‘The Spine of Night’ Review: Ultraviolent Throwback Animation Mixes Muscular Spectacle With Muddy Storytelling

Ralph Bakshi and 'Heavy Metal' are the touchstones for Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt's rotoscoped fantasy, a retro indulgence for a particular strain of genre geek.

The Spine of Night
Courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures

A bright, watery cornflower blue may lead the palette of “The Spine of Night,” an adult animated fantasy indebted in equal part to Ralph Bakshi and Gerald Potterton, but that doesn’t mean a lot of crimson blood isn’t spilled for contrast. Extreme, skeleton-snapping ultraviolence is a key selling point of this first collaboration between animator Morgan Galen King and filmmaker-comics writer Philip Gelatt. To watch it is to feel the wide-eyed thrill of many a Generation X teen for whom hard fantasy — particularly in cartoon form — was a gateway into more illicit spectacles. With its fusion of naive, old-school character rotoscoping and lavishly airbrushed world-building, the film’s visuals aim squarely for geek nostalgia and hit their target.

Narratively it’s a murkier, less engaging affair: a convoluted saga of dark magic and darker human impulse that passes through multiple eras and heroes, without amassing much in the way of feeling. Such shortcomings in the storytelling department are unlikely to prevent “The Spine of Night” from cultivating a small, devoted following in the midnight-movie market — beginning with its recent, ideally matched premiere in the SXSW virtual program. The novelty and exhaustive stylistic commitment of the film’s genre homage are the point here, while some fans may even regard the opaque confusions of the script as a further badge of authenticity, as a series of escalatingly spectacular, grisly combat set pieces rather consume our attention.

An eyeful of casual nudity at the outset further winks to the project’s “Heavy Metal” spirit of adolescent daring, as bare-breasted warrior woman Tzod (voiced by Lucy Lawless, fully in her genre element) trudges across a snowy mountainscape unsympathetic to her minimalist tribal attire. She’s braving the elements in pursuit of the reclusive, shrouded Guardian (Richard E. Grant) and the mystical blue blossom in his possession. Its precious petals appear to grant strength and immortality to those who hold them, while its floating spores seed fiery destruction where they land, cuing a centuries-long history of bitter political power struggles and outright warfare.

Tzod, who has experienced the bloom’s benefits first-hand, relates a number of these in somewhat creaky flashback. These episodes form an anthology of sorts, only loosely bound by a couple of continuous (and increasingly ancient) characters and tensions,

Tzod herself carries the first of these, as the flower is taken from her by a despotic prince (Patton Oswalt), who razes her tribal homeland to the ground, only to meet with his own swift comeuppance. Leanly written as it is, this is the most involved of the vignettes. As power proceeds to pass through multiple corrupt hands, including those of a deranged academic gatekeeper and a lone-wolf scholar with a gradually fulfilled god complex, the specifics of who, what and why grow less clear and consequential. “The Spine of Night” effectively zooms out its story to suggest that such battles have repeated themselves cyclically since time immemorial.

Give or take the blue flower magic, there’s an attempt to engage here with real-world political truths, particularly in a middle stretch that sees a young, Black female librarian wrestle with the inflated entitlement of the predominantly white patriarchy, though these flashes of social consciousness — one area in which the film updates its throwback sword-and-sorcery heritage — are still mired in an awful lot of drab narrative business.

“The Spine of Night” is best when it releases itself into pure, silly, gory spectacle. It’s the imagery that sticks here, whether it’s a steampunk aircraft propelled by vengeful crow-people, or mighty bodies cleft viscerally in twain, guts and blood spilling to earth like the goopy contents of a cracked egg. It’s a gory labor of love for the filmmakers, who have spent years ensuring that every 2D limb is ripped from its socket just so. When the fight itself is this lovingly rendered, what anyone’s fighting for seems an afterthought.

‘The Spine of Night’ Review: Ultraviolent Throwback Animation Mixes Muscular Spectacle With Muddy Storytelling

Reviewed online, London, March 21, 2021. (In SXSW Film Festival.) Running time: 94 MIN.

  • Production: (Animated) A Thousand Suns LLC production. (World sales: Yellow Veil Pictures, New York City.) Producers: Will Battersby, Philip Gelatt, Jean Rattle. Executive producers: Peter Askin, Jonathan Gelatt.
  • Crew: Directors, writers, editors: Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King.
  • With: Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, Jordan Douglas Smith.