Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s The Spine Of Night is a throwback to a particular vein of fantasy fueled adult animation that had only the briefest of mainstream moments before becoming a cult item. Spine’s hard fantasy homage recalls the work of Ralph Bakshi (Wizards, 1978’s animated Lord Of The Rings) and 1981 animated anthology Heavy Metal.
From the former, the film gains a lavish, labor intensive visual style using traditional rotoscoping techniques. From the latter, The Spine Of Night gains a broad scope framing device and the liberal use of both extreme violence and casual nudity. This nothing exceeds like excess approach to those particular aspects of the story feel simultaneously adult, and like the film was tailor made for acts of starter kit adolescent rebellion via clandestine viewings.
Clad only in a few ceremonial bits of bone armor, a swamp witch named Tzod (Lucy Lawless), had made a long, miserable trek to the snowy peak of an isolated mountain. The summit is where The Guardian (Richard E. Grant) keeps watch over an ancient bloom that grants almost god like power to anyone who possesses it. The world has been thrown into turmoil by the powers of the bloom, and the back and forth between Tzod and The Guardian establishes the framing device that drives the film’s gradual world building.
The stories the pair tell span an unspecified amount of time, perhaps a millennia. We see empires rise and fall over the course of the film. Each segment introduces new layers and new characters, and the parts are connected via more thematic means rather than a linear narrative. Antagonist Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith) is perhaps the only non narrator character to provide something of a connective thread. He begins his arc as a humble scholar, but abuses the power of the bloom to become a mad, nearly immortal, god-king.
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With a scope this grand, Spine does trip up slightly on the sheer volume of its own mythos, and not all of the segments carry as much impact as they likely could. The tale of Phae-Agura (Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel) seems underdone, and fails to maximize the subtext of a young Black female scholar battling against a resource hoarding male hierarchy. Another sequence of two refugees from a bloody battle getting accidentally high by a campfire is overlong, merely a pretext for a few mildly psychedelic visuals and a heavy underline of some of the film’s major themes.
What is constant is the grimly cyclical nature to war and peace, rise and fall, order and chaos. The world of The Spine Of Night is a brutish one, and the film is unafraid to show the full gory violence of its conflicts, in addition to a few goopy, somewhat Eldritch horrors. Rotoscoping (where live action sequences are traced by hand to create animated footage, frame by frame) can sometimes flatten expressions, but is particularly effecting at capturing motion. Tzod’s lonely journey, the bloody skirmishes and civil wars are all given a more visceral impact by virtue of the technique at hand lending an immediate visual weight.
Lucy Lawless is perfectly cast here, and she’s exactly where she needs to be to ground all of this hyper-stylized violence and layered lore from veering too far into cosmic slop. Her Tzod is resilient and resigned, hard edged and hopeful. Guided by her well modulated performance, and naturalistic interactions with Richard E. Grant’s Guardian the film never gets too silly or self serious for its own good.
There’s a lot of familiar names for genre fans among the cast, and while the principles of the framing device are the standouts, the performances are pretty solid across the board. Surprisingly, the usually reliable Patton Oswald is the lone off key performer in the large ensemble. His turn as a petty tyrant of a warlord is more akin to the most dramatic person at a D&D game rather than anything truly menacing or fearful.
The Spine Of Night is unlikely to convert fans not already inclined to this type of material, and the immense amount of cost and painstaking labor it takes to create this particular animation style make a full on resurgence of animated adult fantasy epics equally questionable. However, there’s something to be said for a well focused film that doesn’t bother with scattershot efforts to please a general audience. Much like 2019’s Attack Of The Demons, The Spine Of Night is a handmade, hard won passion project for a niche within a niche. For all of its grimmer outlooks and gory set pieces, the obvious labor of love is what makes the dark tapestry of The Spine Of Night shine brighter than the sum of its influences would suggest.
WICKED RATING: 7.5/10