The Spine of Night is a whole lot of movie. Despite the film’s relatively straightforward fantasy logline — sorcerer goes mad with power, attempts to take over and/or destroy the world, unassuming hero saves the day — both its narrative and animation feature a mountain of genre detail. The former is the less successful component, saturating its story with a Dungeons & Dragons-level of broad fantasy components: there’s a swamp witch, a power-mad inquisitor who briefly turns into a hooded, cloudy-eyed Senator Palpatine type, a power-mad scholar-cum-oracle who reads runes and sources antiquitous, elemental power, and some final-act warriors who play-act as birds, wear a plague-style beak mask, a cape thing that allows them to glide through the air, and, least explicably, thongs (presumably for their aerodynamic properties?). The plot is also built around a series of nested stories, its framing device concerning the aforementioned witch who early on journeys to a mountain top (natch) to meet The Guardian of the aforementioned elemental power — the Bloom — and proceeds to tell him a series of tales (which is really just one, broken up with connective bits left absent) that led them both to their meeting. She would (or perhaps already has) save the Bloom, and thus the world, from the aforementioned scholar-cum-oracle, who would use (or has used) the power for slaughter and domination: men who would make gods of themselves, as such fantasy narratives go. On top of such perfunctory beats, The Spine of Night also liberally cribs from existing, recognizable properties: The Guardian looks remarkably like the noseless Voldemort, there’s a slow-down for a cosmological interlude wherein a creation story is conveyed in Galadriel-like voiceover, and, even if too general a metaphor to be considered borrowed, the film’s dedicated, if ill-defined, night-themed symbolism nonetheless reminds of Lord of the Rings’ general endeavoring-in-darkness language. That’s not to say there isn’t some fun to be found in The Spine of Night’s particular fantasy fodder, but its operating procedure is more about cramming as much in as possible rather than differentiating itself from the fold.
It’s a relief, then, that the film’s animation proves more singular and eccentric. The work belongs more to horror than fantasy, reveling in brutalism and viscera: in one scene, a staff is jammed through a baddie’s face, an eyeball emerging on the wrong side of his head, staring straight into the “camera,” while in more than one other sequence, innocents are split down their center and rent in two, a la Bone Tomahawk. There are also more delicate touches to appreciate, such as backgrounded vistas of melded hues, navies and violets and oranges all hazily bleeding into one another. Surroundings are also captured with similar nuance, several times creating a goopy, painterly affect with textures and splotches of severe color. All of this is in contrast with the human renderings, who take on an Adult Swim, 2D-DIY character, a decision which makes a certain amount of sense for a film so heavy on world-building, but which also creates a strange dissonance at times. Likewise, for a film fixated on acts of violence, there’s a languidness to the action pieces, and the would-be kinetic sequences yawn more than they thrill. And in a few late-film moments, some of the celestial skyscapes look like they could be transpositions of dollar-bin posters from some Phish fan’s bedroom wall. Still, it’s all part and parcel with the film’s fast-and-loose imagery, and the same instincts that conjure these stylistic cock-ups also result in a series of mustachioed townsmen who look straight out of the ‘70s golden era of porn, and so remains mostly a weirdo boon for the film. (Even more hilarious: in what seems to be an accident of animation, when the primary villain, who is naked, is in the midst of murdering the secondary villain, his penis clearly grows on screen.)
A few early missteps give viewers reason to be skeptical — the voicework is unusually distracting out of the gate, with the immensely likable Patton Oswalt, as a face-melted regional lord, imbuing a goober gloss that doesn’t quite follow elsewhere, for instance — but these bumps mostly work themselves out, as the film largely abandons its concern with such plot specificities and settles on a more homiletic approach. But even if things never quite entirely smooth out, it’s all distinguished by its nerdcore unorthodoxy. As a pair of fleeting characters intone concerning their own existence: “Remember, our embers fade … Wonder what our firelight looks like to them.” Directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King may be reasonably concerned with what their firelight looks like to others, but what’s praiseworthy and unique in The Spine of Night is that they’re very clearly most concerned with is what it looks like to them.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.