of films.
In the fantasy epic, an ancient magic has fallen into the hands of a sinister lord. The power corrupts him into a force of darkness and he unleashes ages of suffering onto mankind. Heroes gathered from across time and cultures must join forces to defeat this ancient evil. You may assume that animated films and fairytales are safe and light cinema fair, but THE SPINE OF NIGHT would cruelly beg to differ.
Ultra-violent is exactly the right word to encompass THE SPINE OF NIGHT. The film uses the endless possibilities of animation to deliver trippy visuals, gnarly character design, and buckets of two-dimensional gore. It’s hard to decide whether to stare in awe or avert your eyes, with each frame. The animation is smooth and lovely, but the violence that’s shown is unsettling and only heightened by the expansiveness of the medium.
The fantasy world of the film feels infinitely vast and epic, like a contemporary answer to The Odyssey or Beowulf. From a genre perspective, it’s hard to get purer or more hardcore when it comes to embodying fantasy. The lofty story is exalted by the talents of the cast, who make every line feel like Shakespeare.
Whether the vastness of THE SPINE OF NIGHT is to its credit or its detriment is really up to the viewer. This massive narrative, sweeping an unknown but infinite amount of time, can sometimes feel more scattered and unfocused than large and impressive. Unfortunately, THE SPINE OF NIGHT is built upon a lore and a history that is a mystery to the viewer. Despite the best efforts of the film, it feels like there is so much more to understand that is never made clear. The result is a world that doesn’t click into place and a haze of confusion that makes it difficult to connect with the story. More times than not, I found myself feeling like the film was being passively inflicted on me with occasional sparks of interest generated by the beautiful visuals.
While THE SPINE OF NIGHT mimics the epic fantasy of The Odyssey with the solemnity of Shakespeare, those heavy influences start to pull on THE SPINE OF NIGHT like a weight around its neck. Ultimately, this just doesn’t feel like an accessibly enjoyable film so much as an impressively executed chore.
It’s difficult to pass a firm verdict on THE SPINE OF NIGHT because so much of what works and doesn’t work in the film will boil down to personal preference. The animation is beautiful and macabre. The story is weighty, perhaps to the point of dragging or perhaps with a certain nobility. The world of the film will either be delightful in its massive imagination or frustrating in its murkiness. For me, it didn’t quite land but I would still offer it up to lovers of fantasy and adult animation.
THE SPINE OF NIGHT enjoyed its World Premiere on March 18 at SXSW Online 2021.