THE SPINE OF NIGHT

★★★

A SURREAL, VIOLENT ANIMATED FANTASY EPIC

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
7th November 2021

I'm a huge fan of Ralph Bakshi's 1983 animated epic 'Fire and Ice'. It's a film that Janet Maslin of The New York Times reviewed thusly: "If you love comic books but can't bear the unnecessary bother of turning pages, 'Fire and Ice' may be for you. It would help if you were a sex-obsessed 12-year-old boy, but it isn't essential." I first watched it when I was a lot younger than that (maybe around six or seven) and its trippy, barbaric world seeped into my sponge-like child's brain. I guess I wasn't the only one, because Philip Gerlatt ('They Remain') and Morgan Galen King's 'The Spine of Night' is a big love letter to Bakshi's movie and the fantasy genre.

It opens in classic Bakshi fashion: with a mostly naked, generously endowed woman. Tzod (voiced by Lucy Lawless, TV's 'Xena: Warrior Princess') makes her way up a snowy mountain to a skull-shaped cave and encounters the Guardian (Richard E. Grant, 'Palm Beach'), a heavily-armoured figure who protects a mystical blue flower known as the bloom.

Tzod tells the Guardian her story. She was a priestess who used the bloom in her tribal rituals. During one such rite, she was kidnapped from her swamp home by a sadistic lord (Patton Oswalt, 'Eternals'), eventually escaping from his castle's dungeon with a man named Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith), who belongs to an order called the Scholars. Bones are crushed, faces are mangled, torsos are hewn and penises dangle nonchalantly, setting the tone for the rest of the movie, which oscillates between medieval brutality and Lovecraftian cosmic horror.

'THE SPINE OF NIGHT' TRAILER

Taking some inspiration from Gerald Potterton's 'Heavy Metal' (1981), the film reveals itself as an anthology detailing one man's path towards world domination, combining the magical power of the bloom with high technology to make himself unstoppable. Over the years, the immortal conqueror is resisted by several heroes, including a young Scholar-warrior (Betty Gabriel, 'Get Out') tasked with defending a massive library from a city of uneducated serfs, and a trio of glider-winged assassins in bird masks on a mission to hijack a flying steampunk warship that is assaulting their city. The Guardian also chimes in with a story, told via silhouettes (not unlike the opening of Bakshi's adaptation of 'The Lord of the Rings'), that explains his own origin and that of the bloom.

The most immediately noticeable thing about 'The Spine of Night' - aside from the nudity - is that it uses a wonderful animation technique called rotoscoping - it was filmed with live actors on a sound stage, then vibrant colour and detail was painted over the footage. The result is that the characters move in a strikingly realistic way for an animated film. In fact, the strength of the film lies in its unusual visuals, with their intricate composition and transfixing sleekness.

Bones are crushed, faces are mangled, torsos are hewn and penises dangle nonchalantly.

However, despite a talented vocal cast and advances in animation technology (drawings can be created on the computer nowadays), 'The Spine of Night' still lacks some of the technical polish of 'Fire and Ice'. There is a little too much contrast between the highly detailed, painterly backgrounds and the flat character animation, which makes the character's movements seem slow during the action sequences. Also, Peter Scartabello's score is nowhere near as skin-prickling as William Kraft's.

But that's forgivable. After all, Bakshi's film was a collaboration between legendary fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta and comic book writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, both of whom had written 'Conan' stories for Marvel Comics. The background painter was James Gurney, the author and artist of the Dinotopia illustrated novels. Even Peter Chung, the creator of 'Aeon Flux', was a goddamn layout artist! Whereas co-writers and directors Gerlatt and Galen King spent seven years animating their own movie (rotoscoping is incredibly time-intensive) in a labour of love.

What holds 'The Spine of Night' back is the ambitious narrative structure. The vignettes don't allow you to get attached to any of the characters, and the recurring baddie only becomes more monstrous and inhuman as the story progresses. The narrative through point (the exploitation of natural resources and misuse of knowledge?) is murky and the pacing occasionally sluggish. But these flaws are mostly compensated for by the aforementioned striking aesthetic.

Ultimately, you have to salute Gerlatt and Galen King for sticking with it and completing their vision. 'The Spine of Night' is a welcome addition to the fantasy genre, and a nifty showcase for an underused but beautiful animation style.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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