Imagine a fantasy with the scope and scale of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings or HBO’s Game of Thrones, but animated, extra violent, and clocking in at a cool 90 minutes. Well, you don’t have to imagine it: it’s called The Spine of Night and it’s one of the sickest, coolest, most mind-bending animated films we’ve seen in years.
Written and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King, The Spine of Night—which debuted at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival—is a hand-rotoscoped Frank Frazetta painting come to life, through the filters of Ralph Bakshi, Heavy Metal, and Dragon’s Lair. The story follows a witch named Tzod (voiced by genre mainstay Lucy Lawless) who climbs a snowy mountain to find an ancient flower. That special flower is protected by an Ancient Guardian (voiced by Richard E. Grant) who threatens to kill Tzod if she takes it. But that is not Tzod’s intent. Instead, she begins to tell the Guardian her story, one that spans generations and is filled with death, deception, redemption, and heroes.
The storytelling feels almost episodic as the directors jump between Tzod and the Guardian and the flashbacks of her story. It’s all linked together, but with each new part, a new land or people are introduced. Along the way, Empires rise and fall, and at the center is a scholar named Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith) who gains unimaginable power and causes unspeakable destruction. This structure gives The Spine of Night both a propulsive pace as well as impressive scale, with each section not only revealing more of the story, but more characters, more magic, and ultimately more truths. The film truly packs what could easily have been hours and hours of story into a very short period of time, but it’s incredibly satisfying instead of feeling rushed.
That need for brevity was probably dictated by the medium—animation isn’t cheap or easy—and thankfully, The Spine of Night’s raw feel sets it apart from anything else that might be slightly similar. You’ll see plenty of influence throughout but there’s never a question of this being its own thing. The animation also means nothing needs to be held back. The film is as gory and violent as you’ve seen in the medium, with bodies chopped in half, heads severed, blood drained, and skin melted. It all fits too because the hyper-stylized imagery helps the violence raise the stakes.
Adding to the fun is the impressive voice cast which, in addition to Lawless and Grant, includes Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, and Joe Manganiello. As the two leads, Lawless and Grant have the most to do, and each gives their characters huge, emotional arcs. The others don’t have lead roles, but their voices still give The Spine of Night an additional level of quality on top of everything else.
The great cast, killer animation, and epic world would all be for naught, though, if The Spine of Night didn’t end up sticking the landing. Which it does. The structure ends up circling back in a way that’s both poignant and riveting. Obviously not every question you have about this world is revealed, but the story feels complete nevertheless. Any questions you may have throughout are answered and the answers aren’t just throwaways, there’s meaning behind them, and deeper implications that will stay with you long after the movie is over. Gelatt and King obviously set out to make a kick-ass, gory fantasy movie, but they also have things to say about the nature of humanity and it all clicks together beautifully.
The Spine of Night just had its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival and we can only hope it’s picked up distribution. It’s a film that may be a little too out-there and niche for box office glory, but you can be sure it’ll be a film that finds an army of rabid fans in the months, years, and decades to come.
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