Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Spine of Night

Yikes, I just noticed that this played one of the festivals where I've got a many-film backlog of reviews to write. Maybe I should get off my butt and get to that. In the meantime…

A Q&A, with Ned and co-director Philip Gelatt, who is apparently fairly local (the film was produced ni Providence) and joined forces with Morgan Galen King, who had previously made an animated short that served as the film's basis. They shot it in a warehouse that didn't even bother with a green screen, since they weren't going to be compositing the images rather than drawing over them. Which means that, no, nobody was naked except for one very enthusiastic extra, and few of the people in the voice cast actually provided the motion - just, I believe, Betty Gabriel, who has gone on to do notable work in Get Out and other projects, though she was a more or less complete unknown when they started working in 2013.

It sounds like a genuine labor of love, at least; Gelatt noted that this sort of rotoscoped animation was pretty much a dead art form, which meant that there was a fairly steep learning curve for the crew, although many would take the skills they developed here and go work for Undone at Amazon. It also sounded like a surreal experience writing to various people's agents to see who would be interested in doing voice work for what I imagine was a relative pittance. Patton Oswalt, Joe Manganiello, and a few others jumped in as genre fans; Lucy Lawless wasn't so much a fan but knows what she's good at and where she can grab an audience, and Richard E. Grant joining up was apparently sort of surreal, as he's a guy that will take a job but doesn't necessarily love some of this stuff. For instance, "I loved Hudson Hawk" might not be the best way to get him to sign on.

Anyway, one more late show at the Brattle tonight, and on various VOD services as well. It's not my thing, really - I'm not big enough on swords and sorcery or gore-as-draw to really go for it absent much else "stuff I'd see at Fantasia" playing theaters, but I kind of get the appeal, and for the folks that go for this, it's pretty impressively put together.

The Spine of Night

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2021 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

The Spine of Night wears its influences proudly, to the extent that one may wonder what it is besides those influences, particularly if bloody fantasy is not particularly one's cup of tea. It's an impressively-mounted example of that particular genre, especially considering how far back its inspirations are, but not for everyone. If one isn't into nudity, bloody violence, and power fantasies for their own sake, they probably won't get a whole lot else out of the movie.

It opens with a naked witch (voice of Lucy Lawless) making her way up a snowy mountain to confront the guardian of a strange Bloom (voice of Richard E. Grant), and while he is used to fighting those who approach, he finds her more sympathetic than most. She has a Bloom of her own, and tells him of how she came to be there - her capture by a mercenary (voice of Joe Manganiello) working for the local lord (voice of Patton Oswalt) and later encounter with scholar Ghal-Sur (voice of Jordan Douglas Smith) and his own use of the Bloom's power.

There is an idea or two in play here - folk knowledge being twisted by scholars who don't have the same sort of respect, power corrupting and eventually doing nothing but perpetuating itself, that sort of thing - but filmmakers Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt are somewhat scattershot in terms of introspection and metaphor, more intent on stuff closer to the surface. Their world building is on a grand scale that spans millennia from the battles of gods to the last resistance against an immortal tyrant, although often more comfortable in the muck, down among the people getting crushed beneath the heels of monsters who seem to have ambition but no goals. Like many of the 1980s animated fantasies that inspired it, King and Gelatt (adapting and expanding King's short film "Exordium") split the film into several smaller segments, and though they are fair short stories, they don't often feel as though the segments are built from each other. They're part of a continuity, but mostly just things that happened in a certain order, not a greater arc.

For instance, a pivotal story is framed around an adventurer (voice of Betty Gabriel) seemingly developing doubts about her work as the archive she serves does little to actually apply the knowledge she discovers for any good purpose, and though it's a theme that recurs a bit (the story the Guardian tells the witch has a similar theme of withholding information), but it winds up feeling cast aside, an idea briefly pondered but not explored on the way to the next fight. There's a deliciously nasty against-type vocal performance by Patton Oswalt as a callow prince that winds up rushed on the way to the next, nastier villain. The climax is a fine action sequence that probably would have cost millions of dollars as a traditional live-action/CGI hybrid but which plays out as tough-guy posturing rather than a desperate final strike.

But, if one enjoys that posture - the sheer appeal to the id that the folks who commission pulp novels with nearly-naked warriors hacking through grotesque monsters - The Spine of Night delivers. King and Gelatt shot the action in a Rhode Island warehouse and then spent the next few years animating over it, and while the distinction between the more simply drawn and colored foreground characters and the painted backgrounds is probably wider than it ever was with the digital tools at their disposal, they nevertheless avoid different sorts of uncanny valley issues that have plagued similar rotoscoped animation and their motion-captured descendants: The action is smooth and well-choreographed but feels of a piece with its medium, seldom stiff or feeling too beholden to the merely human level of expression underneath the paint. And if you like blood and guts, the film has plenty, reveling in slashing people up, burning them alive, and planting a garden in the skull of a vanquished god, equally at ease with horrific magic and nasty swordplay, the participants often clad in as little leather is necessary to carry their stuff. It's power applied in the service of horror and release, and the filmmakers don't pretend that they're above that ugliness.

It is, quite honestly, not my thing, although I never exactly checked out of the movie, instead spending more mental energy on what it's all about or how everything fits together than the film can support. There's always been an audience for this sort of bloody sword and sorcery even if most producers are too squeamish to admit it, and The Spine of Night caters to them in fine fashion.

Also on eFilmCritic

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