SXSW 2021: Phillip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s ‘The Spine Of Night’ Proudly Continues Rebel Animation Traditions – Movie Review

Being a long-time fan of Ralph Bakshi, a subversive and controversial animation director known for using the technique of rotoscoping, I had high hopes for the SXSW 2021 screening of The Spine of Night, his new animated film. When I heard it had a similar dark science fantasy tone to Heavy Metal, it quickly became a must-see of the festival for me.

The story starts with a nude, shivering woman desperately trying to reach the summit of a snowy mountain capped with a massive, glowing skull. The woman, Tzod, played by Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess, Ash vs Evil Dead), is confronted by a towering but clearly exhausted armored guardian (Richard E. Grant: Logan). Rather than dive into a battle, neither party is ready for, Tzod tries telling the guardian why she has to reach the summit, which starts our framing device where Tzod shows the guardian the necessity for her journey and the changes the world has gone through in the last few decades…

Tzod (Lucy Lawless) weaves a spell for Lord Pyrantin (Patton Oswalt)

Going into the film, I wasn’t quite expecting an anthology feature like Heavy Metal, but I think with the concepts and type of storytelling involved, this works in favor of the story and the world-building. By giving you information about the land and its development piece by piece, directors Phillip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King pave a mythological history through their dark fantasy world. In particular, one tale told by the Guardian instead of Tzod captured my intrigue most with visuals that reminded me of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko acting out a shadow play.

Now, time to bring up the part I wasn’t so eager to talk about. There are large swaths of the film I think are cool, but then there’s… the animation. The rotoscoping shines in action sequences, but there are moments of uncanny valley effect with it, which, for better or worse, has always been baggage of the technique. Human-like expression is difficult to achieve and lighting is ornery to get right with this technique, although The Spine Of Night shines when it focuses on this and decides to find creative ways to express feelings outside of human faces. There are a couple of sequences with good body language acting, with the aforementioned sequence told by the Guardian as a stellar example. I would say that’s the stand-out animation of the film, but there are some elements of body horror and otherworldly eldritch beasties that get added on eventually that are also very fluid, both animation-wise and gross moisture-wise.

The film has a lot of familiar faces for genre fans, including Archenemy’s Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden (read our most recent interview with him here), and Patton Oswalt, who seems to be appearing in more and more horror and sci-fi work lately!

Final Thoughts

Overall, if you can stomach its brutal violence reminiscent of classic adventure fantasy stories like Conan, you may be captivated by The Spine of Night‘s equally horrific and hypnotic dark fantasy world like I was! The Spine of Night is now available in theaters, on-demand, and digital on October 29!

About Chris Filipowicz

Born in small town Montana, Chris is a writer, artist, raccoon rehabilitator, and general supporter of disability rights and awareness. He loves film, especially horror, sci-fi, and animation; and has read comics since he was a child.

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