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‘The Spine of Night’ Review: A rotoscoped fantasy hellscape

And we mean that in the kindest way possible.

A cosmically corrupted scholar in 'The Spine of Night'.
(Image: © RLJE Films)

Our Verdict

Even if we hold on to the imperfections in the recreation, it’s worthwhile to preserve modes of storytelling that might otherwise pass into antiquity.

For

  • The rotoscoped animation looks great
  • Come for the gore, stay for even more gore
  • The world feels fully realized and immersive

Against

  • The voice cast occasionally feels mismatched to the animated performances
  • The plot structure deprioritizes any one or group of protagonists

Animation aimed at adults is nowhere near the novelty it once was with the likes of Adult Swim, Comedy Central and Netflix spending the last two decades churning out some of the most popular animated TV shows around with a distinctly, ahem, “mature” attitude toward profanity, sex and violence. But it was only a few more decades ago that adults were reliant on relative rarities such as the low-cost, rotoscoped works of Ralph Bakshi or the fantasy anthology Heavy Metal. It’s from this mold that The Spine of Night is sculpted, heavily drawing on the rotoscoping techniques that were pioneered in the '70s and '80s and can be more easily implemented with modern technology, all to tell a story that would fit right at home as a companion to Heavy Metal or even to Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. However, it hews so close to the style of its inspirations that it may have picked up a few of their flaws along the way.

The most notable issue one might take is in how the plot is structured, which exists halfway between anthology and epic in a manner that is simultaneously over- and underdeveloped. On the one hand, the narrative is principally conveyed through a series of stories told by a perpetually nude swamp witch (Lucy Lawless) — an omen of the pervasively casual nudity to come — to the guardian of a magic flower (Richard E. Grant), telling him of how the world has changed and fallen into ruin over the course of many lifetimes. Each individual story offers a snapshot in the rising power of a scholar-turned-god-king Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith), while providing a brief look at just how this medieval fantasy land of magic and cosmic horrors functions on a social and confrontational level.

The witch is captured by a belligerent lord (Patton Oswalt) bent on destroying the “savages” who reside in the bogs of his domain. A knightly scholar (Betty Gabriel) watches her order fall to magical corruption and incomprehensible evil. A trio of glider-winged heroes in bird masks maneuvers the harrowing attacks of a flame-throwing blimp. Each of these stories is intriguing in their own right, but the expectation that you follow the throughline of the overarching narrative makes the lack of any one protagonist somewhat jarring as the focus continually shifts. It’s not a dealbreaker, as the film is more primarily interested in mythology, worldbuilding and violent spectacle than character or pacing, but it would have been nice to see the film structured more with emotional relatability in mind.

What we get instead is some of the goriest pseudo-realistic violence this side of Mortal Kombat. Swords slice through limbs as energy beams rip people straight down the middle. Bodies incinerate in gouts of flame while others are reconstructed from twisting vines that knot back into muscles and skin. There is absolutely no reverence for the human form as one character’s face is burned away to leave a charred and melted mask, and the sickening crunch of bones poking against unbroken skin punctuates one grotesque moment of magical showmanship. In terms of pure awe-inducing brutality, The Spine of Night continually ups its own ante, building upon the rotoscoped body actors to deliver some truly frightful displays of shattered physical humanity.

It’s a shame then that the voice cast occasionally feels unnecessarily constrained by the rhythm and cadence of the actors they’re dubbing over. Some fare better than others, as Lucy Lawless fairly naturally falls in line with the swamp witch’s mysticism. But then you have characters like Lord Pyrantin, whose halting speech feels particularly ill-suited to Oswalt’s more freewheeling excitable ramblings. Even so, that may be part of the charm, as prominent stunt-casting is just another aspect that The Spine of Night is attempting to recapture. 

As the accessibility and accepted nature of violent animated media has developed, the grotesquerie of something like Heavy Metal might almost seem quaint now. But it clearly inspired writer-directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King to develop whole mythologies and realize them in emulated styles that pass that inspiration to the modern age. And even if we hold on to the imperfections in the recreation, it’s worthwhile to preserve modes of storytelling that might otherwise pass into antiquity. Who knows what future fantasies The Spine of Night might inspire in turn?

The Spine of Night releases on VOD on Oct. 29.

Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.