Before I start talking about The Spine of Night, I need to disclose some conflicts of interest. Phil Gelatt – one half of the directing duo behind this new animated feature – is a good friend of mine. He blurbed mysecond collection of short stories, we co-hosted movies together at the NecronomiCon in Providence, and I’ve slept in his house. So I’m not exactly an unbiased party here.
Also, I’ve actually seen The Spine of Night before. I watched a rough cut while it was still in post-production. The animation wasn’t entirely finished, the story was organized somewhat differently, and there were chapter headings breaking up the film’s various time points. Yet, the essence was already there, a beating, bloody heart beneath the unfinished animation and the jumbled story beats.
So, watching The Spine of Night in its finished form, finally, hit differently for me than it probably will for a lot of other people. It was like watching something grow up. A film that I knew to be a passion project, something that, the last time I saw it, was still sometimes in bloody pieces, actually taking steps and not just walking but running. Rather like the characters in the picture, who are often alive one minute, breathing and fleshed out and ready to have a whole narrative centered on them, only to die gruesomely and ignominiously the next minute – and sometimes return again later, alive once more.
Now we can talk a bit about Th Spine of Night. For those who don’t know, The Spine of Night is animated using a technique called “rotoscope.” More than a century old, rotoscope was first invented by Max Fleischer in 1915 and has been used in numerous projects over the years, perhaps most prominently – at least for our purposes – by Ralph Bakshi in films like Wizards, the animated Lord of the Rings, and Fire and Ice, which, along with 1981’s Heavy Metal, is probably the most obvious touchstone to understand what you can expect from The Spine of Night.
In rotoscope animation, animators draw over live action, allowing the animation of more realistic and fluid action scenes, at least in theory. In practice, rotoscope – like stop-motion and other methods of filmmaking – tends to produce a unique feel that is immediately identifiable, and in many ways that feel, as much as anything, helps to establish The Spine of Night on a continuum with films like Fire and Ice and Heavy Metal.
If it didn’t, the movie would still let you know what to expect in short order. One of the first images we see is of a fully nude woman – Tzod, voiced by Lucy Lawless – trudging through the snow. From there, we will be treated to no shortage of full-frontal nudity, gruesome disembowelments, and sundry other, extremely R-rated visuals and themes.
Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to name a film in recent memory that is more bloody or grim than The Spine of Night, which exhibits brutality on a scale that would require a blockbuster budget to accomplish in live action. Yet, there is more going on here than blood and mud.
The fantasy subgenre of sword and sorcery has always been kissing cousins with weird fiction and cosmic horror, but that often takes the form of little more than mumbo jumbo, unspeakable cults, and nonsensical names. The Spine of Night reaches for something bigger, juxtaposing the violence and petty cruelty of human ambition against the very concept of infinity, the scope of a universe that expands both outward and forward, through space and through time.
Something else that cosmic horror on screen rarely taps into well is also mined here to good effect: the idea that this vastness can be as comforting as it is horrifying. There’s a scene near the middle of the movie, where two individuals come together around a campfire after the loss of their homes, to look up at the stars and speculate, suggesting that the night has its back turned, and that human lives are just embers blown up from distant campfires; pinpricks of light dying away as they burn.
It would be one thing if The Spine of Night merely trotted out these ideas, put them in the mouths of its characters, but it also tries to represent them in its very structure. As I said earlier, when I watched the rough cut of the film, chapter breaks split it up, dividing the movie into a variety of discrete chunks. Those are gone now, yet The Spine of Night still covers vastly more territory than any other fantasy epic twice its length would convey in a trio of films or more.
We begin with Tzod, as her swamp home comes under attack from a nearby despot. We are introduced to an array of characters, enough to anchor an entire film longer than this one. And yet, within a short time, most are dead, or gone from the movie forever. As the film jumps ahead, from one period to another, we see generations pass, connected by the bloom that Tzod brings from the swamp and, eventually, finds again atop that snowy mountain – and by the repercussions that come with the bloom’s ill-use.
By the end of the picture, centuries have passed. Technology has advanced considerably. What were once ramshackle buildings of wood barely pulled from the mud have been replaced with vast metropolises of steel and stone from which flame-spewing airships hunt. We have met numerous characters who could have been our protagonists, only to see them fall or vanish away.
The scope helps to sell the cosmic scale of the enterprise. Rather than telling one story – no matter how epic – we instead get several, anchored by shared themes and at least one unifying character, but spread across hundreds of years, so that the rise and fall of something as mighty as what we are shown feels much more grounded and real, even while the ultimate lesson is that even a centuries-spanning empire is just another ember burning away in the dark.
I’m not here to say whether The Spine of Night succeeds in its ambitions – I am, as I said, too close to the material and the people behind it – but it is ambitious, and that counts for a lot. Whether you like it or not may depend on your tolerance (or appreciation) for bloody and brutal rotoscoped animation, but if you’re someone who likes to stand under the stars and feel impossibly small, then it’s at least worth a look.
‘The Spine of Night’ will be in theaters, on demand and digital Friday, October 29, 2021.
Review: ‘The Spine of Night’ Brings Cosmic Horror Back to Sword and Sorcery