After finishing THE SPINE OF NIGHT, I was struck by a feeling that I had just witnessed a lost relic of my youth. Something that should have been passed to me on a VHS with a hand-written label by a friend, after a lengthy session of “Dungeons & Dragons”, along with a dog-eared horror paperback in exchange for trading them a bootleg copy of Ralph Bakshi’s FIRE & ICE and the latest copy of “Heavy Metal” magazine. Only to take the tape home and watch it immediately on my tiny bedroom television over and over again until the next week’s tabletop game session where the cycle of trades would continue until every one of my friends had their minds melted by this beautiful piece of animated pulp weirdness.
THE SPINE OF NIGHT isn’t some lost pop culture treasure that’s been newly rediscovered though. It is the very recent culmination of nearly a decade of work by animator (and first-time feature director) Morgan Galen King and his collaborator writer and co-director Philip Gelatt (Netflix’s LOVE, DEATH, & ROBOTS). Every frame of the film’s story was painstakingly crafted using an animation technique called rotoscoping, where the art is literally drawn over reference footage of live-action performers mapping out the movements of the story. It lends a sense of naturalism that is impossible to capture with other forms of animation. This increasingly rare animation style gives THE SPINE OF NIGHT a sense of real human vulnerability that when paired with its epic tale of medieval barbarism and existential horror makes it one of the most unique viewing experiences in recent memory.
The film opens with a primitive priestess, Tzod (voiced by Lucy Lawless, ASH VS. THE EVIL DEAD), struggling up a snowy mountain where, at its summit, she is met by an ancient armor-clad guardian (voiced by Richard E. Grant, WITHNAIL & I). Tzod is trying to reach what is being protected by the warrior there at the peak- a mystical flower that not only holds untold power but the dark secrets of life itself. Together, in that wintery landscape the two share stories of how the bloom has shaped not only their own fates but the very fate of all existence. This framework allows THE SPINE OF NIGHT to tell a centuries-spanning saga in its brief runtime that will speak to anyone who ever spent their classroom years daydreaming about casting spells and slaying dragons, doodling skulls in the margins of notebooks, or just getting really stoned.
That last line may sound flippant, but it is intended with as much sincerity as the film itself has in its beautifully rendered, yet deeply weird, soul. The film is simultaneously achingly thoughtful and romantic about the ideas it poses concerning life and its meaning yet also grim and bluntly violent in a way that should appeal to all manners of hardcore fantasy and horror enthusiasts. THE SPINE OF NIGHT is like the ironic moment of serene cosmic clarity that hits a dying man right before the axe falls, spilling his life all over the ground, if that moment could be dwelled in and poured over for ninety-three minutes.
To make this strange and heady experience all a bit more palpable to the potential audience who didn’t grow up knowing what polyhedral dice are for or who author Robert E. Howard was, the filmmakers have assembled an excellent cast of actors to help bring these interconnected tales of falling empires, personal tragedies, and mind-altering epiphanies to life. Besides the aforementioned Lawless and Grant as our guides into the brutal and surreal world of THE SPINE OF NIGHT, the cast also includes Patton Oswalt (RATATOUILLE), Betty Gabriel (GET OUT), Patrick Breen (GALAXY QUEST), Larry Fessenden (WE ARE STILL HERE), and Joe Manganiello (MAGIC MIKE). Everyone perfectly cast in such a way that even if the film was live-action they would not be out of place in the setting. Even the non-famous performers in the cast ground the sweeping story in a very specific reality with relatable emotional stakes that keeps the audience engaged through the film’s more self-indulgent or trippy moments.
It cannot be overstated how daring THE SPINE OF NIGHT feels but like everything that leans in hard to big swings, not all of it lands successfully. It feels meandering at certain points and sometimes the heavy naturalism that the rotoscope animation process creates makes the action a little less dynamic than intended but those minor flaws are easily overlooked when images as striking as gigantic elder gods, silhouetted against the night sky, shuffling across vast plains like absentminded kaiju appear on screen or as delicate a scene as two doomed lovers huddled by a meager fire staring longingly into the vastness of that same night sky occurs before the story shifts to another time and place.
It seems likely that THE SPINE OF NIGHT will be dismissed or even hated by those who aren’t primed for the savage, yet strangely, introspective journey the film will take them on. The animation may be too different than what they are used to from modern animated features or the storytelling too bleak and mature. But for those with a taste for the odd, the ones who daydream of unknown worlds while trying to get through another day until they can get home and escape into the fantasy landscape of a favorite novel, game, or film- THE SPINE OF NIGHT will be a new treasured addition to their pantheon of joys. The sort of thing that will send their imagination soaring and be shared lovingly among like-minded friend circles for years to come. (4/5)
THE SPINE OF NIGHT is in theaters, on digital, and on-demand starting October 29th, 2021