One of my most exhaustive talking points of late has been a lamentation on the dearth of horrific animation for mature audiences; features that take the potential for the surreal and psychedelic latent within animated cinema, something that has gone untapped too long in Western markets beyond the most niche of audiences. Films like Chilean surrealist masterwork The Wolf House and the brilliant new anthology The House on Netflix mine the potential for horror and adult fantasy in animation, but remain firm outliers.
Whilst I highly doubt that The Spine Of Night will change the game and break free of that niche appeal—it is after all greatly indebted itself to cult films of the past—it does thoroughly merit a semi-devoted following of its own. It’s flawed, yes, largely owing to evident budgetary limitations giving it an inconsistent and often unattractive aesthetic, but even this is appropriate given its homage status, importing many of the flaws endemic to its forerunners within rotoscoped adult fantasy, these largely consisting of the later works of Ralph Bakshi.
The most evident of these technical issues lies in the mismatched animation styles. The rotoscoped technique, giving each animated character an uncanny sense of weight and anatomy, is mismatched with the drawing style, which utilizes rough black lines and pasty block colours which are so lacking in texture that they more resemble a mediocre Adult Swim comedy in its first season than a feature film release. A flaw common throughout rotoscoped products is the lip sync which has an extremely narrow margin of error, and any asynchronicity is going to be very obvious and noticeable, as here. Rotoscoping can do some things very well, others less so; sometimes combining the advantages of both animation and live action, and sometimes just displaying their disadvantages, convincing the viewer that either medium would have been preferable to the curdled mixture of the two.
The poor character animations often stand in stark contrast to the frequently stunning background art, with which they mesh hardly at all. The colours and light effects in these simple paintings impart such character and atmosphere to the world its characters inhabit. There’s a lot of evocative character to each of the designs and performances, with their clothing and posture conveying a lot and there’s a janky realism unique to rotoscoping that this film displays perfectly. It’s just a shame the skin and clothing textures look so cheap with their flat, Microsoft Paint-level colour fills.
These criticisms may sound cold given their likely budgetary source, but there are some sequences within this film that show how alternative creative decisions could have overcome this shortcoming. The best sequence in the film is a flashback showing this universe’s creation myth; with humans waging war on giant gods, told almost entirely in silhouette and it is magnificent! By making the designs even simpler, they take on a kind of shadow-puppet purity and the best elements of colour, lighting and background can take the reigns.
Fortunately, the story itself is mostly strong enough to overcome the limitations of animation that’s only just about good enough to convey it. The film opens with a mysterious naked woman hiking naked up a frozen mountainside to find her destination at its peak: a temple, in which resides a solitary warden, watching over an ethereal blue flower with untold magical power. In a scene straight out of Skyrim, here at the peak of the world, she converses with the Guardian. The woman is Tzod (Lucy Lawless), a witch doctor from down in the valley, who proceeds to tell the Guardian (Richard E. Grant) her tale, an episodic tale of the death and destruction wrought when spores from the flower drifted down to her home. She and her tribe began to worship its revelatory properties, until outsiders came to destroy her home, throw her in chains and harness the powers of the bloom for themselves. From there, the bloom’s power tempts others to its charms, to fall to its nihilistic revelations and rise to become tyrants, using its magical powers to conquer kingdoms and butcher or enslave thousands.
Many of the tropes the story employs are familiar to many an epic dark fantasy. The Spine of Night operates in archetypes; the ambitious young scholar seeking knowledge; the tyrannical god-king lusting for power; the young idealistic student seeking to help; the humble spiritual woman seeking enlightenment; the embittered warrior seeking vengeance and the countless thousands of the peasantry crushed underfoot. Many of these characters seem to echo throughout the stories, perhaps literally as the same people, perhaps reincarnations of the same narrative spirit, giving the episodic structure more cohesion than it might have had. These familiar character types are used to explore similarly timeless themes: the corrupting influence of power and the cosmic, existential horror of one’s own insignificance in a world where one’s life amounts to so little worth. As is ultimately revealed, the central conflict lies in whether humanity is worth saving and whether they are ready for enlightenment.
In his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro argued that, contrary to Lord Acton’s axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely, what power does in actuality is to reveal. Nothing gives one a window into a person’s true self like legitimately placing them in a scenario where their actions cannot be contested or overwritten. Given enough time, a person’s true self will inevitably reveal itself once they are liberated from opposition. This debate, between power’s revelatory aspect and its corrupting aspect, is central to The Spine of Night. At its heart is a debate between the jaded Guardian, who believes that humans will always descend into barbarism once they reach enlightenment and the power that comes through that enlightenment, and Tzod, who still believes humans are capable of dignity and self-sacrifice for the sake of life itself. For as much nihilism as there is in The Spine of Night it would be erroneous to call the film itself a work devoid of optimism or humanity, with the brief interlude from which it takes its name offering a tenderly defiant promise.
Despite its episodic nature, the narrative does satisfyingly coalesce into more than a series of variably compelling vignettes. The film does start fairly slowly, with it taking some time to acclimatize to the janky retro aesthetic, and frankly, for the story to get going. The second act is a lot stronger, as we begin to follow a young scholar as she bears witness to the fall of her order, presided over in imperious fashion by an elitist, power-hungry antiquarian, some of whose scenes recall the most macabre and surreal moments of The Name of the Rose. The film peaks around the transition into the third act with that fantastic trippy flashback sequence, leading to a fairly strong climax.
There are certainly enough memorable sections to merit attention and it’s a unique offering quite well off the beaten path. Clearly, the bulk of its appeal comes from the world-building which, although said world is as familiar as the film’s characters, borrowing heavily from the sword and sorcery works of a Robert E. Howard, moves through its nest of tropes fast enough that their shorthanded nature becomes not only a boon but a necessity. We need to grasp each new scenario quickly and we’re never left behind.
It more than earns its status as an adult animation, not only through the brutal nature of its themes but of its imagery as well, with extreme amounts of gore and death throughout. Tzod—and many other characters— spends the entirety of her screen time almost entirely naked, although in a generally non-sexualized and un-objectified manner, and there is something undeniably refreshing about a fantasy epic whose heroine has such realistically roomy hips and visible belly fat; a credible mother of a new world.
Despite what the animation leaves to be desired, directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have achieved their desired homage to the brutal sword and sorcery genre and to their technological and narrative mentors, with a grim, pseudo-exploitative animated epic that bursts at the seams with gristle and flesh. For those halfway as devoted to the subgenre as they evidently are, The Spine of Night should be unmissable viewing, even if its appeal might be limited to enthusiasts of dark fantasy.