The Spine of Night (2021)
Written & Directed by Philip Gelatt & Morgan Galen King
American animator Ralph Bakshi saw his star rise and fall across the 1970s and early 1980s. He’s fondly remembered as the director behind numerous fantasy films of that period, Lord of the Rings probably his most well-known work. Because hand-drawn animation had many limitations, Bakshi would often employ rotoscoping, a technique where film of live action actors is drawn over, adding textures and embellishments but keeping the fluid motion of real people. This technique would evolve into digital motion capture, and rotoscoping has become a niche technique used sparingly. However, Richard Linklater has used it to make his films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Inspired by Bakshi, we have The Spine of Night, a dark horror fantasy that tells of another world where ancient dark magic prevails.
The film is framed through the stories told by Tzod (Lucy Lawless), a primitive swamp witch who has her people and way of life destroyed by the forces of “civilization.” She’s ascending the Spine of Night, a perilous mountain chain, to access a mystical blue flower, the organism that once powered her magic. The Guardian (Richard E. Grant) protects the last remaining flower, an armored warrior cursed to live until he is killed by his replacement. Tzod shares her story of a scholar who kills her and absconds with her chest piece of flowers only to transform himself into a demonic god-king. The film gives us slices from the lives of people who encounter this monster. It all culminates in the framing story serving as a conclusion to this particular age of this world, with hints of something transformative to come.
My wife remarked as we watched this film, “I’m so happy for whoever’s D&D campaign got a movie made about it,” which is a pretty perfect sentiment to sum up the tone of this film. As someone who has dabbled in tabletop roleplay games, this reminded me of a better one-shot or campaign you could play in. One of the things that always stood out to me when we would attend cons or play in online games, a good gamemaster makes all the difference, and so too, a good director would have either killed or saved this movie. I believe the directors here are pretty amazing as they kept me engaged in a film I expected to half-drift out of. The emphasis on character over heavy-handed exposition is what made the difference. A lesser film would have wanted to impress the audience with lore building while these filmmakers center each chapter on the people and their goals and conflicts.
This is an extremely violent movie, something you can get away with when you don’t need to employ practical effects but can rely on animation. Head and limbs come off, people get rent down the center with swords, even one poor bastard gets torn apart by zombie knights as he sputters for life. However, I never felt that the gore was unnecessary; part of the film’s tone is imparting what a savage & brutal world this is. The movie is also not shy about the human body. From the film’s start, we’re getting full frontal nudity (both male and female). However, there’s pretty much no sex beyond a single implied scene early on. No one is raped or sexually violated, but they are turned into so much blood and flesh across castle walls.
I did not find the voice acting all that impressive. There are some very recognizable names in the cast, but almost all lack extensive voice-acting credits. Patton Oswalt certainly proved he could do it with Ratatouille, but even here, he feels sort of stilted in his delivery. Spending more of the budget on voice actors rather than actors doing voice work may have helped. Many of these characters are meant to be legendary & god-like, but I found their voices to ultimately betray that. Someone who knows how to manipulate their pitch and depth better could have given us some fantastic performances, but those same names wouldn’t necessarily draw viewers’ attention.
The Spine of Night is an entertaining throwback to a type of movie we don’t get much anymore. It’s certainly not something you can watch with the whole family, but when we look back at the 1970s/80s fantasy art this is derived from, those were always transgressive and dark. If you are big into Dungeons and Dragons or other fantasy roleplaying, it’s pretty much a no-brainer that you should watch this movie. It is made explicitly for you. It’s rough around the edges, which may endear it to you like a nostalgic reminder of Bakshi often flawed movies, or those flaws could prove to take you out of the film. Your mileage may vary. I know I was thoroughly entertained throughout. The anthology format allows each story to never wear out its welcome, keeping some distance between you and the characters.