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The Spine of Night Review

October 28, 2021 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
The Spine of Night Image Credit: RLJE Films
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The Spine of Night Review  

Directed by: Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King
Written by: Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King

Lucy Lawless – Tzod
Richard E. Grant – The Guardian
Joe Manganiello – Mongrel
Jordan Douglas Smith – Ghal-Sur
Patton Oswalt – Pyrantin
Betty Gabriel – Phae-Agura
Larry Fessenden – Prophet of Doom
Malcolm Mills – Uruq Il-Irin
Rob McClure – Gull
Maggie Lakis – Dae
Abby Savage – Kestrelwren
Tom Lipinski – Falconhawk
Nina Lisandrello – Sparrowcrow
Patrick Bree – Doa

Running Time: 94 minutes
Not Rated

It seems like it’s been a minute since we’ve had a good, solid adult animated fantasy film. Animation may no longer be widely considered the purview of children alone thanks to the likes of South Park, Adult Swim, and the continued encroachment of anime into mainstream American consciousness, but it generally seems like adult-centered animation still tends to go more for comedy or straight action/drama. The days of Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice and the iconic Heavy Metal have been dormant for quite a long time. (All due respect to Love, Death & Robots but it’s not quite the same thing.)

That’s what makes The Spine Of Night such a refreshing dip into the past. Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s passion project looks to put ultraviolent dark fantasy back on the map in several ways. Taking heavy inspiration – particularly visually – from those blood-soaked epics of the 1980s that were the bane of parents and the obsession of young fantasy fans everywhere, the filmmakers have crafted a film that leans heavily on nostalgia while also paving its own way through a story that avoids narrative convention for something more interesting.

Gelatt and King’s film tells a tale spanning multiple eras that starts with a woman named Tzod (Lucy Lawless), clad only in bone adornments and a bit of flower. Tzod makes her way up a snow-covered mountain, atop of which sits a mystical plant. There she is confronted by a guardian (Richard E. Grant) who vows to stand in the way of anyone who would seek the bloom of forbidden knowledge. Tzod begins to tell the Guardian the tale of how the world has already discovered the magic of the plant, and what havoc it has wreaked upon society after falling into the wrong hands.

From there, the story spreads its wings and plays out over multiple vignettes that track how the power of knowledge – and more importantly, the desire to keep it for oneself and not share it – has caused untold devastation and anguish. It’s all clearly building to something, but what may not be clear immediately.

Fortunately, the road to getting there is pretty enjoyable. The directors use the distinctive look of Bakshi’s animated fantasy epics like Wizards and Fire and Ice (and the aforementioned non-Bakshi epic Heavy Metal) to pay homage to its classic roots, while also taking the R-rated approach to its content. Blood and intestines flow freely in this harsh and uncaring world, and nudity is on the screen practically as often as it isn’t.

None of it feels prurient though. Gelatt and King may be leaning into an aesthetic so far that they might as well be lying on top of it, but it never plays as just a chance to shock or titillate. It feels authentic to this world where corruption seems to reign, and fate is more of a fickle and uncaring mistress than in a George R.R. Martin tale. The story feels occasionally a bit unmoored from itself as it moves through the ages; there is only one throughline character to follow, and they are not exactly someone you want to root for. But the wraparound structure of Tzod telling the Guardian of the tale keeps this cohesive allowing the film an anthology feel and keeping us engaged.

The directors have assembled a talented voice cast here, and they all deliver. Lucy Lawless makes Tzod a compelling character, filled with steely determination, and Jordan Douglas Smith voices adds dimension and zeal to the sorcerer character of Ghal-Sur who factors heavily into the story. Joe Manganiello, Betty Gabriel, and Larry Fessenden all stop by for memorable turns, and Patton Oswalt has a blast in his role as a petty tyrant named Pyrantin from early in the film.

All that said, this is a film that will challenge people looking for a more conventional narrative. The Spine Of Night’s hyper-stylization and dream-like narrative combines with a distinct lack of humor, which may come off as oppressive. This isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. And while that combination may be a bit much for some, it makes for a thrilling experience that reminds veteran fantasy fans of one of the genre’s landmark eras while shedding some of the wearier tropes of that time.

The Spine of Night is available in theaters, on demand and digital on October 29th.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
The Spine of Night is a challenging and well-executed throwback to the animated dark fantasy epics of the 1970s and 1980s. A talented voice cast brings the vignette-style narrative from writer-directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King to life, punctuated by strong visuals bringing to mind the rebellious, DIY feel of the underground comics and animation era. It's absolutely not for everybody, but this is a genre film that deserves to find a dedicated and effusive audience to shout its praises.

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The Spine of Night, Jeremy Thomas